For basically any hockey fan that pays attention to even the simplest tactical phenomenon, the drop pass entry on the power play has become a source of controversy.
Luckily, that day has arrived. On Tuesday I looked at the effectiveness of the neutral zone regroup as an entry strategy. Today, I take a look at the entry play that has swept the NHL: the drop pass. First, though, it's important to note that not all drop pass entry plays are created equal. Some teams like to begin their breakout with two players trailing. The puck is dropped back to one, who can then carry it in himself or pass it across to the other, who can then carry it himself or swing it wide. The Toronto Maple Leafs use this entry more than any other entry, and more than -- at least from what I've seen -- any other team. Here's an example of them using it successfully with the kids in their debut, though earlier in the season you would see something like Dion Phaneuf drops it to P.A. Parenteau who pass across it to Tyler Bozak who swings it wide to Leo Komarov.
The advantage to dropping with two men back is an ability to shift the focus of the entry to the weak side, where you'll usually find less defenders trying to hold the line.
The Philadelphia Flyers are a team that prefers one-man drop passes. The advantage to having crafty and speedy stickhandlers like Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek is that they can take the puck with speed, and against flat-footed defenders, they can weave their way into the zone usually without any help.
The biggest advantage to the drop pass play overall, of course, is catching the penalty killers flat-footed as they slow down to try and hold the line against the puck carrier. The original puck carrier and other players can also serve as picks if correctly positioned, as Mark Streit does above. The Montreal Canadiens don't really take advantage of the latter effect, since they often drop the puck back from the wall. You lose a part of the pick-play aspect, but that play is obviously a little bit safer. There's less risk of the pass being picked off and taken back on a shorthanded break. Of course, a crafty skater like Shayne Gostisbehere can also fake the drop pass effectively and still freeze the defenders.
So over the sample we have from the six teams I've tracked this season, how effective have drop pass plays been at 5-on-4? First, let's take a look at average time spent in the offensive zone off of each drop pass entry attempt.
Like in my last piece, in order to control for different factors, I've designed the categories as such: Drop encompasses every type of drop pass play that results in a controlled entry attempt (including those where drop passes are picked off before the play can develop). Stretch includes all stretch pass plays that result in a controlled entry attempt. My definition of a stretch pass was a little bit subjective, but I think hockey guys would agree that you kind of know one when you see one. Generally speaking, a stretch pass is a pass that comes before the defensive blue line that tries to stretch the defense, generally hitting a guy with considerable speed in motion at the offensive blue line.
Predictably, stretch passes lead to the fewest average seconds in the offensive zone. They are the highest risk plays and strive for shot quality on the rush over zone time. I hope to analyze rush shots and stretch passes in the future more closely, but for now I'll keep this simple. Drop pass attempts lead to slightly more offensive zone time than non-drop entries, but it's close.
The gap is bigger when it comes to shot attempts -- 0.84 to 0.70 shots per entry attempt -- in favor of the drop pass play. Like with neutral zone regroups, though, there is another consideration, and that is time wasted leading up to the entry. Drop pass plays, because of that extra pass right before the blue line, can mean an extra couple of seconds before entering the zone. So on average, how long do regroups take for each of these types of entries?
Stretch passes for obvious reasons take the quickest to execute, and drop passes take the longest -- the numbers here are 15.49, 12.56 and 10.37 seconds respectively.
How do these numbers compare team by team? First, here are the shot attempt per entry try numbers for each type of regroup.
These are sorted from biggest differential in favor of drop passes to smallest. In Giroux, Voracek and Gostisbehere, it's clear the Flyers benefit from using skill in drop pass plays. The Islanders, as you'll note, have not completed a single stretch pass entry on the power play this year on four attempts, which is striking considering the Washington Capitals -- among teams I'm tracking -- have the most with 55! The Caps, a team that has come to use drop passes more the last month of so -- coinciding with a slight power play slump -- are probably better off sticking with the Single Swing entry play as their primary read.
The average number of regroup seconds for each team, shown above, is sorted from smallest differential between drop and regular entries to largest, and the order is strikingly similar to that above, which suggests we may have some teams being more justified (or at least successful) in using the drop pass entry play than others.
Now, using our estimate of 0.05 shot attempts per second in the offensive zone, which varies a little bit from team to team but for our purposes will suffice, we can figure out the benefit or detriment of a drop pass entry attempt for each team and overall for the six teams tracked.
(Note: the overall result is slightly lower than when I initially published. I had forgotten to remove stretch pass results from non-drop entries.)
I'll start by again mentioning that this is a somewhat simplistic way of evaluating entry success, and as you see above the samples for some of these teams are small. The small samples though can also be indicative of the fact that for teams like the Capitals, these entries are clearly less rehearsed and polished, which can contribute to their lackluster results. For the Leafs on the other hand, I'm not sure what to say there. The scheme seems decently crafted, but for whatever reason other entries have generated more shots. It seems like something they will have to look into in more depth.
For the Flyers, the drop pass entry seems to be working, although I might contest that for a team with as much skill as they have, a well polished regular zone entry scheme would lessen this differential. In other words, their drop pass plays give the puck to their stars in areas where they have a decent shot at entering the zone with control. But their regular entries tend to be highly improvised and as a result not very successful. Using this drop play with a consistent regular crossing pattern could lead to their first unit truly becoming the game's elite, which I feel it is now only when they are set up in the offensive zone.
Overall, it doesn't seem like there's much of a difference in success between regular and drop entries. When accounting for the time they each take to execute, the payoff is only slightly worse for drop entries. So the takeaway should probably be go with what works on an individual team level, and what suits the skill sets of the players. If it were my team, I would have a polished regular AND drop pass scheme, and go to the drop pass in situations when my primary scheme was in a slump. That way, dump-ins would become a third option rather than a second one, and at least in theory more power play success would follow.