Hockey Tactics

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.



The Blueshirts generate most of their 5-on-5 offense from an aggressive 2-1-2 spread forecheck (shown above) and transitional offense, meaning offense generated from the rush. The 2-1-2 spread relies on skating, puck pressure, and pursuit from all five skaters. Some coaches use a variation of this forecheck where F1 and F2 approach from the same lane, rather than spread out like the image shown above. This system helps produce grade A chances by winning puck possession battles below the dots, but it’s on the players to find twine.

Defensive oriented teams, or conservative teams, generally do not send two or three forwards in deep after the puck. Hybrid trap teams will sometimes forecheck aggressively, but generally will do so only until they have a lead. Once they have the lead, they tend to drop guys back and plug up the neutral zone in those 1-4 or 1-3-1 formations. This is a major tactical difference between those who always encourage puck pursuit in the offensive zone (think Torts or Bylsma) and those who do not (think Hitchcock or Lemaire).

Defensemen Joining The Play

More passive teams also typically do not give their offensive defensemen free reign to pinch, forecheck, or join the rush. They are much more conservative with their blueliners. The Rangers are the opposite. Torts certainly wants his defensemen to get involved offensively, so long as someone covers them. If you don’t believe that, then you haven’t ever watched Michael Del Zotto. He is as aggressive as it gets.

Defensive Zone Strategy

Low Zone Collapse - Corner Low Zone Collapse - Behind Net

The defensive zone is where things get a little muddled when it comes to labeling a team. Up until a few year years ago, trapping teams were really the only teams who collapsed in front of their net and blocked shots. More aggressive teams sent two forwards towards the blueline playing man-on-man coverage, or would let one forward cherry-pick in the neutral zone.

Times have changed and defensive zone play has gotten more sophisticated. In today’s NHL, more and more teams are collapsing to the net and blocking shots regardless of their overall forechecking strategy. Point in case, during the 2001-02 season 10 teams blocked over a 1,000 shots. Last season all but two teams blocked over 1,000 shots.

The media likes to use this strategy and blame it for stifling offensive ability, but the reality is a number of high scoring teams play the low zone collapse. The Capitals, Blackhawks, Bruins, and Penguins have all used this strategy in recent seasons and they have no problem scoring goals.

There are other defensive zone strategies, such as the overload, man-on-man, etc., but the low zone collapse is probably one of the more employed strategies in the NHL as it prevents other teams from generating grade A chances. The Rangers mostly use the low zone collapse, but will overload on occasion depending on certain game situations.

Overall, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about Torts’ systems. Some of it is because the media just doesn’t get a lot of this stuff. Some of it is because since the media has such a bad relationship with John, they make no effort to understand and defend his tactics. That’s what we’re here for folks.

For more on hockey systems, be sure to check out my entire series here.

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  • Great post Suit. Once again.

    And I love that blocked shot stat… Only 2 under a 1000 shots? Wow, what a change.

  • Yup, good post. It seems a lot of people do get confused by it.

    I admit, I have called the team defense first on occasions but in my mind I consider that as a priority to team defense, backchecking, covering up for teammates, coming back deep.

    • Absolutely BIP. Things like backchecking and puck support are the things that all great teams do regardless of system. That Torts has his players committed to those fundamentals shouldnt be a hinderance on anyone.

  • I too considered the Rangers, under Tort’s, as a defense first team. Maybe I should think of them as more of a defensive aware team first!

    As usual, very good points made Suit, and those stats> Who would of thought the game has changed this much in such a short time frame.

  • Suit
    I heard an interview with Chris Kreider in Boston the other day, and I get the impression that he may not be very keen about being a Ranger. His answer, body language, just made me unconfortable ( he is a big Boston fan).

    Then low and behold, I see a potential trade mentioned, where his name, along with Miller, Dubi, and a #1 pick, for Nash. Are you, or anyone of your contacts getting the feeling that the Rangers may feel we can’t sign the kid, and will trade him for some assits in return? I hope that is not the case, but with trade deadline approching, and his discreat answer about coming out of colleg at the season end, it’s troubling!

    • Walt can’t say I’ve heard anything either way and I’m sure there is going to be a lot of disinformation planted in the press in the coming days. With that said, organizations across all of sports get some level of anxiety when their top picks are producing and not signing. But hopefully that won’t be an issue for us.

      • He will be a Ranger, if he isn’t in the Nash deal. Has nothing with being a Ranger. I chose BC over the Whale this year. Not knowing if he would make the Rangers out of camp, vs being a Captain for BC and developing one more year. Which he has, it was win/win for both parties. He will bring everything that Hagelin has brought to the team this year.

  • Awesome write up! Joe is a MORON! He’l only state the obvious and tends to talk about hockey as if it were baseball. What I mean by that is that you can easily look at the stats and say hmmm look at the Rangers Goals against, its so low so we’ll just label them as a defensive team. Anybody with some decent hockey sence knows that the success of the Rangers’s defense comes from their offence. When you play a rabid aggressive 2-1-2 system, youre essentially keeping the puck in there end most of the time, hence the defense. Now Im not taking anything away from our zone play form our D-men in our own end as they have been marvelous this year in taking car of our own end, but its our aggressive offence that is making us look like a real good defensive team. PS…..We play like the exact opposite of those disgusting Devil teams of the 90’s. Also can someone please tell me how Joe ever got that prestigous job? LGR!!!

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