Archive for Hockey Tactics

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.

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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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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.

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John Tortorella’s system

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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

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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.


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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.

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Part 1: Identifying Team Needs and Surpluses

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 second post, and it will address identifying appropriate returns for assets.

First things first, let’s define what an asset to the organization is. A player is an asset, and an asset is used to help build a Stanley Cup contending team. Assets can be players in the lineup, assets can be prospects, assets can be picks. Not every draft pick plays for the NHL club, and not every pick is used in the draft. The goal of a general manager in this league is to identify what assets mean to the organization, and what the minimum return for that asset would have to be to be moved.

For trade deadline buyers, the return is almost always a player that will serve as an upgrade for the playoffs. For sellers, the return is almost always picks and/or prospects to help build for the future. Regardless of the position a team is in, these are the generalized returns that GM’s look for.

Going deeper into this for buyers, the return does change depending on which players are to be dealt. Using Brandon Dubinsky as an example here (hypothetical, not an actual rumor), he is an integral part of the Rangers current structure. The Rangers won’t move him for a rental, nor should they. Dubinsky has tremendous value to the club. However, when referring to what was said above, trading Dubinsky isn’t exactly out of the question if the return is another roster player that serves as an upgrade at the position. This goes hand in hand with identifying team needs and surpluses, the first part of this series.

Using the first post, I identified that the Rangers have a need for a top six left wing with proven elite offensive talent. Using the Bobby Ryan example again, Ryan serves as a significant offensive upgrade over Dubinsky. So taking a step back and looping back to the original point of the post: Would Bobby Ryan be an appropriate return for trading Dubinsky? I’d have to think the answer here is yes.

But there’s more to it than just roster players. A prospect that most fans think is untouchable is Chris Kreider. First let’s go with one thing: No player, prospect, or draft pick is untouchable. Period.

Back to Kreider, his potential is widely known, but it is still just potential. He has not done anything at the NHL level, so while he is considered to be a top prospect, he is not a NHL player yet. At his peak, he actually pans out to be another Bobby Ryan: an elite power forward. When you are given the opportunity to trade potential for the proven talent, and that talent has yet to hit his prime, the deal must be made. Ryan is proven at a young age, Kreider is not.

Summing up the last few paragraphs, it makes sense that the Rangers would consider trading Chris Kreider or Brandon Dubinsky for Bobby Ryan. It meets their criteria of what the appropriate return is. That said, appropriate return also addresses overpayment. A deal with both Kreider and Dubinsky for Ryan would be an overpayment. That is not an appropriate return.

Getting away from Bobby Ryan for a moment, let’s address another type of player that is usually available: the rental. The rental is a player that fills a hole for the short term, but is unlikely to return following the playoffs.

Ray Whitney and Shane Doan fall into the rental category. Would a rental be an appropriate return for a core roster player (Dubinsky) or an elite prospect (Kreider)? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean a deal is dead. I identified the surplus for the Rangers to be defensive prospects. Is it really unfathomable that the Rangers would view Whitney as a good return for someone like Pavel Valentenko, who has dropped so far on the depth chart he’s collecting dust?

Confused? Think I’m making things too difficult? I might be, but I also might not be. Trades are not made on message boards or in NHL 12. Most trades take weeks of talking and negotiating, and conversations like this one are had on a daily basis. Trading is the science of preparation, negotiation, and sticking to your guns. Preparation includes those surpluses and needs, but it also is about going in knowing what you are willing to give up for a specified return. That is the toughest part of the GM’s job.

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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 first post, and it will address identifying team needs and surpluses.

If you watch a team long enough, like we have with the Rangers, it’s easy to identify where the team needs and surpluses are. For the Rangers, it’s clear there isn’t much depth on the top six, especially at left wing. Naturally, when the deadline approaches, it is a fair assumption that the Rangers will look to fill that hole. That hole was severely exposed when both Brandon Dubinsky and Ruslan Fedotenko were out of the lineup. On the other side of things, with Mike Sauer returning to the lineup soon, the Rangers are going to have a lot of capable defensemen on their hands.

Identifying other team’s needs and surpluses is a much more difficult task. This requires research (gasp).  Looking at how a team is performing in critical aspects of the game is the best place to start. Taking the Ducks for example, their defense isn’t exactly anything to write home about. When you look at the structure of their blue line, the expiring contracts, and the lack of overall defense being played, it’s clear that if they are to unload a piece of their core, they will require a defensive defenseman in return. It’s why when we analyzed the Bobby Ryan situation, we mentioned that Mike Sauer might have to be an obligatory piece to ship to Anaheim.

But it’s not just about the Rangers and the Ducks. Let’s look at the Phoenix Coyotes, who are quickly falling out of the playoff race. When looking at their roster, it is clear they need some top-six forwards, as their roster is comprised mostly of grinding forwards.  Only three players are on pace for 60 points on their roster. Looking deeper into the roster, you can see a need for a defenseman or two at the NHL level as well. In the ‘Yotes case, their surplus is expiring contracts that don’t have a long term future with the organization (this is true of most sellers).

