By: John McCool
At the moment, NHL teams are using more analytics for everything - from player evaluation to game analysis. One interesting research area is how neutral zone turnovers influence scoring chances. Challenges in this study arise from separating neutral zone takeaways from other noise such as player skill, goaltending, and whether the scoring chance resulted directly from a neutral zone turnover or from other play sequences. Based on last season’s play-by-play data, however, we can measure which teams were more prone to commit neutral zone turnovers, which provides some insight into how playing style influences giveaways and takeaways in this zone.
In 2015-2016, teams that turned the puck over the most in the neutral zone also tended to score goals in bunches. In the chart above, all teams but the St. Louis Blues finished in the top third in scoring averaging - 2.88 goals per game (Goals For / Games Played). At the high and low extremes of this group, the San Jose Sharks and the New York Rangers committed 201 and 123 turnovers, respectively, in the neutral zone. However, teams in this group allowed an average 2.23 GA60 (Goals Against per 60 min), which was nearly .45 points below the NHL league average. This difference suggests that other factors such as goaltending, shot distance, and rebound opportunities play a much larger role in goal prevention than neutral zone giveaways.
These numbers hint that not all players should be evaluated solely on high turnover counts. Defenseman that log additional ice time usually control the puck more frequently and are inevitably more liable to commit turnovers. For example, Brett Burns and Drew Doughty turned the puck over a respective 92 and 79 times (first and third most in the NHL) but averaged a 54.2 FF% (Fenwick For %) and 12.25 point shares, logging at least 25 minutes ice time each game. Furthermore, offensive catalysts Phil Kessel and Jason Spezza each coughed up the puck 24 times on neutral ice, but also totaled 122 points last season.
At the other end of the spectrum were Chicago, Colorado, and Toronto, who committed the fewest neutral zone turnovers. While the Avalanche and Maple Leafs were among the worst offensive and defensive teams in the league, the Blackhawks scored 2.85 goals per game. The Blackhawks played in a style similar to that of the Penguins or the Lightning, but made just 52 turnovers in the neutral zone against the 135 and 125 committed by the latter. Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt having Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson carrying the puck through the neutral zone to minimize turnovers.
On the flip side, the Carolina Hurricanes led the league with 192 neutral takeaways, 18 more than the next leader. Although forwards like Jeff Skinner and Jordan Stall combined for 35 takeaways, the Canes managed just 100 rush shots and 18 goals from these takeaways, eclipsing only five other teams and mainly because of an abysmal 8.0% shooting percentage (ranked 29th in the NHL). Carolina’s inability to secure shots on the rush is not that surprising given that only a handful of teams (San Jose, Dallas, and Ottawa) were the only teams to eclipse 150 takeaways and record at least 100 rush shots.
Although there is a relatively weak 0.24 statistical correlation between neutral zone takeaways and rush shots, there is some benefit in creating neutral zone turnovers. First, stealing the puck in this area of the ice can lead to more potential rush chances because attacking forwards, who are either moving towards the offensive zone or chasing a neutral zone chip-in, are sometimes unable to regroup and defend a counter attack if a turnover occurs. Second, a neutral zone takeaway gives teams a better chance of carrying the puck in the offensive zone instead of dumping the puck into the zone. Recent findings found that carrying the puck into the offensive zone resulted in an average 0.66 shots per entry compared to only 0.29 shots per entry on a dump-in.
As shown in the graph above, the same neutral zone turnover prone teams also tended to have success in creating takeaways in this area of the ice.There was a relatively strong .61 correlation between neutral zone giveaways and takeaway last season, which could be related to the the idea that teams possessing high turnover rates have more opportunities to retain the puck. It is also possible that a team’s style or pace of play influences their turnover rate in this area of the ice. For instance, neutral zone turnover prone teams including the Penguins, Stars, and Blues combined for an average 151 takeaways around center ice, nearly 26 more than the NHL average last season.
This correlation between neutral zone turnovers and ability to score in bunches and success in creating neutral takeaways suggests that steals and turnovers in the neutral zone appear to be causally linked to a team’s style of play. We found that prolific scoring teams were, on average, more active in the neutral zone whether in takeaways or giveaways. However, it is still relatively unknown how neutral zone turnovers influence goals or shift the probability of winning.
 The Vancouver Canucks finished with a league low 12 rush goals in 2015-2016
 It is important to note that rush shots do not necessarily result from neutral zone takeaways.