The line combos, the line combos…it’s always the same complaint isn’t it? Since the advent of the internet I feel like I read the same complaints about the Rangers year in and year out.
There’s always a stretch of games at some point during the season where either the fans, the bloggers, or the beat writers don’t like what they are seeing and the result is people crying about line combos. It’s as if they know nothing else.
I think it’s about time we explain why coaches actually shuffle lines around. Notice I said coaches and not just John Tortorella. Yes, these are common practices for all coaches.
Here’s 4 lessons that will help you better understand why you are seeing what you are seeing.
I initially wasn’t going to write another x’s and o’s post for a while. Judging by people’s tweets, it seems like folks are having a tough time grasping hockey tactics. However, I know a few of my real world friends and several “internet” compadres enjoy this type of stuff, so I thought sure, I’ll give it another go…
A couple of weeks back, we talked about different power play formations and how they are employed in the modern day NHL. Today we are going to discuss the other side of the puck and get into penalty killing tactics.
The three most common PK strategies are the Diamond, the Box, and the Wedge+1. Teams will use each of these penalty kills depending on what powerplay formation they are up against.
Let’s start off with the Diamond strategy, since that is what the Rangers normally see when they are setting up – or trying to set up – their Umbrella power play formation.
As you see in the chart, a high forward is set up to defend against the power play quarterback, another forward and a d-man take the guys atop the circles and a low d-man covers the slot.
Now, where a coaching philosophy can come into play is when you’ll see the Diamond collapse into the slot and cede the blueline or the opposite will happen and the penalty killers will go on attack mode.
More and more we are seeing very skilled teams collapsing less (the Capitals come to mind) and instead are aggressively attacking the three high shooters. The idea is less about trying to score shorthanded goals, but more about disrupting teams from getting into formation.
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been discussing the different aspects to a hockey system, their strengths, their weaknesses and the key differences between them. To date, we have mostly covered 5 on 5 play.
In the first post we talked about the five most common forechecking tactics, which is what teams do when they don’t have possession of the puck. Last week we talked about dump & chase vs. regrouping, which are strategies employed when you do have the puck. Today we are going to talk special teams, specifically power play strategies.
In today’s NHL, there are basically four different types of power play strategies that are utilized; they are the Umbrella, the Overload, the 1-3-1, and the Spread. While these strategies are distinctly different, elite teams will sometimes rotate these on the fly to create defensive miscues.
As you can see in the image, the Umbrella sets up three players near the blueline forming a high triangle and two players low in the slot parallel to the goal line – please note, some coaches stack those two low forwards.
The idea here is to get the puck to the middle of the ice for hard blasts from the point. Secondary objectives include passing options at the half-boards, or to one of the other point players for shots. The responsibilities of the low players are to set up screens/deflections and to get to the net for rebounds.
What I like about this strategy is that it aims to outnumber penalty killers in the high slot. This theoretically should give our defensemen and the high forward a chance to keep the puck in the zone for extended zone time. It also helps to prevent shorthanded breaks.
When this power play is firing on all cylinders, the low forwards will often criss-cross each other just as the shots are coming from the points. Also, the three high players will often rotate spots to pull apart the PK coverage. It’s critical that those high players get pucks to the net.
Last week, in part one of my hockey systems posts, we talked about forechecking strategies. We learned teams have some very different philosophies on how to attack the opposition when they don’t have the puck and wish to retrieve it.
This week we are going to talk about the tactics coaches employ when their team does have the puck.
Unlike forechecking, this aspect of a hockey system has a lot of variations from team to team. A 1-2-2 trapping team may actually use the same tactics as an aggressive 2-1-2 team. At the end of the day, every team wants to create chances.
Regrouping = Puck Possession
Puck possession essentially takes place in three phases that are all connected to each other. The three phases are called Regrouping, Support, and Flow.
“Regrouping” is having the puck and keeping control of it until you can gain the “Flow” (or cycling). Really good teams will cycle you to death in the offensive zone until something opens up on the weak side of the ice. Having proper puck “Support” is what makes all of this work.
If you watch an NHL game or a high level game of any sort, the forwards often look like they are forming a triangle wherever the puck goes in the offensive zone. The point is so that the puck carrier has two passing options. He can lateral across for a one-timer or he can pass down low to a teammate who will take over as the distributor.
If the low and lateral options are covered, the puck carrier can dish it back to the defensemen at the points, otherwise known as the high options. Doing this is often part of the “regroup” phase of puck possession.
Essentially the puck carrier is thinking…well I don’t have any options, so I’ll pass it back to the points. The offense will then shift around and the process starts all over again.
Elite teams constantly regroup until something opens up or a coverage mistake is made. Some teams like Detroit, will often pass the puck all the way back to their defensemen in the defensive zone to maintain possession if they can’t get gain entry into the OZ.
Here’s a video of the Rangers regrouping (which is rare).
