Shot Attempts and “Crucial Habits” or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dump and Chase

When I look to see how a team has done or is doing, my first go-to is always even strength shot attempts, or the tried and true, venerable, misunderstood, and often loathed “Corsi”.

Like it or not, Corsi when applied to a team and with a full seasons data behind it is a very sturdy tool for filtering out the noise and looking at results that are likely to be repeatable and sustainable (or unrepeatable and unsustainable, as the Flames found out last year. Corsi told us that story. As it did with Toronto the year before that).

This years Edmonton Oilers finished 20th in the league with a CF% (Corsi For Percentage) at 48.9%. I’m rarely the guy people look to for encouraging words, but given all the injuries, I actually find this an encouraging result.

But wait! Encouraging result you say? Last years Edmonton Oilers finished 24th in CF% at 48.1%. That’s an improvement of just 0.8%.

Is that change meaningful or just noise? Is that encouraging or not?

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One way to suss that out is to pull out the components of CF%.

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CF% is actually calculated as the balance between ‘shot attempts for’ (usually abbreviated CF, without the %) and ‘shot attempts against’ (usually abbreviated CA). We can pull out CF and CA individually and see if there is a substantive change in either.

For example, you could see a case where there is no change in CF%, but a significant improvement in CF and a significant worsening in CA, and that would indicate a notable underlying change (offense better, defense worse) even as the CF% showed no change at all.

In the Oilers’ case (I have used the per 60 minutes numbers to isolate away changes in number of penalties called year over year), here’s what we see:

CF/60 … 2014: 24th @ 53.26has improved markedly to … 2015: 18th @ 55.24

CA/60 … 2014: 24th @ 57.58has barely changed at all to … 2015: 24th @ 57.72

So my answer to you is: yes, the small change in CF% does represent something significant.

Specifically, the team is notably better (two attempts per game, almost league average) at generating shot attempts this year. The entire jump from 24th to 18th is on the offense. Hello Connor! Half an attempt per game more would bring the team to 15th (BOS).

But … it’s hardly Nirvana is it? … because the team remains among the worst in the league at preventing shot attempts, and pretty much identical to last year. That makes sense too. Swap Petry for Sekera, and consistently terrible veterans for inconsistent rookies, roll in a crazy level of injuries, and voila – back in the defensive toilet.

Which gets back to a theme you’ll hear from me and many others: if we want to improve next year, stop worrying so much about the forwards.

Hey Peter: PLEASE FIX THE DEFENSE.

“Crucial Habits” and the Role of the Defense in the Offense

One thing you might point out is that the Oilers, while better/improved on offense, were hardly a powerhouse. Eighteenth is nothing to write home about. So why worry mostly about the defense?

What I’m going to suggest you do right now is jump to a series of articles by the extremely knowledgeable Jen Lute Costella, which she’s titled “Crucial Habits”. There are three articles so far, and the overview (which links further on to all three) is here:

Crucial Habits for Good Shot Generation & Suppression: Overview

If you’ve read these brilliant articles, though she doesn’t study the Oilers specifically, there are some interesting tiebacks to the Oiler situation.  Specifically the need for better defensemen, but also vis a vis the Todd McLellan/Oiler coaching style, which is often criticized by some Oilers fans for being too dump and chase oriented. Let’s look at those two assertions in order.

The Offensive Role of the Defense

If I told you that the Oilers need a defenseman who can be the powerplay QB and provide a big shot from the point, is there anyone who would argue with me? That seems obvious, and clearly adding that kind of player would immediately improve the ‘goals scored’ for the Oilers, even as the even strength shot counts probably wouldn’t change all that much.

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But what about even strength? Teams spend 80% or more of their time at 5v5 – it kind of matters.

I’ve been harping on this a long time, and what Costella’s articles do is provide a thorough analysis (with evidence) as to the critical role of the defense and the defensive structure in driving the offense.

The defensive structure drives puck retrieval and controlled exits from the zone. Controlled exits lead to successful entries. And successful entries lead to scoring.

In other words, part of the teams struggles on offense are symptoms of the defense.  And making the defense more competent, especially at moving the puck, is going to have a significant positive impact on the offense.

Some of you will be rolling your eyes about how obvious that statement is. But it needs to be said, because when I argue for the desperate need to improve the Oiler defense (which I do a lot, especially since so many Oiler fans are obsessed with blaming the young forward corps … #TradeTheMall), I get a lot of pushback on the idea that adding capable defensemen, even defensive defensemen (as long as they can pass), will improve the offense.

But it will.

Hey Peter: PLEASE FIX THE DEFENSE.

The Role of Dump and Chase and Why the Oilers Need It

Another tieback to Costella’s articles speaks to the methodology for entering the zone. I’ve heard a lot of people criticize Todd McLellan’s dump and chase (or rather, place and chase) system as being inappropriate and a poor fit for the Oilers.

To which I say: bullshit. I do not believe McLellan and his system are the problem.

