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Category: Hockey Tactics

A case for shot-blocking

____ is killing hockey. That seems to be the only headline that moves the dial in Canada these days.

Every couple of weeks it’s something else that is supposedly destroying the game. First it was keeping a hockey team in Nashville, a market that was never supposed to succeed. Whoops.

Then it was the Lightning’s 1-3-1 trap, which was supposed to lift them from mediocrity while simultaneously sink the NHL and its ratings. Shhh…don’t tell anyone they missed the playoffs and the ratings are breaking all kinds of records.

Finally, in the most recent piece of garbage written by Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, the Rangers strategy of blocking shots will kill the league because as Kenny said, everyone “found it frustrating to watch and devoid of excitement.” Further, he says, “The Rangers are bad for the NHL, that’s why. If you found the Rangers seven-game second round series against the Washington Capitals to be compelling hockey, then good on you.” Interesting stuff.

I swear a zombie apocalypse could be destroying mankind and Ken Campbell would still be finding some irrelevant hockey nugget and acting like it’ll cause hockey and humanity’s impending doom. But hey, what else do you expect from a writer who is anti-salary cap because of rookie initiation dinners?

I digress.

The real issue is the media has picked up this idea that the Rangers are in fact ruining the game and predictably all fingers are pointing to the man behind the bench. John Tortorella. Some have even gone as far to say that the NHL should develop rules to prohibit teams from blocking shots.

Well, as Samuel L. Jackson once famously said in Pulp Fiction, and I continue to say on this site…“well allow me to retort.

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Rangers vs. Devils Eastern Conference Finals preview

Another series for the Rangers ends in seven games and another series begins with just one day of rest in between. This time around, the six seeded Devils stand between the Rangers and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Devils are here after beating third seeded Florida in seven games in the first round and fifth seeded Philadelphia in five games in the second round. From the get go, there are comparisons to 1994, but we don’t see it. Sure, it’s easy to say certain things are the same, but only Martin Brodeur remains from that series.

Offense

Surprisingly enough, the Devils are the team that outscored the Rangers (albeit by two goals) during the regular season. The Devils, like the Capitals before them, are a more skilled team up front than the Rangers. Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrick Elias, Travis Zajac, and Adam Henrique form a very potent set of five forwards that will be difficult to contain.

The Rangers are hoping to get more from Carl Hagelin, who had a great Game Seven against the Caps, in order to really counter the Devils’ attack. Brad Richards has been on fire this postseason and Marian Gaborik isn’t exactly struggling to generate chances. If Hagelin can help get that duo going, and the Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-Ryan Callahan line can generate some offense, then the Rangers might be able to match the offensive output.

Advantage: Devils

Defense

While the Devils may have an advantage on offense, the defensive side of the game is all Rangers. The Rangers allowed 22 fewer goals than the Devils during the regular season and have not allowed more than three goals the entire post season (14 games). That is a NHL record. Where the Rangers have a solid top four in Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, and Michael Del Zotto, the Devils defense has multiple question marks outside of Anton Volchenkov. Marek Zidlicky has been a solid pickup for them, but on paper they don’t match up.

Advantage: Rangers

Goaltending

The battle of the best that has ever played the game versus the current best in the world. Brodeur and Henrik Lundqvist are the past and the present in terms of elite NHL netminders. That said, Brodeur is having a great postseason for the Devils. Lundqvist has just been much better, as expected. The real question about this matchup is whether or not Brodeur will be able to match Lundqvist in this series. For the 40 year old netminder, it may not be as easy as matching up against Jose Theodore and Ilya Bryzgalov.

For more on each goaltender’s style, read Justin’s posts on Brodeur and on Lundqvist.

Advantage: Rangers

Powerplay

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Musings: Revisiting Nash, Line juggling, and more

Nash revisited?

With many expecting impending doom on Saturday the question is again being asked, could Nash help solve our PP and lead us to the Cup in ‘13?

While it may be premature to start talking about next season and beyond, I think the Rangers are going to make a run at Nash this offseason regardless of what happens over the next few days/weeks. I’m not sure if I agree with that strategy yet, but I’d be surprised if they pass up on the opportunity. Clearly the  power play personnel lacks finish, but will Nash really help? Will our youth grow into that role? There’s many ways to slice this.

Torts asked during press conference why he took a timeout. Really?

I often half jokingly point fingers at the media for their lack of knowledge of the game. If you compare hockey coverage to other sports, it’s amusing how bad the analysis can be. So when I was told someone asked Torts during his postgame press conference why he took his time out during the second period, I wasn’t sure if I should be disappointed or happy to have my point proven. P.S. His troops were tired from an extended shift.