Dump and Chase
When your forwards are at that critical point on offense when they are trying to generate a scoring chance, but have zero options, a team that doesn’t like to “regroup” will instead opt to dump the puck into the offensive zone. The skaters will then converge on the puck, hit an opposing defensemen, and hope in the process a coverage mistake is made.
If you have watched the Rangers since John Tortorella took over, you’ve probably recognized this strategy. It’s his bread and butter.
Dump and chase teams are generally less skilled and more physical than teams that regroup a lot. As a result, they tend to cycle less, will shoot from any angle, and have no issues attacking the “dirty” areas of the ice.
Here’s our bread & butter at work.
Both strategies work and teams will employ both tactics (as seen in the videos), but their propensity to do one over the other is what generally separates them.
Offense From Transition Rushes
Last but not least, how teams attack off the rush is another strategy where there are noticeable differences between coaches and their respective systems.
More aggressive teams with very skilled offensive defensemen like to send four skaters on the rush. Typically the team’s best defensemen is the one carrying the puck. More conservative teams, or teams with less skilled offensive defensemen, will only rush two-three forwards. Again you’ll typically see that triangular attack.
So does having Brad Richards on this team mean any of last year’s tactics will change?
Yes and no. I think the Rangers will continue to be an aggressive team that will forecheck relentlessly and continue to win those battles down low. Richie’s line will probably cycle and regroup more than Boyle’s line, but the general philosophy of hunting for the puck in that 2-1-2 formation will likely stay the same, as it should.
The biggest difference tactically will probably come on special teams, which is the last aspect of hockey systems we will discuss. More on that to come in part three…
If I have learned anything from interacting with hockey fans over the years it is that they are looking for deeper discussions about the sport’s x’s and o’s. Instead they are left with the media throwing around vague terms like “they’re a puck possession team,” a “north/south team,” or a “defense first team” to describe the differences between coaching philosophies. Rarely do they explain what any of it really means. That’s why today’s post is a lesson in hockey systems, specifically forechecking.
There are five forechecking strategies NHL coaches will generally employ.
1-4 trap (conservative forecheck)
The most conservative forecheck is the 1-4, also known as the trap. This has been a staple of the Boston Bruins since Claude Julien has taken over. The 1-4 consists of one forechecker in deep and four skaters lined up along the blueline forming a four man wall to prevent the opposing offense from advancing into the neutral zone. Essentially you have four skaters playing defense.
The 1-4 is designed to prevent rushes and breakaways towards your goaltender, which is why guys like Thomas, Bryzgalov and Rinne will sometimes put up ridiculous stats in certain games. They’ll rarely face odd-man rushes.
It should be noted that teams won’t use this formation for an entire game. Post lockout, teams will only use this forecheck in certain game situations. Some teams will trap late in the period, others will trap only when they have the lead, while some teams will trap solely based on where the puck is located in the offensive zone. Gone are the days of teams trapping for an entire 60 minutes.
So one of Dave’s “lady friends” told me that she thought my posts were boring, so I figured I would try to appease her and post something I’m sure all watered-down Rangers fans can relate to…and that’s FACEOFF STRATEGIES!!!
I guess my scriptures only appeal to the diehards, oh well…
To begin, let me first say that winning faceoffs isn’t just a skill set, it’s an art. And I believe it is one of the most overlooked parts of the game.
A friend of mine – who used to play down in The Coast (aka the ECHL) – would always tell me that no matter what level he played, be it high school, college, or pro, teammates of his were always contemplating how to get more ice time. Some focused on scoring pretty goals or making fancy plays, but for fringe players and rookies, winning faceoffs was an aspect of hockey that could help keep you in the lineup.
As he explained to me, there are essentially three components that go into taking a faceoff.
The first is reading your opponent. A centermen has to anticipate his enemy’s game plan based on how the other team is setup. He has to know his opponents tendencies, his strengths, his weaknesses, and obviously whether he is a right-handed or left-handed shot. The second component is having a plan in place for you and your team. You need one plan if you win the draw and another if you lose it. The final component is getting your body in the right position to win whichever faceoff tactic you are planning to execute. A centermen must always think of all these things, before the puck even hits the ice.
Now, there are several different things you can do on the draw based on the location of the faceoff and how your opponent grasps his stick. For example, if the draw is in the neutral zone or the OZ, you can simply try to win the draw cleanly on either your backhand or forehand. However, this may be difficult if you are going against someone who’s using the same hand and same strategy, or if you are matching up against a vastly superior center.
When squaring off against an elite center, players will often try to take away the enemy’s stick first. From there you can try to quickly draw the puck back, you can have your winger go for the loose puck, or if you have good balance, you can try to kick the puck towards your winger.
Faceoff tactics can also change based on a how much time is left in the period. For example, if it’s late in the period in the defensive zone, the center must pay attention to the enemy’s location (strong side or weak side) and whether or not the palm of their hand is on the lower part of the stick facing in, or if it is facing out. If their palm is out (facing you), you know the other guy may be attempting to put a shot on goal.