Where this ties to JLC’s work is that she studied zone entries in detail and found some interesting things. One thing that stood out for me is that even the Hawks, the most consistently successful ‘carry it in’ team she studied, dumps and chases 50% of the time.

This contrasts with the big heavy teams like ANA and LAK, who dump and chase 75% of the time.

So are the Oilers dumping and chasing too much? Well, I may have to go back and track some actual numbers, but if I were to hazard a guess, I’d bet the “dump in ratio” was something close to 50% this season. Just like the Hawks in other words!

[Late breaking news: @WheatNOil pointed me at some work by JD Burke, which shows the Oilers at about 40% controlled entries – not quite the Hawks, less than the Kings, and above average for the league. So we can confirm that the Oilers, while dumping more, are not doing so excessively].

Or to put it another way, Toddy Mac is not making this team into the Sharks – I think he’s making them more like the Hawks. Which is exactly what he should be doing.

So why the complaints about the dump and chase? Two reasons:
1 – Because the team is doing it a lot more than last year.
2 – The team is not very good at it.

So it seems like the team is doing it a lot and doing it unsuccessfully.

So the logical conclusion is they must be doing it too much!

And the logical conclusion is probably wrong.

Because without developing a basic level of competence at playing the place and chase – just like the Hawks! – the Oilers cannot successfully play the kind of rush hockey we think they should be playing.

Why?

The reason is that if you become a one-dimensional team, the other teams defense simply adjusts. People seem to forget this – there is at all times an entire group of top notch professional hockey players on the ice from the other team whose sole purpose is to score their own goals while preventing you from scoring your goals. That kind of matters.

If you subscribe to the fantasy that you can carry the puck in all the time, the other team will be more than happy to choke off the neutral zone and stand you up at the blue line, and you’re toast. And frankly, we’ve seen that a lot.

The Oilers aren’t lousy at playing dump and chase – the Oilers are lousy at entering the zone, period. (and to get back to the first point, a huge part of that is the inability to exit the defensive zone with control)

Either way, even the best teams need balance. Talent (which the Oilers have) gives you the ability to carry it in. But dump and chase is what sets up the ability to carry it in.

If you can’t dump and chase, you can’t carry either.

And I believe that’s what McLellan is trying to mold the Oilers into this year – a balanced team that can do either well, depending on what the other team makes available. Stand us up? We’ll dump it in and use our speed to make you look silly. Play to defend the dump and chase? We’ll use our speed and skill to carry it in and make you look silly. (That’s the theory. Now it’s all about practice practice practice on the chase part!)

For football fans, there is an obvious analogy here of how the run sets up the pass.

That leads to another point that JLC made in her articles, which is that regardless of what style you play, the most critical aspect to scoring is getting repeated chances through aggressive puck retrieval. You can do that with speed (like the Hawks) or with size and strength (like the Kings) – but if you don’t get the puck back, you don’t score.

If there’s one thing the Oiler forwards really need to work at, that’s it.

Now please don’t think I’m giving TMc a free pass. I do have some frustrations with the coaching this year. Specifically some of the mystifying roster decisions, and the power play. Then again, as a friend of mine noted, a lot of that may be ‘old voices from the inside hanging around and creating trouble’.  If so – they better be gone this summer.

Hey Peter

Either way, I do think the angst over ‘dump and chase’ is misguided. It needs practice, for sure. And a better instinctive sense of balance between carrying and chasing.

But adding a couple of true Top 4 defenders and getting Klefbom and Davidson back will make a world of difference to getting the puck out from the d zone under control.  And I bet if and when that happens, we’ll all suddenly be amazed at how much more effective the Oilers will be at entering the o zone too, whether by carry or by place and chase.

In other words, and you probably haven’t heard me say this before, but … Hey Peter: FIX THE DEFENSE.

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  • wfoddis

    Fully agree that a good offense needs a defense with a strong ability to successfully transition the play from the d-zone to the o-zone.

    Out of curiosity, I looked at different Goal-For rates (GF60) on teams when their superstars are playing with their best puck-moving defensemen and without (2 seasons, 2014-2016; 5v5).

    Crosby with Letang: 3.34 — w/o Letang: 2.62 — With D-man difference (WDD): +0.72

    Thornton with Burns: 3.25 — w/o Burns: 2.62 — WDD: +0.63

    Pacioretty with Subban: 3.42 — w/o Subban: 2.27 — WDD: +1.15

    Kane with Keith: 3.36 — w/o Keith: 2.81 — WDD: +0.55

    Bringing it back to the Oilers 15/16 season using Corsi For (CF60) (sample too small to use GF60):

    McDavid with Sekera: 64.3 — w/o Sekera: 56.5 — WDD: +8.8

    Hall with Sekera: 61.1 — w/o Sekera: 57.5 — WDD: +3.6

    I think this simply shows more evidence, especially for those who seem to be undervaluing how much D influences offense, that when you have a strong puck-moving defenseman supporting your top forwards, your team generates more offense.