But a trade isn’t made by just looking at the NHL level, so by looking at the prospects in the Coyotes’ system, you can see that four of their top five prospects are defensemen.  In fact, only three of their top ten prospects are forwards. So in a trade, it is safe to assume they are going to look for scoring prospects to help retool their offensive threats. This is why when we laughed at the Shane Doan rumors, we said that Chris Kreider or Christian Thomas would have to be in that deal.

Making a trade is a two way street. Teams are looking to fill holes, be it for the immediate or long term future of their clubs. In the Rangers case, the team need is a top six LW. To fill that need, the Rangers have identified that their surplus is young defensemen, as  Dylan McIlrath and Tim Erixon will also be pushing for roster spots. That’s a lot, even for the most cost-savvy of teams. If the Rangers are to make a move, it will be a move to fill their offensive needs by trading some of their younger defensive prospects.

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Hockey Tactics: Executing 2-on-1s

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If you’ve ever followed a twitter feed during a Rangers telecast, then you’re probably aware of the attempts at “color analysis” that often take place. Now I’m not one to call out the preponderance of errors from the Joe Micheletti’s to be, but I do cringe at some of the faulty finger pointing.

To alleviate some of this we figured it’s about time we get back to basics and open up our hockey systems playbook. Today we will focus on executing 2-on-1s, since they often produce plenty of tweets that will read, “OMG! Dubi should have shot the puck!” or “Why the **** did Richards pass?”

In today’s NHL, an odd man situation is often a team’s best chance to score, thanks to an ever increasing sophistication to team defense & penalty killing. That’s why it is crucial these rushes be executed to perfection.

The most important aspect to getting a good quality shot on net in these situations is reading the defender. First you have to read the defender’s body position. Is he cheating toward you or his playing the pass? Defenders are taught to take away your “time and space.” This means if he’s cheating towards you, then his goal is to force you wide and eliminate your shooting angle. You also have to be cognizant of the defender’s handedness. Is his forehand facing you or is his backhand? His stick angle will tell you if he’s playing the shot or the pass.

For example, in this image below Cally and Dubi are on a 2-on-1 rush that ends with Cally putting a soft wrister right into the keeper’s belly. Looking at the photo and his options. Do you think he made the right decision?

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It seems like there are some common misconceptions with regards to how Torts distributes ice time among his forwards. I figured I would cherry-pick a few of our reader’s comments and explain some of the logic behind how ice time is earned on this team.

Keep in mind I am not trying to call people out for their opinions; I am just using these quotes as a point of reference.

Misconception #1 – Salary Plays A Role In Ice time

“If Torts is gonna have to play guys according to their $$$$$ (think Dubi) he should go back to CT.

Let’s ignore the “sending Dubi to the Whale” comment and focus on the salary part of this sentence. One of the reasons why I prefered Torts over Tom Renney had to do with income being irrelevant when it comes to earning ice time. If the above statement were true, then Drury and Redden would still be on the team and Dubi would not have seen his minutes decrease over the last couple of weeks.

Renney preferred to lean on his veterans, which is why guys like Redden, Rozi, and Gomer were rarely ever scratched, let alone riding pine. Torts on the other hand has proven time and time again that if our youth plays well, they will see their minutes go up. Point in case Hagelin is getting PK time, Stepan’s on the first line, MDZ is on the power play, etc.

Misconception #2- Not All Players Are Created Equal

“My main complaint is not Dubi here, its more the way Torts doesn’t treat everyone the same.”

Gaborik was benched the other night against Buffalo during the second period because his turnover lead to a goal. If that wasn’t enough to prove that no one man is greater than this team, then I don’t know what will. Torts has a very long history on both the Rangers and in Tampa for benching players for lackadaisical play.

Now as far as a guy’s place on the depth chart is concerned, I think people will often have an affinity for a bottom six player, like a Boyle or an Avery, and wonder why they don’t get more ice time if they are playing well. It’s all about what your individual role is on this team and what your expected output is given that role.

Consistent play will earn you more ice time within your given role. Dave had a great example of this yesterday regarding the utilization of Erik Christensen over Sean Avery. Avery’s role is to agitate. Special teams is not a place where agitating is a necessary skill set.  So his total ice time can only climb so high.

Misconception #3- Lack Of Offense Equals Less Ice Time

If another player is doing better they should play. You earn your ice time. If WoWo earns it he should play.

While normally this quote would be true, there are shades of grey here. If a top 6 player isn’t scoring, they shouldn’t be demoted or benched if they’re playing well in all three zones. Dubinsky is a classic example of this. He was playing well earlier in the season. He wasn’t scoring goals, but he was making plays, forechecking, & playing solid defense. People called for his demotion to the fourth line because he wasn’t scoring, but it was premature. Torts had confidence in him and stuck with him.

The last week or two his play away from the puck started to plateau and he was coasting. Luckily other players were stepping up and were more deserving of ice time. The result was his demotion to the fourth line, which at that point was the right thing to do. But now we are getting to the point where we need Dubi to get going offensively, because like I said in Misconception #2, his role is to provide secondary scoring. I think if he plays a few hard-nosed games he will eventually move up.

So I guess to sum this all up, when it comes to ice time things aren’t always black and white. But if you think about these three examples, you should have a better idea of what it takes to see your guy out on the ice more often.

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