Archive for Hockey Tactics


Hockey will be back soon and finally we can start talking about the systems and strategies of this great game we all know and love. One of the most critical – and contested – aspects of the Rangers system in 2012 was their power play.

For the sake of brevity, I will just say last year’s mediocre power play was not due to coaching decisions or their umbrella formation (seen above). The problem was a lack of execution based on limited personnel. Penalty killers could key in on one guy and knew the others either wouldn’t sense open ice (hockey IQ) or put a quality shot on net.

So how can Nash help the Rangers improve?

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Brian Boyle will be a key cog of the bottom six.

Brian Boyle will be a key cog of the bottom six.

Last week we took an early look at the Rangers potential top 6 line combinations. I think the majority of us agree some iteration of Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan will comprise our top 2 scoring lines. With that said, the Rangers bottom six is a bit less certain.

The assumption is Carl Hagelin, Brian Boyle, Taylor Pyatt, Mike Rupp, Jeff Halpern and Arron Asham will fill those roles. However, three of those six have never played for John Tortorella before and we all know how Torts utilizes his 4th line…

Ultimately, it comes down to skating, work effort and a team first attitude. If any of these guys prove to be a liability in any of those facets of the game, they will be replaced by someone from Hartford.

On to the line combos…

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An early look at the Rangers top 6

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Today, we’re going to take a break from CBA talk and look down the road to training camp and beyond. Call me hopeful, but this suit thinks the NHL will play a partial season. With this in mind, perhaps no other aspect of a training camp, preseason, or regular season roster is more critiqued & analyzed by fans than line combinations, especially how Torts generates line combos.

Creating line combos is everyone’s chance to play armchair coach. It doesn’t matter what team you follow or which coach stands behind your bench. Every fan wants to dream up lines and see them produce. For the Rangers, this will be the first time John Tortorella will have a top 6 that won’t be a revolving door.

In his first few seasons as coach, Torts lacked a top flight center. As a result, Torts was left to choose from average Joes for the first line such as Erik Christensen, Ollie Jokinen and Brandon Dubinsky, to name a few. Once Brad Richards came aboard and Derek Stepan emerged, the Rangers center position stabilized. Of course, then they lacked a premiere scorer on the left side of the ice. From 2009-2011, guys best suited for bottom 6 minutes like Avery, Fedotenko, Chris Higgins and Wojtek Wolski all had stints in a top 6 role.

With a 2013 season hopefully around the corner, Torts could finally have balanced scoring throughout the lineup. Here’s an early look at what opening night line combinations could look like…

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With this week’s blockbuster trade, many are now wondering just how far the Rangers will go with the addition of Rick Nash.  While it’s still way too early to be penciling us in as front-runners to win the Cup, one thing we can do is look at how the Rangers might change from an x’s & o’s or “systems” perspective.

Fortunately for John Tortorella, adding Nash doesn’t necessarily require a complete strategic overhaul the way acquiring Jagr once did. Nash will fit like a glove in our current team template. Why? Because Nash’s offense is versatile. He’s not a one trick pony.

Forechecking Strategy


Nash can score off the forecheck, he can score off the rush, he make plays cycling off the half wall, and he can jam the crease with that 6’4 frame of his. Guys like this are tailor-made for John Tortorella’s aggressive 2-1-2 forechecking system, which requires skaters to hunt for the puck down low and create offense below the dots. This is not a sit back and clog up the neutral zone type team. Their identity is built around skating and effort above all else.

Of course, 5-on-5 forechecking is just one aspect of a hockey system, so we will also look at how adding Nash might cause Torts to tweak other aspects of our system like the power play and our propensity to block shots.

Defensive Zone Strategy

Low Zone Collapse - Corner Low Zone Collapse - Behind Net

This past post-season the media made a lot of fuss about the Rangers defensive zone strategy, which required our players to collapse around the net and block a lot of shots.  What got lost in their slanted coverage is that in today’s NHL, more and more offensive teams are adopting this style of play. Point in case, during the 2001-02 season 9 teams blocked over a 1,000 shots. Last season 27 teams blocked over 1,000 shots, and the other 3 teams were pretty damn close.

With that said, now that we have two legit scoring lines, you may see the Rangers tweak their d-zone strategy, at least for our top 6 players. Rather than play a low zone collapse (as seen above), the Rangers will probably station 1 or 2 wingers closer to the opposing defensemen at the blueline for a chance to create more odd-man rushes.

By no means will this team be cherry picking in the neutral zone, as the Pavel Bure’s of the world once did, but I would expect our skilled forwards to be more aggressive than last season. Also, our bottom 6 players will likely still play more conservatively. They will be tasked to defend homeplate at all costs, as they should.

Obviously it is going to take some time for the Rangers to come together and all get on the same page. Hopefully fans show a little more patience than they did last fall, when all but myself and Dave it seemed didn’t want Tortorella fired. Give it a chance. When it all comes together, it’s going to be great hockey.

Categories : Analysis, Hockey Tactics
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A case for shot-blocking

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____ 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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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.


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


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


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


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Categories : Hockey Tactics, Playoffs
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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

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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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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.

Categories : Analysis, Hockey Tactics
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“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.

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