AnalysisHockey Tactics

Breaking down Alain Vigneault’s even strength system

(Andrew Theodorakis/New York Daily News)
(Andrew Theodorakis/New York Daily News)

This is definitely going to be an interesting season covering NYR’s x’s and o’s, as coaching changes always bring about new looks and different styles of play. And while I was indeed a pro-Torts guy, I’m looking forward to seeing what AV and his staff have up their sleeves.

Today we’re just going to cover even strength play, since I know these tactic posts can get a little lengthy and I always prefer brevity over anything robust. Next week I’ll focus on the power play and the kill.

With that said, make no mistake. Although AV isn’t completely overhauling the way they play, there are some key differences. It’s going to take a while for everything to come together, so…hold fast.

Offensive Zone Strategy


If Tortorella’s system could be summarized into one sentence, it would be described as skating intensive and physical. AV hockey on the other hand is really about two things: passing and overloading. Although the execution has been inconsistent and sporadic in the early goings here, he definitely wants his guys making crisp passes and he wants them to be positionally outnumbering the opposition on one side of the ice.

If you look at the picture above, the Rangers first worked a moderately aggressive 1-2-2 forecheck. Also notice how all five Rangers are to the left of center ice (the drawn redline). The idea is to limit the opponent’s time with the puck and hopefully generate a turnover. Ultimately if a turnover can be created, it’ll likely be an odd man situation since their aim is to outnumber the enemy at all times.

The flaw in this setup is that you leave the weakside of the ice exposed. If the opposition is able to get a cross-ice pass through, it can lead to odd man rushes in your goalie’s direction, which is what we’ve been seeing since preseason began. However, everything just hasn’t clicked yet.

This is a different way to pursue the puck than Torts’ 2-1-2 spread forecheck, which was a very aggressive strategy. However, the 2-1-2 spread is more taxing physically since 2 or 3 guys are hunting the puck below the dots and need to make a hit to cause the turnover. With the 1-2-2 that AV deploys you only have one guy down low stirring it up, so the majority of the forecheck takes place a little higher in the zone.

When the Rangers don’t get the puck in deep, AV will have them be a bit more passive. The 1-2-2 will turn into more of a neutral zone trap, with one forechecker at the blueline, two forwards around the redline and two defensemen at the defensive blueline.

Although we’ll still see an aggressive forecheck under AV (depending on personnel and game situation), it will be more of an overload/stacked forecheck (forwards forecheck the same lane) rather than Torts’ traditional spread formation (forwards approach from opposite wings).

Defensive Zone Strategy


Different zone, same strategy. Count how many Rangers are on the strong side of the ice. Yes, that’s all five guys again. This is the defensive zone overload, which follows the same concept as our offensive zone strategy: outnumber the enemy. In the case of the photo, we’re outnumbering them 3-2 along the boards and 5-3 on the strong side of the ice.

This too is a risky system because you generally will have two or three players overloading hard along the boards, with one skater playing just off the puck and one or two players playing zone defense in the slot, but also shading the strong side boards.

With the amount of switching of roles that goes on in today’s NHL, it’s easy to get confused with who should be where. Also, if the opposition is able to hit that cross ice pass to the weakside, then you’re likely giving up a quality chance to the enemy point man.

The key here is the weakside forward (in this case Rick Nash). He has to be able to get back to the middle to defend the slot if his teammates lose possession cleanly. The good thing about the overload defense though is that once you recover the puck, you’re in a good position to breakout with short, quick passing plays.

One thing to remember about the overload is that it is typically only employed when the puck is along the boards. Once the puck moves below the goal line teams tend to switch to either a zone defense or man-on-man coverage. AV seems to prefer the latter (man-on-man with the Ds and F1), while Torts preferred all five skaters playing a zone defense.

For more on those strategies be sure to read up here.

Defensemen Joining The Play

The one similarity between Torts and AV is that they both want to activate their defensemen in offensive situations. Both want their blueliners to be good skaters and looking to join the play.

I think our d-men will join the rush a little bit more under AV than they were under Torts, so you’ll likely see a few more four man rushes. However, this new system won’t need the defense getting in on the forecheck as much as the 2-1-2, which heavily relies on pinching D to keep the puck in the zone.

The biggest difference I see with the d-men is the outlet pass. It seems AV wants these guys to make short, quick passes up ice, rather than controlled breakout plays starting from behind our own net. Obviously opposition forechecking pressure usually influences whether or not you’re looking for a controlled breakout, but from the early goings the quick pass/give-and-go seems preferred over soft chips, D-to-D reverses, or even lugging the puck up ice.

