Hockey Tactics

Hockey Tactics: Can the NY Rangers replicate Tampa’s successful strategy of no net front presence?

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.

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.

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  • “I don’t expect David Quinn to adjust like this. But it is something that could set the Rangers apart next season.”

    There lies the problem, DQ is too rigid, and not willing to experiment with such a system. I have to give Jon Cooper plenty of credit, the system is brilliant, and implemented perfectly by the Bolts!!!!!!!

    If the Rangers experiment with this group of players, and their skill set, it would be interesting to see the outcome???????????

  • This offense seems to be lightly based on a basketball offense where you send “cutters” through the middle to open lanes. This has changed from the big man post offense that relied on the center posting near the paint.

    Anyway, this offense may work for our current top 2 lines, but our bottom 6 just are not currently talented enough to trust the pass and positioning. If the bottom 6 can up their game, there is no reason that some variation of this can’t be tried. Remember, this offense is all about puck possession. Look at some of our numbers in this area, and you will see why operating this offense will be difficult.

  • I guess as more teams start to adapt to this offense we’ll start to see defenses modify how they play against it too.

  • Nice write up today! I’ll quote you here; “it’s time the Rangers played a system that worked into their strengths” couldn’t agree more…

    • Our strength is our top 2 lines. We need to develop the 3rd line to provide some offensive punch. Maybe we can hope that Kakko and LaFren and maybe even Kraftsov add some scoring depth.

      The Lightning play a team game. They do not depend on 3 or 4 forwards to carry them. As we mature and improve, we can begin to mirror the top clubs in the league.

  • This is a good strategy to emulate, We have the same type of personal.
    In sports if something works,it turns into a copycat league and everyone tries to do it.
    I think Quinn will adjust seeing what the Rangers south did.

  • It would be interesting to see LaFreniere-Chytil-Kakko up front, with ADA and Fox backing them up ….

  • Stop. Let’s just completely change up everything because of what happened this one year.

    First let’s point out that this Tampa Bay team has only won the Cup once. On the other hand, Patrick Maroon, a great net front player, has won it two years in a row.

    Second there is the matter of talent. Brayden Point may be better than Panarin – and he certainly earned the Conn Smythe. Kuznetsov also earned the Conn Smythe. Of course, so did Hedman. Teams with three players of this caliber are rare (JFTR, I would take any of the trio over Draisatl). Devising a system that can win with such talent is no act of genius.

    • they had Kucherov, Hedman, Point and Stamkos last year too and they got swept by Columbus in the first round. So they adjusted. They added size and grit; Marron, Coleman and Bogosian, but they realized that wasn’t enough so also changed up their system. I am not a fan of John Cooper, but I give him a lot of credit for looking at the weaknesses that led to the sweep the prior year and making adjustments to overcome their short falls. It may not be an act of genius or it may be, I don’t know, but it sure did work this time around.

  • You lost me when you used the Pierre McGuire, Ed Olyck, and Brian Doucher phrase “Net Front Presence”. Stop trying to reinvent the game.

    • Mr. Chief, what you just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response, were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

      • Mr. Dave: I guess you’re a keyboard tough guy, you’re not awarding me any points? I wasn’t rambling, that’s my opinion. I guess according to you if my opinion is different from yours it’s idiotic. Have a nice day.

        • To be clear, you expressed exactly zero opinions in your original comment. Your first sentence said “You lost me” and your second was a command.

        • 1. That was a movie quote. Go watch Billy Madison. Yeesh.

          2. Apparently I should stop with movie quotes, since I’m 0-2 today.

          3. Where exactly in your response did you try to have an intelligent discussion? You told me to “stop trying to change the game” when I cited my source on what TB did. It’s not trying to change the game, TB did it already and won a Cup.

          4. Quit whining when I call you out on not adding anything substantial to the discussion.

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