The Vicious Cycle of Conservative Defensive Structure

In the Defensive Zone and even in the Neutral Zone, recovering the puck requires an aggressive mindset. Everyone can recall a time when a player made a bid to get the puck from an opponent only to miss and be caught out of position defensively. These are usually seen as reckless plays because the other players did not anticipate the risk that their teammate was going to take and scramble to cover for him. There is a way to avoid this though. A defensive zone system that builds in aggressive puck recovery ensures that the other players will shift their coverage to fill in for the player who is battling to get the puck. These systems take an “attack the puck” approach to defensive zone play. They provide for support on the boards to battle for the puck as well as a “recovery position” player whose job it is to retrieve the puck when it comes out of the board battle.

Building fail safes into the defensive zone system turns what is often viewed as a reckless abandoning of defensive position to make a play for the puck into a systematic approach to puck recovery and helps avoid players being caught drastically out of position. When this systematic approach is not used, teams often start to think they need to tighten up their defensive zone coverage because these reckless plays are resulting in players being caught out of position and the attacking team taking advantage of that to get a better shot on net. This essentially creates a vicious cycle of more and more conservative play in the defensive zone. *click the image to enlarge

conservative dz structure

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Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & The Neutral Zone

Crucial Habits for Good Shot Generation & Suppression: Overview

Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & Controlled Zone Exits

Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & Puck Recovery

Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & Game Flow

ZONE TIME & GOALS

We’ve covered offensive zone entries, puck recovery and game flow so far in our discussions of Shot Generation. Now it’s time to see how teams use the neutral zone to boost their shot generation.

IN THE NEUTRAL ZONE

If the puck gets into the Neutral Zone, the task of recovering the puck doesn’t just end. The same relentless pursuit of the puck that happened in the offensive zone continues. If the attacking team is able to regain possession in the neutral zone, they can either quickly get the puck back into the offensive zone or send the puck back into their own defensive zone for a regroup or controlled breakout. As I mentioned before the mantra of good shot generation teams should be: Recover, Regroup & Relaunch The Attack. These same principles apply to the neutral zone. Continue reading

Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & Game Flow

CRUCIAL HABITS:

Overview: Shot Generation & Shot Suppression

Shot Generation & Controlled Zone Exits

Shot Generation & Puck Recovery

SHOT GENERATION & GAME FLOW

I recorded a number of measures from sixteen games involving various teams throughout the league to see how they used the flow of the game to generate shots. For this analysis, I broke the game into four categories of possessions: 5v5, Single, Multishot and Consecutive. 5v5 is simply the overview of what the teams did offensively to generate shots during 5 on 5 play. Single includes a single period of possession, offensive zone entry by the attacking team through defensive zone exit by the defending team, where the attacking team generated only one or no shots. Multishot encapsulates each period of possession by the attacking team wherein they generated more than one shot regardless of who controlled the previous or subsequent periods of possession. Consecutive adds periods of possession together when the same team was on the attack, i.e. Team A enters the zone, has some meaningful possession of the puck, Team B is able to get the puck out of the zone, but Team A recovers the puck and goes back on the attack before Team B can establish any period of possession in their offensive zone. Continue reading

Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & Puck Recovery

Overview: Crucial Habits for Good Shot Generation & Suppression

Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & Controlled Zone Exits

SHOT GENERATION AND PUCK RECOVERY

IN THE OFFENSIVE ZONE

When a team enters the offensive zone the obvious goal is to, well, score a goal. Scoring goals requires taking shots. Teams that excel in generating shots have a common habit in the offensive zone: Puck Recovery. These teams aren’t “gaming Corsi” just to trick stats analysts into thinking they are good teams. The spreadsheet darlings of the hockey world control the puck and when they can’t keep possession of it, work like hell to get it back.

Situations requiring puck recovery are numerous in every area of the ice. There are three main ways to go about recovering the puck, which are sometimes used in concert to regain possession, are:

  • Being Quick to the Puck
  • Checking (hitting and/or body position)
  • Anticipation

In the Offensive Zone, puck recovery is the best way to generate shots, wear down the defense and create “mini-rushes” within the zone much as power plays are designed to do. After the play has been low in the zone, the defending team gets possession of the puck and starts to breakout. The attacking team is able to recover the puck before it leaves the zone. With most of the defending players high in the defensive zone or in the neutral zone, there are less bodies available to defend against an offensive attack. This leads to better scoring chances and oddman “mini-rush” situations.

