If you’ve been coming to this website for a while, hopefully you’ve been reading all of my hockey systems posts. To date, we have discussed forechecking, puck possession strategies, powerplay strategies, penalty killing and face-off tactics. We’ve also covered Tortorella’s systems and philosophies with great depth, which you can read about here.
The one aspect of a hockey system we really haven’t talked about much are defensive zone strategies. The three most common systems are the strong-side overload, low zone collapse and man-on-man coverage.
Unlike other aspects of a hockey system, defensive zone strategies are not really implemented in a “one size fits all” approach anymore. The game has evolved. More and more teams are using certain strategies for specific game situations.
The idea of the strong-side overload is for the defending team to basically split the ice in half. As you see in the image above, the defending team looks to out-number (or overload) you on the strong side of the ice, squeezing the opposition of time and space. This makes it difficult to cycle off the half boards and execute cross ice passes.
Teams like the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks love to cycle you to death and then crash the net. The strong-side overload is designed to stop that. Of course every system can be beaten and nothing beats the overload better than a hard accurate pass or a defensive miscue.
In this system F3 is the most important player off the puck. He has to keep his head on a swivel and make sure he’s covering the slot. He also has to be aware of the weakside defensemen, who’ll likely want to pinch into the scoring area. Finally, he has to monitor the puck and be ready to transition to offense.
Low Zone Collapse
Last season the media made a fuss about the Rangers low zone strategy, which requires players to collapse around the net and block shots. However, more and more teams are adopting this style of play in certain game situations and the blocked shot totals are indicative of that.
In this system, four of five, or all five skaters defend home plate (protect the scoring area) by staying below the faceoff circle. Most teams use the low zone collapse when the puck is either behind the net, or at the points.
If the puck is behind the net, the defense tightens up its formation to protect against plays in the slot. If the puck is up at the points, the formation will expand and players will try to block shots. Most NHL teams who use this strategy will switch to the overload once the puck is back along the wall.
Some have pointed out they’d like to see the Rangers challenge the points more. What they mean to say is they want the Rangers to play man-on-man coverage. Man-on-man is exactly what it sounds like. Every player gets a man and is on him “like white on rice.”
This system was popular prior to the 04-05 lockout, but the elimination of clutch and grab has made executing this system very difficult at The Show. Guys are just too creative and fast to play traditional man-on-man. Instead, some teams have adopted variations where D1, D2 and F1 will play man-on-man and F2 and F3 will be stationed at the points.
There’s a lot of switching in this system and defensive breakdowns can occur if you chase a guy outside of the scoring area (a big no no). However, once players get acclimated, it can help to create turnovers and limit the opposition’s time in your end zone.
So that’s defensive zone systems in a nutshell. Some teams will use all three strategies depending on the location of the puck. Some teams will use variations depending on the opposition’s forechecking scheme. Others will pick a strategy and stick to it no matter what. Ultimately, it comes down to your coaching philosophy and your level of comfort with your roster.