The Neutral Zone - the most oft-overlooked and under-analyzed 50 feet of ice on the rink. And yet, it's here that controlled zone entries take shape, advances are thwarted and dump-ins originate. It's hard to imagine a team having much success without being good in the neutral zone, yet the limitations of data and tracking being what they are, it's an aspect of the game that's still very much unquantified... for now.
But as we continue our look at what the Caps have been able to do in the moments following five-on-five face-offs, we can see how they've fared after center-ice draws and get a feel for what they're doing well and maybe not so well with these set plays.
First, some background (and for more background on this whole dive, be sure to check out that last post on defensive-zone draws, and big thanks to Muneeb for pulling the raw data for all of these posts). It probably won't surprise you to know that 2013-14's Caps were abysmal following neutral-zone face-offs, win or lose. How bad? They only got the next shot attempt 48.8% of the time after winning the draw. In other words, more than half the time the Caps won a face-off at center ice, the opposition fired the next shot. That's terrible. Real terrible. Buffalo Sabres terrible, in fact - over the past two seasons, the only teams that have taken the next shot attempt following a won five-on-five draw in the neutral zone less often than the 2013-14 Caps were the 2013-14 Sabres (46.1%) and the 2014-15 Sabres (45.4%). Combine that with the 27th-best neutral-zone face-off percentage and some ugly numbers after neutral-zone losses and you've got a nice recipe for disaster. Here's how 2013-14 shook out:
It's hard not to blame that on the scheme.
The big question, of course, is did it change in 2014-15?
It did. (How could it not?) Here's the overview:
The Caps were terrific in the dot (third-best in the League), and improved across-the-board... but that 55% in Next SAT% is still low, ranked just 21st in the League. To put the two seasons on one chart (because why not?), here's what it looks like (click to enlarge):
A quick glance shows a bunch of good teams on the left, some pretty lousy ones on the right, and this past season's Caps not nearly as far left as you'd want to be.
Why? Let's look at the defensemen, individually (ordered from left to right by number of neutral-zone starts):
The first pair of John Carlson and Brooks Orpik is basically at 57-59%, which isn't great, but beats the second pair's 53-54% handily. Ditto Mike Green and Tim Gleason's relatively woeful number (though check out that 15-second SAT%... small sample and all). And then there's Nate Schmidt and Jack Hillen, up over 60% (unsurprisingly and surprisingly, respectively). The whole lot of them had decent 15-second SAT%, but once again Schmidt stands out. People wonder how the Caps are going to replace Green, and, given how Green was utilized, Schmidt might be able to make up more of that gap than folks think (though he did get caved-in a bit following neutral-zone losses, as did the top pair). So it doesn't seem as though any defensemen in particular are to blame for the team's low Next SAT% number here, though if one were to wager on "Karl Alzner is dumping the puck in too often," one could probably make some money.
What about the forwards? We'll use the most common members of each of the four lines as a proxy for those lines:
Well that's somewhat interesting. (Sidenote: How many guesses would it have taken you to get Michael Latta as the Caps who started the most games on the fourth line last season?) The top-two lines produced nearly identical Next SAT% and 15s SAT%, which probably shouldn't be the case given how top-heavy the top-six was (emphasis on was). That screams "system," and probably screams "dumping the puck too much" (or at least "not chasing it enough") - when Nicklas Backstrom wins a draw in the neutral zone, the Caps should probably be taking more than 11 of every 20 next shot attempts (57.3%, to be precise). To wit, here's how Backstrom stacked up against some of his peers here (the 20 centers with the most even-strength neutral-zone face-offs last season, via Faceoffs.net, with a few more thrown in for fun):
Solid 15-second SAT%, but not a lot of guys from good teams behind Backstrom in Next SAT% (and what's Jonathan Toews doing being one of them?).
Anyway, back to the Caps... that third line... woof. That's a bad number and dovetails somewhat nicely with what we noted recently about Joel Ward and Eric Fehr's possession struggles (though it's worth noting here that they appear to have done a nice job of getting the puck back following neutral-zone losses). Nice work by the fourth line, too.
Given the individual trends identified above, it seems as though the Caps' mediocre Next SAT% numbers following neutral-zone face-off wins are the product of a system that's giving the puck up too easily, but when they do keep it (or get it back), they're putting up shot attempts at a pretty good clip over the 15-second span we're examining. And that would make sense if the Caps are a dump-and-retrieve team like the Kings... that just isn't as good at the "retrieve" part. Sure enough, the Kings are great in both of these metrics, and if the Caps aspire to be more like them, well, they've got work to do... and landing Justin Williams in free agency is a nice start.