Once the puck is in the offensive zone, the attacking team has to regain possession if they have gained entry by a dump in or chip in. Chipping the puck in requires speed, timing and far more control than a dump in. Some players really excel in this area because of the lines they take, their speed and ability to deceive the defending players. If done properly, the chip in is essentially a pass to the player himself or his linemate providing close support. Dump in entries require the attacking team to use their offensive zone forecheck system to retrieve the puck. This includes waves of pressure on the defending players, speed to the puck and depending upon the situation, hitting. Continue reading

Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & Controlled Zone Exits

Overview: Crucial Habits for Good Shot Generation & Suppression – a post introducing this series.

SHOT GENERATION & CONTROLLED ZONE EXITS

To be a good shot generation team, you have to take a lot of shots. Shocking information, I know. We know from years of work by many great hockey minds that overall, controlled entries into the offensive zone will lead to more shots being generated. Zone Entry Data Study* Tulsky, Detweiler, Spencer, Sznajder From that same work, we know that some teams are so good on the initial forecheck into the offensive zone that dumping the puck into the zone often leads to shot generation. In a study I did, I found that controlled zone exits (carrying or passing the puck to a teammate) lead to far more zone entry attempts than uncontrolled zone exits (dumping the puck out of your defensive zone). Clearing the Defensive Zone: The Dangers of Dumping the Puck Out

Creating rushes into the offensive zone, i.e. dynamic changes in possession as compared to offensive attacks which start with a controlled breakout or regroup) lead to confusion among the defense, less defending players in the zone and chances to get a dangerous shot on the goalie. In the player tracking project I conducted, over 57.3% of the 7142 goals tracked were scored in 7 seconds or less of zone time. Zone time for the purpose of the project started when the attacking team brought the puck across the blue line into the offensive zone and ended when the goal was scored. This was recorded by stopwatch and marked down to the hundredth of a second. 72 forwards were the subject of the study spanning from the 2012-13 season through the 2014-15 season, including the playoffs. All goals and assists tracked occurred at even strength. 46.1% of the goals tracked in the project were scored in 5 or less seconds of zone time. Continue reading

Crucial Habits for Good Shot Generation & Suppression: Overview

Puck possession seems like a pretty simple concept on its face. Having the puck more than your opponent sounds like a good plan and I doubt you need me to provide you with a bunch of numbers to convince you of that. As we look deeper into puck possession, we see that there is a difference between having the puck for a long time and meaningful puck possession. Your team may spend a lot of time in the offensive zone passing the puck around the perimeter in order to set up a “perfect shot” as if they were on the power play. In terms of time of possession, this may register as a positive; however, meaningful puck possession consists of two main elements: shot generation and shot suppression.

Frankly, it’s unfortunate that we have tried so hard for so long to split hockey into offense and defense. This kind of thinking has led to a view that offense happens in the offensive zone and defense happens in the defensive zone. For years, hockey analysis approached the game as if offense and defense somehow existed independently of one another. The reality is that forwards and defensemen are equally important to all aspects of the game. My point is that our approach to analyzing hockey is often backwards.

Hockey is an incredibly fluid game that does not lend itself well to a rigid, two sided understanding of “Offense” and “Defense”. In hockey, offense and defense or, to more aptly name them, shot generation and shot suppression, are active at all times in all zones. Continue reading

“Watch the Game, Nerds!”

Hockey has long been a sport in which hard work is cherished as the ultimate virtue. You certainly won’t find me arguing that players and coaches do not need to work hard, but somewhere along the line, an undercurrent of distaste for intelligence has developed. Using analytical tools to evaluate players and teams has been met with suspicion and often even hostile disapproval.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about all intelligence being frowned upon here, just the kind that comes from the mouths of those that have never played the game at the NHL level. Intelligent analysis or strategy from “hockey guys” is of course granted a place of almost mythical honor in the sport, so I don’t think it’s fair to say that hockey rejects smartness as a whole. It’s more that hockey often demands that you have the appropriate level of street cred, or rink cred, I guess, in order to be considered to have intelligence of any actual value.

The heart of the now years long stats vs anti-stats battle lies in this mentality. Traditional analysis in hockey tends to put the most stock in experience and knowledge gained from years of playing the game. Statistical analysis in hockey tends to put the most stock in the gathering of data and analysis based there upon. “Watch the game, nerds” and “Your eye-test sucks” spring from the perceived disconnect between those two sides.