Playing with the lead

A little further into the season now, and we’ve finally seen the Rangers get a few late leads. The Rangers tend to keep one or two forwards high in the third period if they have a late lead. It can still lead to more offense, but it will likely be offense created from neutral zone turnovers, rather than offense from heavy forechecking and pinches from our D.

Overall, some of these systems are a bit different from the previous regime. There’s been a lot of mental mistakes thus far since the boys definitely have to make reads and count enemy jerseys a bit more, but they’ll hopefully get it eventually.

While I certainly wouldn’t classify any of this as “wide open hockey” — which MSG Network keeps propagating for some reason — I do think most of this roster should have the ability to adapt to a different style of play. We shall see.

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  • Suit, a hot topic last year was that the Rangers blocked too many shots, yet they blocked 19 in Phoenix. Do you think that will change under AV?

    • No, not in the short-term. Contrary to what the media spins blocking shots isn’t really an x’s and o’s thing. It’s a mental thing since all systems keep players between your check and the net. And right now the majority of this roster still wants to eat up pucks. That will only change as they phase out certain players and bring in more skill guys.

      • The number of shots blocked (like hits) is at the discretion of the home scorer. The Rangers home scorer is very generous, which is why they always are among the leaders the league in hits/blocked shots.

        That said, if you have the puck, you aren’t blocking shots or hitting people.

        • I agree. One thing the Rangers seemed to do under Torts was to collapse everyone low. That would also account for more shots from the points, thus more opportunities for blocks. Always felt that the SS point should be taken away by playing that D tight. It also helps moving the puck out the zone.

      • I hope the team and draft phylosophy doesn’t change too much. I like all the North American 2 way players the Rangers have drafted the last 5-7 years. I think these players with good defensive skills fit AV well. His teams in BC were always beaten by a tougher team. I think Torts will be good in BC with all that offensive skill they have.
        In getting a look at the NY vs LA game last night, I noticed the Rangers Forecheck was still getting in deep. They still played aggressively even with a 2 goal lead. I think it was mostly a 1-2-2 but importantly they didn’t sit back. It seemed like good neutral zone play as well. LA was not able to gain speed going into the NYR zone.

  • New coach, new system, time will tell if we have the players who can play this style. Give the team a break, they will learn, but old habits are hard to break. Bobby asked if the 19 blocked shots will change under AV? I believe that it will continue for some time to come!

  • The Canucks got their second win last night, they don’t seem to have any problems adjusting to Torts new system. Tonight the Rangers will need to bring their best game if they want to beat the Kings. AV can bring in a new coaching style and system, but at the end of the day the players have to execute for it to be successful.

    • Agreed. It’ about execution and when the execution isn’t there you need an identity to fall back on. We’ll see how it all pans out. Too early to call it either way.

      • Speaking about execution, the Rangers have to be better at executing the first pass or 2. I thought we looked out of sorts in Pho and didn’t make clean crisp passes at all in the game. Many rushes ended on failed pass attempts. That has got to change if they want to get out the D Zone quickly and force a coverage lapse and or odd man rush. I hope it was just nerves and it improves tonight in LA because the Kings will make you pay for mistakes.
        Execution must be better tonight.

    • As someone who watches the Canucks – I can tell you that the team had a great deal of a challenge adjusting to Torts system in the pre-season – and they’re still adjusting.

      The main challenges with AV’s system is its passivity (with a lead) and rigidity. It seems, in pressure situations, he coaches not to lose – which has hurt his teams in the playoffs.

    • The Canucks are a more skilled team. Remember, aside from the year they made the ECF the Rangers have barely made the playoffs while the Canucks have been near or at the top of the western conf year in and year out.

    • I credit av for the 7 years he developed those players. Torts stepped into a well coached club, av walked into MSG with a team that is limping out of the gate.

      • That’s not true at all. AV developed many of those guys and the 1st 2 years there they played differently in Vancouver than they have the last 4-5 years. The team AV is inheriting is a cup contender. Many picked the Rangers as favorites to win the cup. No matter how it ended up last year this is the same team. I disagree. When Torts took over the Rangers, they were barely a playoff team and were beaten in the 1st round each year.

        • I think both coaches did wonders for their former organizations. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have gotten rehired so quickly.

