Zone exit data suggests some issues with Lightning defenders

The Lightning have underachieved for most of the season for a variety of reasons. One particular problem area has been defensive zone exits.

Lots of things need to go wrong for a team to go from back-to-back deep playoff runs to being one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning have had issues with injuries, goaltending, shot suppression, and shot generation at various times this season, but that’s just the start.

In the Raw Charge team reports, I’ve shown that the team has consistently struggled to generate shots. Teams can struggle in that area for many reasons, with the most obvious cause of poor shot generation being a lack of forward talent or poor forward play.

The Lightning obviously have plenty of talent at forward, and it seems unlikely that those talented players would suddenly play poorly for an entire half season. Injuries have certainly hit the forwards harder than the defense, but even that doesn’t seem to be enough to justify why the Bolts have struggled so much to generate offense.

The defensive talent is a much different topic. The Lightning came into the season with an excellent top pair, but lots of questions after that. Slater Koekkoek was the best chance at a third reliable skater on the blue line, but he hasn’t developed into that player yet.

For most of the season, I’ve suspected that this is one of the major issues with the Lightning: a weak blue line can drag down offensive production if the defenders are unable to contribute to breaking out of the defensive zone. I’m going to examine some numbers that explore this idea.

The Data

All of following data comes from Corey Sznajder’s personal tracking project at his site, The Energy Line. The Lightning currently have 16 games tracked in the project, which isn’t a large sample but is enough to start investigating the results so far. All data is 5v5 only.

This post will focus specifically on zone exits. Zone exits occur when a team brings the puck out of their defensive zone into the neutral zone. When a player attempts to exit the zone, several outcomes are possible. The player can fail, which results in the puck staying in the defensive zone. The player can succeed in exiting the zone with possession of the puck. The player can also succeed in exiting without possession of the puck such as a dump-out, which is less effective. Zone exits can also lead to zone entries, which is getting the puck through the neutral zone into the offensive zone.

The Team Charts

To start, this series of graphs provides an overview of team success on zone exits. The vertical axis shows the percentage of times that a team exits the zone successfully. The horizontal axis shows the percentage of successful exits where a team exits with possession of the puck. The size of each team dot indicates the percentage of successful exits that lead to zone entries. The scatter plots break down further by position.

Overall, the Lightning are below average in their ability to exit the zone as we see in the first chart. Interestingly, their forwards are approximately league average while the defenders are far below league average. Particularly concerning is the size of the dot on the defender graph. The Bolts defenders are the worst in the league at turning successful zone exits into zone entries.

This data suggests that Bolts defenders’ zone exits are frequently of low quality, which results in the opposition regaining the puck in the neutral zone. Given the disparity between the forwards and the defenders in the graph above, the next step is to check how that compares to the rest of league.

The goal is to understand whether the forwards are bearing an unusual amount of responsibility for breaking out of the defensive zone.  I’m not aware of any specific research in this area that ties exits by position to goal scoring or winning, but logically, one would hope that defenders are able to consistently contribute to exiting the zone with possession, and transitioning the team to offense.

Tampa Bay ranks 24th in their defenders’ share of exits with possession, and 26th in their defenders’ share of exits that lead to entries. This means that Lightning forwards do bear a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for exiting the zone compared to the other teams in the league.

Again, without having formally tested this concept, logic suggests that relying on forwards to get the puck out of the defensive zone would result in weaker offensive numbers compared to a team where the defenders can handle more of that responsibility, and allow the forwards to break up ice and push the pace in transition.

The Skater Charts

When we see that the Lightning rely heavily on their forwards in the defensive zone, looking at the performance of each skater, forward and defense, will help clarify the overall picture. Keep in mind that the sample sizes are still small, so these numbers could change significantly over the course of the season. For this article, the top 181 defenders and 361 forwards in zone exit attempts are included in the sample.

The graph below shows the outcomes of each player’s zone exit attempts in terms of failure, success with possession, and success without possession. The graph also contains league average at each position for reference.

Victor Hedman is the only defender who appears to be well above league average in exiting the defensive zone with possession of the puck. Braydon Coburn does an excellent job of getting out of the zone but does not often do so with possession. Anton Stralman’s numbers are somewhat surprising, but he has struggled this year in shot metrics compared to previous seasons, so these numbers align with what we see in other areas.

Also consistent with other statistics are Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr being at the bottom of the list of defenders. Sustr’s rate of failure is particularly concerning. To put a specific number on his performance, he ranks 173rd out of 181 defenders in the data set.

The forward picture is better but still not great. Vladislav Namestnikov stands out as being well above average in this area. This could be part of the reason that putting him on a line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov works so well. He takes the responsibility of starting the attack, and the other two are able to focus their all-world abilities on scoring in the offensive zone.

Brayden Point also looks excellent in his ability to carry the puck out of the zone. Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan look similar to Braydon Coburn in that they succeed at getting out of the zone, but rarely do so with possession.

For a final look at each skater, the scatter plots below show the Lightning players relative to the rest of the league. The axes are the same as the scatter plots at the beginning of this section. These plots provide more context for the information provided above.

Namestnikov is genuinely one of the best forwards in the data thus far at getting the puck out of the defensive zone. Andrej Sustr is also genuinely one of the worst defenders at getting out of the zone at all.

Somewhat disconcerting for Lightning fans is the position of Nikita Nesterov and Slater Koekkoek on this graph. They appear to be the second and third best defenders on the team in starting the offense. Their sample size is much smaller than the other Lightning defenders but given how well these numbers align with the shot metrics and the eye test, I think we can be fairly confident that their positioning here is representative of their play when given opportunities this season.

While I suspect that Stralman will surpass them over a full season of data, I’m not confident that any of the other defenders will. I could reasonably suggest, based on the data thus far, that two of the Lightning’s four best defenders at exiting the defensive zone are currently playing in Montreal and Syracuse.

Final Thoughts

Shot metrics help us understand overall trends and better predict what will happen in the future. Stats like the zone exits we’ve discussed here help us more clearly identify what is happening between shots. For the Lightning, zone exits are an area where they struggle, and those struggles are largely due to defenders.

This information should point to some possible paths to improvement. For instance, it seems like Slater Koekkoek might be able to provide some much needed help in this area.

Over the past few weeks, the Lightning have looked better both to the eye test and by the numbers. Jake Dotchin’s ability to play effectively with Victor Hedman on the first pairing has allowed Anton Stralman to drop to the second pairing with Braydon Coburn. This change has solidified the defense by creating two solid pairings.

As the season progresses, it will be interesting to see if the improvement is also reflected in the zone exit data. As Corey continues to track more games, I’ll be looking to see if the defenders start to bear a greater share of the workload.

Having a full season of this data will be incredibly valuable, and I look forward to diving into more and more as Corey continues his work.

Author’s Note: In addition to tracking zone exits, Corey also tracks zone entries and passing data. I will be looking into those in the future as well. If you enjoy these types of articles, I encourage you to check out Corey’s Patreon and/or his GoFundMe. Tracking all of this data is a ton of work and without his effort, we wouldn’t be able to write articles like this. Even if I tracked Lightning games, I wouldn’t be able to compare the numbers to league average and so would have very little context. This is incredibly valuable public work.