Traditional analysts see statistical analysts basing opinions of a player’s skill or value on numbers and perceive a lack of “hockey knowledge” in the results of a computation. This hockey knowledge has in many cases been built through playing the game at an elite level or being part of the game for many years. No one wants to feel like their hard earned skills are not unique or special and are easily replaced by a nerd behind a computer who didn’t have enough talent to play the game. What they usually mean when they say “Watch the Game, Nerds” is “Watch the game the way my years of experience tell me to watch it. Value the qualities that I value.” Continue reading

My “Nontraditional” Path To Hockey

Growing up in rural Northwest Indiana (about 45 minutes outside of Chicago), we didn’t have cable TV. Basketball, baseball and football were the staple sports in my family. My dad coached basketball and tried his best to make me a much better player than I really was. I watched or listened to Cubs games with each of my grandfathers. Every Sunday was devoted to watching Bears games. I’ve played a lot of sports throughout my life, but focused mainly on equestrian sports for a long time.

Hockey was not a very big part of my life then. Blackhawks games were not on regular TV stations so casual viewership wasn’t really an option. Even in high school in the early 90’s, I was little more than a casual fan of hockey. It wasn’t until 2008 that I really started devoting any of my time to regularly watching hockey. In February of 2013, I joined Twitter because there was a contest to win Blackhawks game tickets on CSN Chicago. I know that seems hilarious, but it’s the awful truth. I quickly found there were lots of people like me who followed hockey on Twitter and started trying to figure out where I fit in that community.

Over the summer between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, I started learning about “fancy stats” as they were so often called then. I thought it was a cool way to gain more understanding of the game I had come to love. In late November of 2013, I had a bunch of thoughts in my head about hockey that were too long for Twitter so I created a blog on WordPress. I was just going to post that one thing and be done with it. The post was about Brandon Pirri and Chicago’s longstanding search for a 2nd line center, in which I gave Pirri the “fancy stats” treatment. I really thought only 3 or 4 people would read it, we’d discuss it on Twitter a little bit and that would be the end of it. As with so many things in life, it didn’t really end up that way. Continue reading

Using Player Skill Sets To Gain An Advantage: 1-3-1 Neutral Zone Forecheck

The race to find a competitive advantage in hockey is reaching unprecedented heights. One of those advantages is finding a reliable way to identify a player’s unique skill set. Once you know what a player’s strengths and weaknesses are, you can more efficiently maximize his strengths and insulate his weaknesses.

Knowledge of a player’s skill set can help inform coaching decisions and lead to tangible results on the ice. The following discussion on the 1-3-1 Neutral Zone Forecheck provides an example of how this information can be used.

A quick introduction for those who may not be as well-versed:

The Neutral Zone Forecheck is the name given to a variety of formations used to defend against the team’s opponent gaining the offensive zone. This is not to be confused with the Offensive Zone Forecheck, which is any number of formations used to regain possession of the puck after entering the offensive zone.

When the opponent has the puck and is regrouping or setting up a controlled breakout in their own defensive zone, the defending team has time to get their players set up to defend against the entry. The 1-3-1 Neutral Zone Forecheck often looks like this initially:

T.B FORECHECK

1-3-1 NEUTRAL ZONE FORECHECK, INITIAL FORMATION

F1 is the first line of defense. This is usually a forward who is a very agile skater and skilled at creating turnovers. F2 and F3 set up in the wide lanes. D1 and D2 position themselves nearly parallel to the faceoff dots on the neutral side of their own blue line.

There are two options with the 1-3-1 for the D1 and D2 assignments. The first option allows the defensemen to make the decision as to which of them will move up to join the forwards thus creating the 1-3-1 formation. This is dependent upon which side of the ice the puck carrier is on. Obviously, exercising this option requires a lot of practice at reading the oncoming attack and clear communication between the defensemen.

The second option is to decide in advance which defenseman will play up and which will drop back. There’s less opportunity for miscommunication with this method since everyone knows his assignment to begin with.  F1’s responsibilities change a bit from many other NZ forecheck formations. F1 is often very limited in how far he is able to move around to pressure the breakout or regroup; however, in the 1-3-1 formation, F1 can pretty much do as he pleases so long as he is pressuring the puck carrier to make a poor or ill-advised pass.

Below is an example of the movement allowed. F1 chases the puck carrier out from behind the net. The puck carrier can try to skate higher up in the zone to make a shorter pass, but he will do so under heavy pressure from F1, thus increasing the likelihood of a turnover. The puck carrier could also pass to a waiting forward.

