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Using the PP Drop Pass for Rushing Attempts

by Gus Katsaros

Should teams attempt more scoring plays off the rush at 5v4, instead of trying to set up in-zone to score goals? It’s time to ease up on setting up in the offensive zone during a power play, and use more rush plays to generate scoring chances.

If you follow my Twitter account, you’re no stranger to my animosity towards the powerplay drop pass. I’m not going to expand on that, but instead use that tactic to build on. Despite my feelings towards the play, there is obvious merit to gaining the zone using this strategy – pushing the defenders back to their blueline and forcing them to wait for the puck rusher. This can be used for other purposes than just conventional in-zone setup.

 

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If teams are going to default to the drop pass, maybe it's also time to change up the play to resemble a linebacker crashing through the defensive line for open field, rather than just to set up and find an open seam for a shot on goal – while eating away at the clock.

Teams with the extra man late in games treat the on-ice situation as a power play, triangulating in the offensive zone to open seams for a good scoring chance. The defending team adopts a ‘prevent’ defensive stance, functioning like a makeshift 5v5 penalty kill formation. The extra attacker comes into play in various situations, but not all, and at 6v5 their impact isn’t a variable that a team playing proper 5v5 defense couldn’t withstand. If teams treat the situation as a man-down, it becomes a penalty kill. If they just continue to utilize a 5v5 strategy, I think they would be more successful in getting pucks back and limiting danger.

Teams set up during a 5v4 man-advantage, trying to set up for a shot on goal, building off the history of dumping pucks in behind the net and retrieving with a strategic forecheck. Teams still use this setup because it’s all they’ve ever known. The 5v4 breakout has changed from defensemen freewheeling up ice and dumping it in, to incorporating more stretch passing. Right now, the newest flavor is the neutral zone drop pass.

The breakout has evolved. Maybe the in-zone strategy needs some altering to bring up to the skill level of the new NHL.

Quick hands, skilled players, even enough to fill a skilled second unit, can act as distinct weapons if isolated and given the ability to break through the line, encroach into scoring chance areas and unleash shots on goal. With four players holding down the blueline and causing interference and confusion, teams can be creative to try to gain the zone, breaking through the line with enough speed to generate a clear or partial breakaway chance. Perhaps even an odd-man situation based on a speedy entry and a slotline (Royal Road) pass to facilitate pre-shot movement. No in-zone setup, just a quick scoring chance, retrieve the puck where possible, and then setup as a secondary tactic to a failed breakaway attempt.

Now, I'm not advocating to eschew in-zone setup altogether, but teams in prolonged scoring funks look for something new to try. Predictability is a killer and it’s important to have options. Defending teams can apply complications, from how they deploy defensemen off the breakout, dropping back prior to entry closer to the ‘house’, limiting being caught flat-footed against the speedy forward. Pre-shot movement is important and proven that shooting percentage increases with a pass on a shot assist (the pass prior to a shot on goal). Pre-shot movement is limited on partial breakaways, which aren’t as good as clear shots.

 

Ok, Where’s the Data?

Unfortunately, there just isn't enough data to gauge this type of play in isolation. The only way to illustrate the initiative is by employing a proxy. There is a Rush Attempts metric on Natural Stat Trick, but that’s limited, and not as an account of an event. Specific data is required to make a case.

Fortunately, there is passing data we can lean on, but there could be a more robust data set to make better determinations. Corey Sznajder tracks microstats like zone entries and passing. Details are amassed in raw data files that I amalgamated together for 2017-18 and 2018-19 respectively – if you have a few extra dollars and like analytics, this is Corey’s Patreon. Consider making a donation to the effort.

The raw files contain details leading up to a shot attempt, and fortunately for us, there are details like the zone where the passes originated. In an attempt to simulate rush attempts, I filtered the data to limit all passes from inside the offensive zone. The result is the screenshot of the pivot table below. Pivot tables are great for formatting data. I use them a lot, and they are the basis for visualization applications, like Tableau for instance, that I refer to as ‘pivot tables on steroids’.

In the table below, teams are being measured against three categories: Scoring chance or non-scoring chances (shot originated from the scoring chance home plate area), a shot on goal or an attempt, and whether a goal was scored off those shots.

In 2018-19 with about 260 games sample size (please note, data wasn’t available for the Washington Capitals and was omitted), the takeaway from the table below – aside from the Coyotes being a very good scoring team off the rush – if teams get the opportunity to get to the scoring chance area, there’s a good possibility of scoring a goal. In Non-Scoring Chances – areas that would be considered perimeter or steep angle to the net, there aren’t many goals being scored.

The table gives a cursory look at how some teams are actually using lone ranger rushes as well. For instance, the Calgary Flames don’t seem to penetrate much into the scoring chance area and are kept to the perimeter for shots. Since this study isn’t looking at rebounds as part of the sequence, there is likely a strategic element missing from the overall analysis. There are other examples as well. The Blue Jackets seem to take a lot of shots from the perimeter that end up as on goal, and almost equally that end up as a shot attempt and never get close to a shot on goal.

2018-19 Pass Data

 

Data comprising the 2017-18 season contains a sample size of about 580 games. The same sentiment exists, get pucks to scoring areas and good things happen. Limiting shots to the perimeter – unless there’s a tactical reason of directing pucks to the net – doesn’t produce a lot of shots or goals.

2017-18 Passing Data

 

Accounting for goals scored as a percentage of scoring chance attempts offers up with the table below. The color coding ranges from blue for high end of the range and changing to red for the bottom feeders. Each year’s leaders are displayed via the sort option, indicated by the blue outlined enclosure of the season.

Passing Data Goals Scored Percentage From Scoring Areas

 

Of course, sample size is an issue here, but the fact that these microstats exist can provide some data to back up the idea, and potentially add to its merits. It’s not just limited to this, for example, but there’s enough background data to test out hypotheses. Ultimately, a team will have to take on the ability to incorporate these ideas into workable, progressive tactics.

As for this one, even without the data, incorporating a tactic to simulate a running back breaking through the line of scrimmage to take advantage of partial or clear breakaways is an interesting twist I’d like to see teams take, building off the momentum of wide-spread use of the drop pass through the neutral zone.

Gus Katsaros
Gus Katsaros is the Pro Scouting Coordinator with McKeen’s Hockey, publishers of industry leading scouting and fantasy guide, the McKeen’s Annual Hockey Pool Yearbook. He also contributes to popular blog MapleLeafsHotStove.com ... he can be followed on Twitter @KatsHockey