Torts’ reaction was priceless. He just buried his head in his hands. Did anyone bring this incident up in their articles this morning? Of course not. And you wonder why this guy has no patience for these cats…

Media accuses Burke of hiding hockey decisions “behind the gay flag”

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Systems Breakdown: Ottawa Senators

Of the three potential first round match-ups, the Senators were the last team I wanted to draw in the opening round. I know on paper the Senators probably look less scary than the Capitals, but from a systems/coaching standpoint, I think the Rangers are going to have their hands full and part of that is because of their ability to execute a well balanced hybrid trap system.

Side note:  In case you missed my recent post about the modernization of neutral zone trapping, the term hybrid trap simply means that teams will plug up the neutral zone at certain times in the game (such as when they have the lead or at the end of a period) and forecheck aggressively at other times. What separates one hybrid team from another is how often they use the trap during even strength play.

Senators Forecheck:

Paul Maclean has his Senators playing an aggressive variation of this style of play and it has given the Rangers fits at various points during the season. The Senators are one of those teams that do a terrific job of balancing aggressive forechecking and neutral zone schemes.

Point in case, below is a snapshot of the Senators defending against a Flyers rush. Count how many guys are in contain mode. That is a 1-1-3 trap executed to protect the lead.

In this image below the Senators are down in the third against the Canes. Here they have all three forwards aggressively pursuing the puck down low and a fourth skater (a defensemen) who comes streaking into the slot for the putaway.

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Modernization of the neutral zone trap

The year was 2000. The series was between the Dallas Stars and the New Jersey Devils, and if you weren’t a fan of either team, that Stanley Cup matchup likely made you bored out of your mind.

This wasn’t because these two teams lacked recognizable players or because they played in uninteresting markets. No, the ’00 Finals bled interest in hockey because of the strategies these two teams displayed. Clutch ‘n’ grab hockey and the 1-2-2 neutral zone trap were at their pinnacle and they were limiting this sport’s potential, so much so that the league was determined to kill these tactics with new rules five summers later.

But did they succeed as the experts predicted?

That my fellow suits and work boots is up for debate.

Back in the mid to late 90’s and early 2000’s the correct question to ask was, which teams use the trap and which teams do not? However, in today’s NHL the better question is, when do teams use the trap?

Almost every team in the NHL uses a neutral zone trap at some point during the game. What separates one team from another system-wise is how often they use that trap.

Prior to the lockout, the Devils, Stars, & Panthers to name a few, all clogged up the neutral zone for most of the game and almost all of even-strength time. These days time spent in the neutral zone fluctuates depending on several factors.

Some teams will trap once they have the lead. Other teams will trap at the end of each period regardless of the score. More moderate teams will trap when they do not get the puck in deep enough to work their aggressive forecheck. And finally, even those “north/south” puck pursuit teams like the Rangers will trap when they are simply changing lines. Well the smart ones do anyway.

The point is the trap has evolved, but for some reason people’s perception of it hasn’t. So when I read that Zach Parise would be better off on a non-trapping team, or that the league should make more rules to undermine the trap’s effectiveness, I just laugh. People still aren’t getting it.

The game has changed and it is becoming increasingly difficult to paint players or coaches and their respective systems with broad strokes. So whether you’re the Bruins playing a 1-4, the Coyotes playing a 1-2-2, or the Lightning playing a 1-3-1, a lot of it is just hyperbole. The truth is, the days of clogging up the neutral zone for the entire game may be over, but variations of these formations live on.

***Side note: If you haven’t read our chalk talks on hockey systems I humbly suggest you do so now.

Does Tortorella deserve blame for opening brawl?

“You know when you get old in life things get taken from you. I mean that’s, that’s part of life. But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out life’s this game of inches. So is football.”

As some of our older readers might recall, this quote is an excerpt from one of the greatest cinematic coaching speeches of all time. Though, if Any Given Sunday had been about hockey and I were John Logan (the SAG member who likely fed Pacino that quote), I would have adjusted the quote to say…

“You find out life’s this game of adjustments. So is hockey.”

Last night’s opening brawl against the Devils is yet another example of how important it is for a hockey coach to make the right adjustments and get the right matchups out on the ice. If you missed this sequence, let me recap.

Peter Deboer, who is the away coach, must put his players out on the ice first. Deboer deployed Ryan Carter (who beat down Dubi earlier this month), Cam Janssen (goon), and Eric Boulton (goon) for the opening draw. Realizing the message Deboer was about to send our bench, Torts countered with Brandon Prust, Michael Rupp & strategically placed Stu Bickel at center. As expected, an all-out brawl ensued and the crowd feverishly got behind our boys.

Obviously my reaction to Torts inserting Bickel at center to face off against Carter was…effin brilliant!

A) Because you obviously don’t want Dubi, Stepan, Richards, or Boyle going against Carter

B) Bickel has fought Carter before

To my surprise and hopefully everyone else’s I was shocked when certain members of the media blamed Tortorella for the brawl and thought he should have countered with our skill players.

