Pittsburgh Penguins Zone Exits

Jeff Zelevansky

A look at a burgeoning new advanced stat metric zone, zone exits. We have the data from four of the Pittsburgh Penguins games and it goes to show some depth of how players are playing.

One cool thing about this day and age is the new things you can learn. Advanced stats in hockey are growing, and one new metric popping up is zone exits. What is a zone exit? Pierce Cunneen, on twitter and on nhlnumbers.com has sent me a ton of data, you can start here with his introductory piece.

He adds a little more, via email saying:

"The inspiration for the zone exit tracking project was the work done on zone entries by Eric Tulsky. While his work focused on entering the zone, I wanted to focus on what leads to zone entries, which are zone exits. Thus, over the summer I created the zone exit tracking project. I created a set of tracking guidelines, recruited hockey fans like myself who were interested in hockey analytic concepts, and enlisted the help of Joshua Weissbock to create a database where we would upload all the data and do calculations. As of now, I have trackers from over 10 teams who are tracking zone exits for their favorite NHL team.

Our trackers have a variety of methods for tracking. The tracking process does require the ability to pause and rewind in certain circumstances, but in general tracking takes only slightly longer than actually watching the game, so many of our trackers will track zone exits for their team as they watch the game live. Our trackers record the time of the exit, the exit type, and the player who made the exit. All of this data then is put on a spreadsheet, which then is uploaded into the database.

There are many things that zone exit data can eventually lead to. The first is in player evaluation. We can see over the course of the season which players are most involved in getting the puck out of the zone, which players turn the puck over a lot when trying to get the puck out of the zone, and which players are great at keeping possession (defined as carrying the puck or making a successful pass out of the zone) when exiting the zone.

The second thing we can do with zone exit data is team evaluation. We can look at which teams are consistently keeping possession of the puck as they leave the zone vs teams that just chip the puck out.

The third, and the one that I am the most excited about, is our plan to connect zone entry and zone exit data for teams that have both being tracked. Eric's work has shown how important zone entry and neutral zone play is, and hopefully with zone exit data we will see how important exiting the zone with possession will be in regards to how zone exits lead to zone entries.

From that database, I was able to combine four of the Penguins eight games so far, the results below, with green highlights added for effect for those near the best on the team for the respective columns:

Zoneexit_medium

What can this tell us? Here are some points I found interesting (remember all data is for 5v5):

  • Olli Maatta looks very good by this metric. He's right up there with Paul Martin, and even has slightly more impressive numbers than the more veteran defenseman. Goes to show why the Pens are so intrigued by this kid and why it's going to be very difficult to send him back to juniors.
  • The benefit to the Penguins for having Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Sutter as their 1, 2 and 3 centers really pops out. All have really impressive numbers, and if you think about it, it makes sense. When Malkin gets the puck, he's usually got so much speed he can easily carry it from his own end up to at least the red line, if not all the way into the offensive zone.
  • Look at how Rob Scuderi only has 13 exits, while his typical partner in Matt Niskanen has 33. And that makes sense if you think about how Scuderi plays, he's going to be right in front of the net, or be the first guy back to pick up the puck and eat a forecheck. Scuderi's the guy who passes to the guy who gets the zone exit. Which makes the return of Kris Letang even more anticipated.
  • Brooks Orpik has some pretty good data here, with better percentages than the other defensemen in some categories that you might not have predicted. We'll see if that evens out with more data in as the season keeps progressing.
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