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Kick-starting the offense: Atkinson, Saad are Jackets' best "entry" players

by Alison Lukan / Columbus Blue Jackets

“Goal!”

The most important stat of any hockey game is the number of goals a team can put on the scoreboard. But while many focus on the physical act of getting the puck into the back of the net, the likelihood of getting that opportunity is influenced by many things on the ice, and that includes getting the puck into the offensive zone from the middle of the ice.

“The neutral zone is the most important zone,” coach John Tortorella told BlueJackets.com. “We refer to it as decision-making with and without the puck. When (our opponent) has the puck, we play our structured defense and we have the middle jammed up. When we have the puck, we don’t tell our players to dump it. We always try to (carry the puck in).”

Tortorella’s approach has merit. The work of Eric Tulsky has shown us that carrying the puck into the zone can greatly increase the number of shot attempts a team can generate versus the dump and chase.

“We always talk about making the right decisions,” Tortorella said. “If you have time and space and can carry (the puck) into the offensive zone, carry it so you don’t have to chase it down.”

So, who among the Blue Jackets has
been succeeding with getting the
puck into the zone? Let’s take a look.

J.D. Burke is working on tracking zone entry data for all NHL games in the 2015-16 NHL season. Here is a visualization of the Columbus squad based on the five games he has tracked to date.

While a small sample size, we can see that Cam Atkinson and Brandon Saad take the top two spots in all zone entries, and that Saad leads the team in controlled entries at 67%.

“That’s the way I want to play,” Saad said. “You never want to give the puck away. At times you need to chip it in and you have to skate it down and get on it, but part of my game is puck possession and that’s where I have success.”

Saad’s ability to enter the zone with puck control was on display in the Mar. 22 shootout win over the Flyers. In that game, Saad led the team in all entries (9) and in controlled entries (8).

Second to Saad was Blue Jackets rookie Oliver Bjorkstrand, who had eight total entries with five controlled. This skill has not gone unnoticed by Tortorella.

“Every time you think (Bjorkstrand) is going to dump the puck in, where 90% of the time guys will dump the puck in, he carries it and keeps control of it,” Tortorella said. “It’s a really good thing to see in a young player.”

Who else is noticeable when it comes to zone entries? Tortorella cites Seth Jones and continues to praise his “most consistent forward” Atkinson while describing some of what makes a player particularly skilled at entering the offensive zone with the puck.

“He has the ability to cut, to find open areas to beat people,” Tortorella said. “He’s low to the ice. That’s why they end up with the puck a lot.”

All this being said, it’s important to remember that a dump-in isn't necessarily a bad strategy, it's just a different one - and the decision between the carry-in and dump-in varies based on the situation, Saad said.

“A lot of teams like their 'D' to step up and hold the blue line,” Saad said. “In that situation, you just try to chip it in and get it in deep, get on the forecheck and offer support. That’s what it comes down to – you see if the 'D' has a good gap on you or if they’re playing further away, then you have time to play.”

But you can still watch for Saad to step into a strong defensive matchup and carry the puck in as he tries to raise the offensive chances for his team; Saad said he will test defenses and try to keep them guessing so he can take a chance and use his speed to gain the zone.

“Throughout the game you read the situation,” Saad said. “The best times obviously come from having the puck and making plays with the puck. With more puck possession, (the team) becomes more successful.”

Visualization courtesy of Sean Tierney

Tracking Data courtesy of J.D. Burke

PHI-CBJ Tracking Data via Alison Lukan

Games included in tracking: NYR (Oct. 9), NYR (Oct. 10), VAN (Nov. 10), FLA (Dec. 4), VAN (Feb. 4)

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