As Samuel L. Jackson famously said in Pulp Fiction,well allow me to retort.

In a perfect world, yes Torts could have deployed his first line in hopes to get some offense, but this isn’t a perfect world, nor was this even a moment of continuous play where such a tactic could conceivably work. No, this was a neutral zone faceoff to start the contest. The chance of even winning puck possession is 50/50.

On what planet would Torts take those odds and send his skilled players out on the ice to matchup against goons? Did we not learn anything from the Carcillo/Gaborik fight a few years ago? Did we not even learn from the incident where Deboer sent Boulton after Gaborik a few weeks ago?

To be honest, I’m glad what went down last night, so much so that I won’t even point fingers at Deboer for such questionable tactics. But if you are going to make a stink, don’t point a finger at Torts. Point one at yourself for not having a keen understanding of how this game is played.

***Update 2:30pm:

If my own analysis isn’t good enough for you, please read the below quote from Tortorella, which was taken from a series of excellent quotes provided this afternoon by Andrew Gross at Rangers Rants.

I get put in a position when he puts a lineup like that out – and I’m not sure what’s going to happen if I put my top players out – so I have to answer the way I need to answer. Really, just look at the two lineups and some of the things he’s done through the games here, again, I don’t want to coach his team, but just shut up.

– Torts

Gross covers the Rangers for The Record & the Herald News. You should follow him on twitter here.

Tortorella’s adjustment of line matchups pays off

Today’s discussion is about the importance of a coach’s ability to figure out what role his player’s fulfill and how he matches those roles against the opposition.

Last night’s battle against the Devils was a very critical lesson in the use of players, their roles and their respective matchups. Tortorella was constantly making adjustments to get the right players out on the ice. These critical moments of a game are so often overlooked and seldom discussed, yet they are crucial to help producing wins.

A great example of this happened last night just before a neutral zone faceoff. Devils coach, Peter Deboer swapped out, I believe it was Parise, for Eric Boulton. In case you are unfamiliar with Boulton, he is a goon, nothing more. So Deboer lines up Boulton opposite Gaborik and he immediately began chirping & challenging him. Recognizing this mismatch before the draw, Tortorella yelled at Arty to get off the ice so he could put Rupp out there and prevent any wrong doing to our sniper.

The refs wouldn’t allow it, which of course enraged John Tortorella. His argument was that Deboer was late sending Boulton to the draw, therefore the Rangers technically should get the final change per the NHL rules. This obviously fell on deaf ears.

After the faceoff Arty quickly went to the bench and Rupp was dispatched. Boulton, a double digit fighter every season, wanted no part of Rupp and quickly retreated to the bench. I don’t think I need an advanced statistic to tell you how important Rupp’s presence was in that instant. Now picture this moment taking place in the playoffs…moving right along.

Later in the game Deboer again delayed deploying his troops for a faceoff even though the Rangers were ready to take the draw. Torts had an exchange with the refs and was pointing to the Devils bench boss. Filling in the blanks, I think it was evident Torts was frustrated with being the home team and not being able to get the final change due to Deboer’s delaying (if not illegal) tactics.

Torts obviously wanted to deploy certain Rangers based on who Deboer put on the ice. The refs seemingly were arguing that they needed to get the game going. Torts clearly replied, “well then drop the f**king puck,” even though the Devils were just standing alongside their bench.

Again, this illustrates how critical it is for coaches to get the matchups they want. The fact of the matter is John has been making adjustments like these all season, often to the frustration of fans who sometimes do not understand the purpose of line tinkering on the fly. Torts famously out line matched Peter Laviolette at the Winter Classic, despite having the last change, and he made his best attempts last night whether it was Rupp goading Clarkson into a penalty or getting McDonagh out on the ice every time Parise hoped off the bench.

Hopefully this helps explain some of the odd, yet impermanent line combos you’ll see throughout the NHL.

John Tortorella’s system

I’m sure some of you have recently heard John Tortorella describe the Rangers as a “defense-first” team. Obviously this is causing some confusion among our fanbase, since most people tend to understand the term as a way of describing neutral zone trap teams (e.g., Yotes, Bruins, Devils back in the day).

When Tortorella says defense first, he is referring to wanting his players to be defensively responsible, hard on the backcheck and aggressive on the forecheck. Yes, forechecking is part of defense because you don’t have the puck.  These are consistent themes for most hockey clubs.

This is a very different definition than the “defense first” label the media communicates. They often use this term against Torts and blame it for stifling the team’s offense. Except, lack of offense isn’t caused by a system, it is the result when a system isn’t executed.