T.B FORECHECK 1 3 1

1-3-1 NEUTRAL ZONE FORECHECK

The illustration above shows the motion of the various players as the puck is moved higher up in the zone. The forward on the strong side, in our example, F3, moves up to pressure the puck carrier. D1 is the defenseman playing up in this formation. He will help pressure the entry by taking away any passes and taking up space in the middle of the ice. The forward on the other side, F2, will drop back a bit while continuing to take up space and disrupt the entry. D2 will read the play as it advances and essentially hold down the fort in the defensive zone. Anything that gets through the neutral zone is his responsibility, at least initially.

The point of this type of forecheck is to force the puck carrier to make a long pass since there is, ideally, no room to carry the puck through the neutral zone. Teams will often counter this by using a hard pass into the neutral zone that one of the waiting forwards will tip into the offensive zone. Essentially, this is a dump in type of zone entry, because the puck will shoot into the offensive zone will velocity and the attacking team will go into their forecheck formation to try to recover the puck.

If teams use the second option in the 1-3-1, i.e. determining in advance which defenseman will play up and which one will drop back, there is a good opportunity to maximize the skill set of each of the defensemen. The defenseman playing up should be the player who is more crafty in using his positioning, skating and/or his stick to create turnovers when defending the zone entry. This is an excellent time to knock the puck loose, because the defending team has at least three players in the neutral zone that can try to recover the puck and go on the attack.

The defenseman playing back should be the player who is the more skilled passer of the pairing. If the puck gets dumped into the offensive zone, he obviously has the first opportunity to get to it. Once he has the puck on his stick, he can read the coverage and make a good pass to targets high in his defensive zone or in the neutral zone. The more accurate his pass, the more likely his team will be able to go on the offensive attack.

Using the more fluid option of having the defensemen switch up who is playing where diminishes the ability to maximize the individual skill sets of the defensemen. Even at the NHL level, it is not likely that each defensive pairing is comprised of players equally skilled at breaking up entries by creating turnovers with their sticks, skating, reading coverage and passing. Defensemen are not in fact interchangeable in these roles if the goal is to get the most from each player’s unique talents.

Generating offense is heavily reliant upon the defense. The manner in which the team exits the defensive zone has a huge impact upon whether or not they gain the offensive zone. Using the better passing defenseman as the drop back defenseman in the 1-3-1 gives the team an edge in turning the play in the opposite direction.

Stanley Cup Final Systems Look: Defense

Hopefully you’ve had the chance to check out my Systems Looks on special teams and offense for the Stanley Cup Final. If not, the links are there for your viewing pleasure. This part of my exercise in looking at how each of the teams in the Stanley Cup Final operate will be focused on defense. To be honest, I could probably do ten posts on this topic because it is far more complex a topic than would fit here, but I am not sure that others are as obsessed with defensive systems as I am, so we’ll just hit some of the basics and highlights.

NEUTRAL ZONE FORECHECK

Think of what a castle looked like in Medieval times. The castle itself held the most important things to the realm. The monarchs lived there and kept their treasure there. The castle was filled with troops to fight off attackers, but the attackers had to get through some obstacles to even get inside. Outside of the castle was usually a big wall, a moat, outposts where troops were stationed to keep attackers away from the gate and even spies and assassins.

A team’s neutral zone forecheck is much the same as the outer defenses of a castle. Teams work to make it as difficult as possible to get inside the castle or, uh, the defensive zone. Once a team gets through the forecheck and into the defensive zone, the defensive system takes over to defend the castle’s treasure, the goal.

Tampa Bay and Chicago use different neutral zone forechecking formations depending upon the situation. When the opponent is organizing a controlled breakout, i.e. holding the puck behind the net and getting personnel set, both teams often go to a 1-3-1 formation. Because I can kill two birds with one stone here, I have illustrated some of the breakout plays used by Tampa Bay and Chicago versus the 1-3-1 forecheck so we can see how it make look when these teams face each other.

1-3-1 Neutral Zone Forecheck

*blue lines = motion of blue players; red lines = motion of red players; yellow lines = passes; orange lines = shots*

T.B FORECHECK 1 3 1

1-3-1 Neutral Zone Forecheck

This is the basic set up of a 1-3-1 neutral zone forecheck. Without the arrows, it may not immediately look like a 1-3-1, but it is the motion of the players that creates this formation. F1 pressures the puck carrier to flush him out from behind the net or to take away a passing lane. In the illustration above, the puck carrier passes to a teammate along the boards in his own zone and skates out to support the attack.  Continue reading