One of the main culprits for Montreal's recent downtick in offensive performance is their confusing breakout strategy. In most cases, whenever a Habs defender has the puck in the defensive zone, they'll immediately attempt to clear it by banking it off the boards, resulting in a neutral zone battle.
The logic behind their breakout is that the faster you get the puck out of your own zone, the more you limit scoring chances against. While that may be true, it's only a temporary reprieve, as we saw on several occasions against the Penguins on Saturday.
In reality, that type of defensive strategy leads to more scoring chances against, since you're voluntarily giving up possession of the puck and giving your opponents a chance to reload and attempt to regain the zone.
Blindly flipping the puck out of your own zone leads to a neutral zone battle. If you're lucky, you recover the puck and move on to the offensive zone. However, it's usually a rushed clear that leads to inaccurate passes, at the very least. The players recovering the puck have to spend an extra second or two to settle down the puck, which hurts their chance for a controlled zone entry.
Why are controlled exits and entries important? Erik Tulsky explains:
Separating a hockey player’s offensive and defensive contributions is quite difficult. Offensive skill can lead to increased puck possession and therefore improve statistics aimed at measuring defensive performance such as goals or shots allowed. This challenge can be overcome by measuring goals or shots per possession rather than per game, provided a reasonable estimate of possessions is available. Recording when the puck is brought across the blue line makes this transformation possible, enabling a true assessment of performance in the offensive or defensive zone. Surprisingly, a season of data shows no clear separation between players in shot production or suppression; if offensive stars generate more shots per offensive zone possession than fourth line grinders, the difference is small enough to not show up in a single season’s data. Instead, the team’s shot differential – which has been shown to be a strong predictor of wins – is determined almost entirely in the much less-heralded neutral zone. Neutral zone success involves more than getting extra zone entries; since carrying the puck across the blue line generates more than twice as many shots, scoring chances, and goals as dumping the puck in, gaining the zone with possession is a major driver of success.
And the best way to produce controlled entries? Yup, you guessed it, controlled exits.
So we know that controlled exits lead to controlled entries, and that controlled entries lead to twice as many shots and scoring chances compared to dump-ins. By taking a look at Montreal's breakout strategy, we can clearly see they're struggling in that department.
If you're a fan of the Habs, you'll be very familiar with the following situations:
(Warning: Once you press play the videos will loop. Click on each video to stop it.)
Subban has no breakout option, clears the puck blindly, which leads to an icing call. This isn't the worst case scenario, seeing as Subban was under pressure from two players, and didn't have much help.
Of course, it gets worse.
The Habs panic, give away the puck, and watch as the Penguins take their sweet time reorganizing. As you can expect, the puck ends up in Montreal's defensive zone.
Another good way to make sure you'll spend time defending is to give up an endless stream of icing calls, via panicked breakouts.
As good as the Habs are when it comes to neutral zone loose puck recoveries, more often than not the result is a lost puck:
Blindly clearing the puck also leads to shots against, like so:
And sometimes, the result is a goal against. This is why you can't count on your forwards to win neutral zone battles as a regular strategy.
What does a controlled exit look like? Let's turn to the Penguins for the answer.
One more time for posterity:
There were several more examples of bad breakouts by the Habs and successful breakouts for the Penguins, but one thing that was clear is that the Penguins were feasting upon the scoring chances that were created thanks to their clean breakouts. They were also much better when it came to supporting their defenders, presenting them with an outlet option, whereas the Habs rarely offer that option to their defencemen.
Of course, you can't always control the puck as you exit the zone. It's not fair to expect that teams will always avoid dumping the puck out of the defensive zone, but the Canadiens aren't doing themselves any favours by adhering to this myopic strategy. It's one of the big reasons why their shots and scoring chances have taken a rather large dip in recent games.
If the Habs hope to create more goals, they'll need to focus on how their plays start rather than how they finish. Their confusing and rushed approach to defending is hurting them in more ways than one. They need their forwards to drop down lower and support their defencemen, which should lead to more passing options, and consequently more clean zone exits.