The oldest of the old hockey adages is that you need a player in front of the net on offense. That player can provide deflections, occupy the defense, and screen the goalie. Ideally, you have multiple players on the roster that excel at this skill. However Tampa just won a Stanley Cup without deploying a consistent net front presence hockey strategy on offense.
Something you’ll notice about Tampa that no one in the NHL has yet to copy
No net front presence/screen
You’ll often hear coaches talking about creating traffic, but TB rarely has any
All 4 players off the puck are passing options. I love it. This will be copied by other clubs pic.twitter.com/fB90rHd3cu
— Greg Revak, CFP® (@CoachRevak) September 18, 2020
The NHL is a copycat league. Most recently, it was the 1-3-1 powerplay, and now there is an opportunity here. As the NHL gets faster and more skilled, the players who excel at screening the goalie become rarer. The Rangers are lucky to have one of the best in the league at Chris Kreider. Brendan Lemieux is no slouch here either. Outside of them, there are few, if any, net-front players.
Speed And Skill Confuse the Defense
This system relies on speed, skill, and creativity. What Tampa did here is they rotated the man cutting to the net to create lanes. If nothing materialized, the player would circle back, and someone else cuts through. It becomes a never ending cycle of different guys cutting to the net while the Bolts rotated the puck to get chances. They use every inch of the ice.
In doing so, the defense never has a chance to settle. They are constantly guessing which player is going to cut to the net. There is constant puck support and guys trusting each other to read the play and provide an outlet to keep the pressure on. It’s not just forwards rotating either. Defensemen will come down from the point as a forward circles back. It’s five guys constantly rotating, keeping the defense guessing.
The key with the rotating skaters is to get someone lost in the offensive zone. With five guys consistently darting in and out of the slot, this becomes easier to do. When a guy is lost in the offensive zone, he gets open for dangerous chances. That’s what happens on this goal, which is essentially a give and go. The point shot’s intention is to generate the rebound for Hedman cutting from the point. This is also Barry Trotz’s Islanders, one of the better defensive teams this year.
Traditional Defensive Systems Can’t Adapt
In a normal net front presence hockey system, teams are usually able to cover the man in front, which limits offensive options. The man in front’s job is to screen the goalie, he’s not going anyway. That’s one less area of the ice to cover and one less player to get lost in the offensive zone.
When this system is running well, traditional defensive systems have issues keeping up. Your traditional zones and overloads don’t prevent this and get exploited. A more passive box means you’re giving up the high slot area, which is another dangerous location.
Teams are left with a choice. Either play straight man-to-man coverage, which can be an outright disaster. Or, more conservatively, place three guys low to defend the slot. But that leaves a 3-on-2 up top. The skilled teams will burn you repeatedly with that kind of advantage. Especially if you give them the high slot and top of the circles.
This came up in the BSB group chat with Conall and Rob, and there we identified two ways to really defend this. The first is something you’ll recognize and possibly yell at me for, and that is actually execute Alain Vigneault’s defensive zone system. AV has his teams run man coverage with the defensemen, release at the dots, and play zone from the dots to the blue line. This covers the guys darting to the net, but closes lanes up top, limiting options. The risk, as we know all too well, is that it is extremely difficult to execute properly and requires tremendous discipline and speed.
The second is putting your standard overload defense into hyperdrive. Force the puck carrier wide and into corners, where you have the numbers and force the turnover. The risk here is a team like Tampa is too skilled to not create outlets and safety nets. Once the puck is out of the corner, you’re outnumbered and scrambling.
Downside and Variation
The downside here is that this can lead to a high amount of clear-sighted shots. As Steve Valiquette has pointed out, goalies stop 98% of clear sighted shots. This strategy, without a dedicated man in front, relies on scoring on these chances. The difference is that this system isn’t just about getting shots, it’s about getting that man lost and getting high danger chances.
It’s also worth noting that this is not the only look Tampa gives. Some lines go this route, and some lines play a more traditional net-front presence strategy. That’s another important piece here. With different types of looks being thrown at you, coaches can’t adjust.
How The Rangers Can Implement This
The Rangers only have two net-front presences, which actually works in their favor here. The KZB line can leverage Kreider’s net-front ability as they have in the past. That line works, and they generate a ton of offense. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Same thing applies to Brendan Lemieux.
Where this can really work is with the lines that don’t have Kreider and Panarin. The Rangers are going to be extremely talented again, one of the most talented teams in the league. With some of the pieces in place already, it’s a matter of changing how they think and execute in the offensive zone.
As of now, Brendan Smith is the oldest player on the roster at 29 years old. The rest of the roster is young, skilled, and solid skaters. The trick is constantly rotating and applying pressure. It will be hard to match the Rangers skill next year, and it’s time the Rangers played a system that worked into their strengths.
A net front presence is a normal hockey strategy in the offensive zone. But changing things up and keeping the defense guessing is becoming an important aspect of driving offense. The Rangers are actually built in a way to copy the Lightning’s successes. I don’t expect David Quinn to adjust like this. But it is something that could set the Rangers apart next season.