In life, sometimes it is the simplest of decisions that can put you in a position to succeed or fail. Hockey is no different. Being in the right position at the right time usually doesn’t happen by chance. It’s a decision or a chain of decisions that can set you up with a Goal For or a Goal Against.
Perhaps there isn’t a more critical time to get that decision making process right then when you are on the backcheck. For the Rangers, executing their backchecking system is crucial to their counter game, which you all know has been the bread and butter of AV’s system during his time in New York.
For today’s post, we’ll breakout the different ways teams execute backchecking systems and discuss whether or not the Rangers are excelling at this aspect of the game. Then maybe if we have some time later in the comments, we’ll discuss what kind of seasonal fabrics everyone should be buying for the holidays!
To pursue or to contain, that is the question
By now, hopefully you have all read my hockey systems posts over the years. For those of you who haven’t (curtains for you!), there tends to be a common theme with all of these tactics. It doesn’t matter if you are discussing forechecking strategies, defensive zone schemes, etc., ultimately every coach must decide which players will pursue the puck and which players will contain the puck. With backchecking, it is no different.
In today’s NHL, there are basically three key ways teams will backcheck.
1) F3 Pursuit
In this system, F3 (or the third forward to enter the offensive zone), is charged with pursuing the opposition’s puck carrier. Depending on the system, F3 will usually pressure the puck carrier all the way into the defensive zone seeking to turn the puck over. The defender closest to the play will drop into the support zone (a few feet off the puck), acting as a safety vale if F3 can’t force the turnover.
The key here is communication. Some teams will have F3 pursue the puck until a certain part of the ice, say the top of the face-off circle, in which case the defender and F3 will switch positions. More aggressive teams will send the defender into the hit zone and outnumber the opposition along the boards.
2) Off-wing Lock
The off-wing lock is the ying to the F3 Pursuit’s yang. In this scheme, F3 moves to the weak-side wing, essentially becoming a third defensemen. In this position, he is responsible for any trailers. The defenders split the rest of the zone, so you are basically dividing the zone into thirds, with each player being responsible for his area of the ice.
Overall, this is a more passive backchecking strategy with the ultimate goal being to stand-up the rush at the blueline. This dovetails nicely into a zone based defensive system, so you’ll often see this scheme executed by teams who deploy such tactics or when teams have a late lead.
Finally, the last backchecking strategy commonly used is man-on-man, which is exactly what it sounds like. In this system, defenders and backchecking forwards will pick their men and stick with them like white on rice.
Under AV, the Rangers have switched back and forth between Man-on-Man and an Overload variation of F3 Pursuit.
But Suit? You haven’t mentioned the other two forwards?
Ah yes, F1 and F2. In almost every scenario these forwards are tasked with backchecking to the top of their defensive zone face-off circles. Whether they stay there or collapse down low will ultimately depend on their d-zone system.
So what does all this mean for the Rangers?
The Rangers for better or worse are a counter team. Their ability to force a turnover, get down the ice, and find twine is what this system is built around. Usually they’re very good at it. Especially when you have Grabner deployed against defensemen who can’t skate like the wind.
However, when the Rangers play starts to slip, they often get beat at their own game. Sometimes it’s due to a lack of commitment to actually backcheck, which usually leads to a benching or a demotion. Other times the commitment is there but the execution isn’t, as seen below.
Either way, look for AV to continue to focus on improving this area of the Rangers play as the calendar flips to the 2nd half of the season.