Conall’s Hockey Tactics: Shrinking and Extending the Zone

Adam Fox, the king of hockey tactics and extending the zone

Welcome to another edition of Conall’s Hockey Tactics, shrinking and extending the zone. Growing up, soccer was my second-best sport.  I still have a great passion for it to this day whether I’m watching our national teams, the Red Bulls, or waking up weekend mornings with a cup of coffee to watch my favorite club, Everton.  Soccer is a game of tactics and patience, and a real importance is placed on a team’s “shape”.  There needs to be a proper amount of space between the backs, mids, and forwards, but not too much as to open up wide gaps in space on the pitch or as to have a lone striker have no support on long balls.  In hockey, spatial awareness is just as important.

In comes the term “shrinking the zone”.  This is when players move up the ice either in order to support the puck or to give the opponents less time and space.  An example of this is when the puck is sent out to the neutral zone from a team’s defensive end and all five players hustle out for a neutral zone forecheck in order to not allow an easy re-group and zone entry.  It’s something I am very hard on my defenseman about to re-gap up to the blueline after a clearance.

But as I said, it is all about the right amount of space between the forwards and defenseman. So far this season, I think it is a problem in the offensive zone for the Rangers. When the puck is low (below the goal line) I have noticed the Rangers strong side defenseman sinking down in some cases to the top of the circles.  The problem there is that it takes away any options to go low to high and “extend the zone” by using all 75 feet in the offensive zone.

Form a hockey tactics standpoint, getting sucked in too far allows defenders to clog the middle of the ice easier and block more shots.  When the strong side D stays extended towards his blue line it allows for the low to high pass to extend defenders and force the winger to come back up higher.  These defensemen now can easily go to his partner and “switch fields” as we say in soccer.  This then opens the very dangerous high slot as the offense can force a separation between the opposing team’s defenders.  When that D sinks down it usually results just jamming the puck back down the wall or into defenders shin pads.  Here a few examples to give you a visual.

Failed attempt at Shrinking the Ozone

In this clip, we see the Rangers battling for a loose puck. Nemeth is up on the play on the wall and nearly gets in Strome’s way when he finally possesses the puck.  Even if Nemeth gets this puck, he is so on top of the play and his only play is to throw it back down the wall and into shin pads.  Had he stayed high and on his point, Strome could have pushed the puck back to him, then Nemeth could walk blue line or move to his partner to switch the point of attack.  With all five Dallas players below the top of the circle, it would have been a great opportunity to “extend the zone”, but instead it’s just thrown back down low because of a poor “shrinking of the zone”.

Hockey tactics – benefits of extending the zone

In this clip we see the benefits of staying extended.  Gauthier wheels the net after fending off two Stars defenders.  Had he had out right clean possession of the puck, Nemeth could have shrunk the zone as the point of attack was being switched and slid in as a one timer option, but this wasn’t the case. Once Gauthier is in the corner with the puck on his tape, he is able to move the puck low to high with ease as Nemeth chose to stay at his point.  Nemeth quickly moves the puck across the blue line to Lundkvist who gets the puck to the cage with the Rangers trying to get to the net. All this takes is a good read from Nemeth and the Rangers hold possession and get the puck on the net.

This final clip we see both ends of the spectrum.  On the first low to high we see Fox up in zone on top of circle.  He has no space to make a play so he is forced to go to Lindgren who is also too low and takes a shot sucked down close to high slot. The shot gets blocked because the Leafs players don’t have to skate that far and are already in shooting lanes.  In the second low to0 high, you can see what happens when the Rangers are able to extend the zone and switch the point of attack to get a shot through.

At the NHL level elite defenseman can get away with a lot when it comes to pinching or shrinking the zone.  And there is certainly a time to do it but in today’s NHL. Teams that use all 75 feet in the ozone are becoming the most effective hockey tactics at 5v5.  So the next time you see a defenseman hold the wall in the offensive zone above the hash marks ask yourself, is that really where he or she should be, from a hockey tactics standpoint?

PS: If any of you want to come find a Premier League team thats riddled with history, wears blue, but lacks overall success (wow doesn’t that sound familiar!) …come be a fellow Evertonian with me. Up the Toffees!