        • The Rangers were transitioning through the Jagr years when Torts took over and its not like he took them to ECF finals every year. They barely made the playoffs most years and if it wasnt for Hank they would have never made it out of the 1st round.

          Yes, Torts had a positive reign but I reserve singing the praises of a coach that barely gets into the playoffs and does minimal damage when he does infact get there…

  • Thanks for the post, Mr. Suit. Always great to see the Xs and Os, it really adds some insight to what is going on.

  • Thanks for this article; I’ve been struggling with understanding the differences in on-ice strategies and what we’ll be deploying prospectively. This helps out a lot.

    The concern I’ve had though is an underlying belief that AV is mixing “apples & oranges” and this will leave us to fall short of success this season.

    What I mean by that is, in Vancouver, AV had the full roster constructed for his system, and perhaps the two best players in this league for this system in the Sedin twins.

    AV now has a roster that has largely been constructed for Tortorella’s on-ice strategies and, between learning the system and reconstructing the roster needed to maximize success in it, Sather is pushing out our Stanley Cup hopes to 2-3 seasons from now. I’m not sure Hank will be the same goalie in 2-3 seasons, or Nash will be the same forward.

    Any thoughts on these concerns? Is it an issue that can be overcome in shorter timeframe, or are we looking at a 2-3 year process here?

    • These are professional hockey players, they can adjust to any system. It is not a 2-3 year process. Give it 20 games or so.

        • I think some will adapt, some won’t. Those who can’t will be shipped out. Too early to say who, but we’ll see how the season goes.

          • I’d expect that they would just allow the contracts to expire. Even on teams projected to miss playoffs, not many decent options out there as viable replacements.

      • I wasn’t referring to a 2-3 year process to understand and implement the system but, rather, to construct the right personnel for this system. If we need to let contracts expire to then reconstruct, what I’m hearing is a 2-3 year process.

        In other words, after 20 games or so, can this unit play under AV’s system and make a run to the Stanley Cup, or does AV’s system require a different mix of players that we just don’t have right now?

  • With this system, I’d expect that some of the slower guys will be more effective, since this is less skating intensive and more hockey IQ based.

    • I think the slower guys should have an advantage in certain situations Dave. However, they should also be exposed of their deficiencies in other situations under AV’s system. For instance they should look better when the puck is deep in the oppositions zone but when it comes to AV’s 2-3 neutral zone lock the slower players aren’t gonna look to good with the counter attacking. So I think there will be advantages and disadvantages with personel related to system…Great article Suit, cant wait for more X’s and O’s going forward.

      • Of course foot speed will always be exploited in certain situations. It just won’t be as frequent under AV.

        Pyatt’s hockey IQ will give him a better chance to succeed with AV.

      • I don’t think slower guys will have an advantage here. This system still needs speed. I think the Senators are a good example of an “overload” team that execute this right. That’s a really quick team.

        However, I think guys are going to have to be good passers and have a high hockey IQ to crack the top 9, where as Torts might have looked over those traits for guys who can forecheck. So we’ll see how things go.

        Still really early to make judgement calls on roster based on this stuff.

  • I really liked your point on the offense requiring crisp passing to thrive. You could tell in just the one game we have watched, that the passing is not as good as it needs to be. The one guy making those passes was Zuccarello, and he was noticeably our most effective forward. Also, Nash made a nice, crisp pass tape to tape to Staal which set up his goal. When the defense are joining the rush, the worst thing that can happen is a deflected or missed pass that gets chipped behind the players on the rush, resulting in odd man rushes for the opponent. This Rangers team has not been known for sleak passing under Torts, but I think it will be a much more exciting playing style once they start connecting under AV.

    I think tonight against the Kings they should come up with some new line combos. I would like to see Zuccarello-Brassard-Nash and Callahan – Stepan – Richards, then Pouliout – Boyle – Pyatt and Asham-Moore-Dorsett

  • After the Canucks 6-1 win last night one of the Sedins (I forget which) commented that it was fun playing for Torts with the lead. He said in the past, under AV, they didn’t push once they had the lead, and it was exciting to keep the pressure up and keep pushing for more last night.

    If playing for Torts is “fun” after playing for AV, that doesn’t bode well for the Rangers of their fan-base. AV does not preach wide-open, run-and-gun, aggressive hockey, which is what everyone seems to think is going to define AV-Ranger hockey. They’ll be in for a rude awakening.

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