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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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

Stanley Cup Final Systems Look: Special Teams

The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning are getting ready to face each other in the Stanley Cup Final. You can bet that the coaches are reviewing game film to find out what to expect from their opponent and make some adjustments to how they approach certain aspects of the game as a result. We can do something similar as we wait for the Final to start. In this first post, we’ll take a closer look at Special Teams.

TAMPA BAY PENALTY KILL VERSUS CHICAGO POWER PLAY

Many teams use a basic 4 player box as almost a home base formation during the penalty kill. The penalty kill units then morph into more specialized formations depending upon where the puck is and the formation used by the power play they are facing.

During the playoffs, Tampa Bay has used a Diamond Force formation as the go-to set up.

*Blue labels are used for Tampa Bay players. Blue lines indicate movement by Tampa Bay players. Red labels are used for Chicago players. Red lines indicate movement by Chicago players. Yellow lines indicate passes. Orange lines indicate shots on goal.*

PK T.B DIAMOND FORCE

Tampa Bay’s Diamond Force Penalty Killing Formation

 The Diamond Force penalty kill formation allows fairly static coverage by two players and dynamic coverage by the other two players. D2 covers the goal mouth and low slot while D1 plays the Strong Side and may move out to pressure the pass or the puck carrier. F2 covers the Backside options while F1 plays the Strong Side options higher in the zone and moves laterally with the movement of the puck high in the zone. Continue reading