This is where home ice advantage can come into play. The visiting centermen’s stick must always touch the ice before the home team’s stick. This rule gives the home team’s center a chance to analyze the opposition and react. Often times you’ll notice that centers who are subpar at faceoffs will generally have significantly better stats at home than on the road. This chance to read and react is often the reason behind these uneven faceoff statistics.
Of course there is also the strength factor. If you are in in the OZ and you think they’re playing the stick lift, you can counter by placing your strong hand real low on the stick, right above the blade. In this setup you can use your core body strength (if you’re in great hockey shape) to fight off the stick lift or tie-up. Guys like Stepan and Arty certainly need to get stronger if they are going to avoid getting dominated in the dots this season and this tactic is one that definitely can be utilized with increased strength.
Overall, I am not worried about either Stepan or Arty. As these kids learn to read the opposition, mature physically, and grow into their bodies, their faceoff % will likely improve. Until then, let’s hope some of Messier’s skills rub off.
This September Zuccarello will be under the microscope of Front Office exes and fans alike thanks to potential replacements waiting in the wings (pun intended) like Chris Kreider, Christian Thomas, or Carl Hagelin. With Gaborik, Callahan, and possibly Prust all potentially ahead of Zukes on the right wing depth chart, one has to wonder if the Norwegian’s days are numbered.
To be fair, it doesn’t make much sense to play Zuccarello at RW on the 4th line (his landing spot towards the end of last season). Everyone knows fourth lines on Tortorella teams get virtually zero ice-time. It’s not a place for a young forward who you are trying to mold into a top 6 player.
So what does this mean for his future with the Rangers and the NHL?
While it’s too early to predict his path with the Blueshirts, I do think that he definitely has what it takes to succeed in the NHL. The media and the fans who buy their BS will tell you that he’s too small, or that he needs to gain weight, but that’s a lazy analysis.
No, Zukes doesn’t need to bulk up or find the Zoltar machine at Rye Playland.
“I WISH I WERE BIG!”
But he may have to switch to the other side of the ice.
To me, Zuccarello’s struggles generally occur along the boards. This is mostly due to the fact that he is a left handed shot playing right wing. While playing the “off-wing” is good for scoring goals (remember the whole Kovy fiasco in NJ last season), it does make board play more difficult.
Zukes is already at a disadvantage coming over from the larger rinks of the Swedish Elite League, where you have a week and a half to decide what to do with the puck. Here on North America rinks, no such luxury exists.
So, not only is Zukes getting used to the pacing and physicality of NHL forechecking, but he also has to get used to receiving pucks along the board on his backhand, which is obviously more difficult than receiving pucks on your forehand. Add a 220-lb defensemen pressed up against you, and you’re talking a whole new skill set to learn.
Passing and cycling along the boards is where he needs to improve. If he wants to speed up the learning process, I say he take a shot at leftwing. Besides, other than Dubinsky, none of our other LW’s are locks for top scoring roles next season.
Everyone in the media has been quick to praise Bruce “Mr. Haagan-Dazs” Boudreau lately about his ability to get Ovechkin and company to buy into a more “defensive system.” In case you missed the love fest, color analysts have been pouring over film of recent Capitals games to highlight how ridiculously skilled players like Backstrom and Ovie are no longer trying to outgun opponents, but are instead hanging back and plugging up the neutral zone in 1-2-2 and 2-3 formations.
Don’t get me wrong, it certainly makes for an entertaining pre-game to have some talking head scribble blue highlighter across your screen to point out that a random Capital forward is collapsing in front of his net instead of looking for the home run pass. Yet in all this “expert” analysis, the one thing everyone is failing to mention is that the Capitals are playing games that are much closer than they should be.
If you look back at their games over the past month or two, it was rare that they blew anyone out. Many games were decided by just a goal, which is a far cry from seasons past. Now I know a win is a win, but damn a lot of those games could have gone either way and that includes the three post-season games thus far against the Rangers.
If I’m Bruce Boudonuts, the last strategy I’d utilize is one that invites the Rangers to grind out a victory. We are certainly capable of winning games of this nature. My tactics wouldn’t be to hang back and play passive hockey. I would be sending my players after the puck and daring the Rangers’ defensemen to make a move on us.
The Rangers defense, while solid, is still young, immobile, and lacks offensive flair in the OZ. If you pressure them on the blueline, they can turn the puck over and cause breakaways in the other direction. If for some reason you do get caught, it’s not like Dan Girardi is going to make you pay for it.
If you ask me, I’m more than happy to see Alexander Ovechkin, the greatest hockey player in the world, stationed further away from Henrik Lundqvist.
This series is close folks, closer than you think. And if the Capitals keep hanging back and letting the Rangers come to them, we might actually be able to get by them altogether.