Look, most members of the media can’t break down the x’s and o’s. Instead, they’ll throw vague terms at you like ‘run & gun’, ‘defense-first’, or ‘not a 60 minute effort’, etc. because it is a quick way to label a team without explaining the details. If you wish to understand the game’s details beyond vague labels, I humbly suggest you read all of our hockey systems coverage.

With that out of the way, let’s focus on what kind of system John Tortorella actually employs.

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Hockey Systems – T forecheck

By now hopefully all of you have read our hockey systems page and have a basic understanding of the game from an x’s and o’s perspective. Today we are going to turn it up a notch and get into advanced hockey tactics.

Sorry, no trade rumor talk today :(

In order to comprehend complex forechecking schemes, you have to throw away the notion of forwards being referred to as centers, leftwings, and rightwings. In today’s sophisticated systems, coaches label their players by their distance from the puck.

F1 is the forward closest to the puck. F2 is the forward second closest to the puck. F3 is the forward furthest from the puck. Sounds simple right?

The difficulty is every forward has different responsibilities in different areas of the ice (i.e. Offensive Zone, Neutral Zone, Defensive Zone) and every forward needs to be aware of each other’s responsibilities.

The reasoning is simple. Every forward is going to find themselves as F1, F2, or F3 at some point during the game. And when they find themselves in one of these roles, they better know what they should be doing or a breakdown will ensue.

Got it? Good.

I’ve been noticing lately that Torts & Sullivan have our boys executing a new forechecking tactic, which I believe is helping our penalty kill create some offense. Specifically, it’s called a T-Forecheck.

Tforecheck

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Scouting The Deadline Part 3: Identifying Trade Partners And The Deal

Part 1: Identifying Team Needs and Surpluses
Part 2: Identifying Appropriate Return For Assets

As we roll into the trade deadline, rumors are going to be appearing from every possible angle. Aside from judging the source (note: HFBoards is not a source), there are a few ways to tell if a rumor is legitimate or if it is just someone blowing hot air. This Scouting The Deadline series is going to be a three part series where identify and analyze the three key steps in the trade process. Today is the third and final post, and it will address identifying the ideal trade partner and that perfect deal. All three posts are now permanently pinned in the brand new GM Tactics page.

In the first two posts, we identified where the Rangers have a surplus (defensive prospects), and where they have a need (top six LW), and where other teams need help (Ducks – defensive defensemen, Coyotes – offense). We also identified what exactly the return should be for specific types of players. The key to building a successful trade is identifying where those needs for the Rangers coincide with a surplus for a trading partner; and where those surpluses for the Rangers coincide with a need for a trading partner.

This again brings us back to the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks, as mentioned above, have a big need for a defensive defenseman. Between Cam Fowler, Francois Beauchemin, and Lubomir Visnovsky, the Ducks are set in terms of blueliners that can contribute offensively. But outside of Toni Lydman, they lack that pure defensive defenseman who is capable of playing top-four minutes. The Rangers have that in abundance, with a few more on the way.

Focusing on Bobby Ryan for a second (again, I know, you must be tired of it), he fills a big need for the Rangers, and the Rangers definitely have the pieces to acquire him. While the rumored asking price is two roster players, a prospect, and a first round pick; the more likely asking price is one young roster player, one prospect, and a pick. The quality of the prospect and the quality of the pick will be determined by the quality of the roster player.

Backing away from the Ducks for a second, let’s look at the Phoenix Coyotes, who we identified have a big need for a scoring prospect. The Rangers have three big names that can fit that bill: Chris Kreider, JT Miller, and Christian Thomas. While Kreider is unlikely to be moved for any of the players on the Coyotes roster, including Shane Doan, someone like Thomas sure is intriguing to a team like Phoenix. That said, when you look at the Coyotes roster, it is tough to really find a player that jumps out at you as a guy you are willing to move Miller or Thomas for. These guys won’t be moved for rentals, as discussed in the second post in this series.

It is due to this lack of intriguing options on the Coyotes that makes any potential deal with them to be less of a blockbuster type and more of a rental for spare parts type. With so many defensemen becoming free agents, a prospect who is not as high on the Rangers depth chart (see: Valentenko, Pavel) could be equally as attractive for the Coyotes. They aren’t a perfect match, but there is a deal to be made there for a rental.

It’s never quite as simple as throwing names up on the board and saying that the deal works, but right now we have identified two teams that seem to be good trading partners, and have the tools to make it work. Now it’s a matter of identifying that perfect deal, which takes us back to knowing what you want for your assets.

“The Deal” here is not going to be top prospects or young roster players for a rental. That doesn’t fit the Rangers M.O. anymore. So you can eliminate any worries of Thomas for Whitney, or Kreider for Whitney, or Kreider for Hemsky, etc. But if the organization feels they can make a run –and every sign points to them looking like they can– then the powers that be might look to deal one of these top prospects to fill a need. After all, hockey is about winning Cups and using assets to build that Cup contender.