There is a portion of the hockey community that has been grousing since Mike Babcock suggested that the NHL needs bigger nets because scoring is scarce. Even-strength play has been labeled too dull; there is not enough offense the chorus howls. People follow this lament by enumerating how they would modify the game to increase offense. But in this space, IH wants to take a different tact. There is no question that the game has evolved, and there are certain actions/movements players must learn in order to prosper. Developing these five tactics will improve a team’s ability to control possession and generate offense. In no specific order:
1. The cross-ice pass
The middle of the ice on a rush attempt has become a logjam. When a puck-carrier gains the zone on an entry, the defense will try to force the player in possession to the perimeter (sometimes aggressively chasing him along the edge) and the defense will expect its back-checking skaters to charge through the middle of the ice to take away the slot. This leaves a relatively unoccupied slice of ice on the opposite side of the man carrying the puck.
Finding a seam and moving the puck through the congestion is a difficult, perilous endeavor. The worst-case scenario is the pass being intercepted and turned into a three-to-four skater counterattack. Even if a multi-player attack the other way is not precipitated, the cross-ice pass failing cedes possession and forfeits a chance to gain territorial advantage.
The safest play is to shoot on goal and hope the teammate nearest to the puck wins the race to the rebound. The benefit from this choice is that it can initiate the cycle, but the beauty of catching the opponent not in his defensive posture is lost. The cross-ice pass poses higher risk, but also higher reward. The reward is that, if the puck does make it through the defensive coverage, there is typically an unobstructed avenue to the net.
Take this goal from last season.
Stop the video at five seconds. Scott Hartnell is receiving the pass and crossing the blue line, and Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is about to move toward the boards to assail Hartnell on the perimeter. Shattenkirk’s defensive partner, Barret Jackman, is marking Marko Dano, who is charging toward the net. The second player in the middle, and the best-positioned backchecker, is Vladimir Tarasenko, who is trying to guard against the pass. Blues center Jori Lehtera is a stride or two behind, and Jaden Schwartz is coasting into the zone.
Hartnell does an excellent job of recognizing the available seam and the gap in the defensive coverage. He fires the puck cross-ice and it finds a cutting William Karlsson, whose lane to the net is completely open the moment he crosses center ice. The cross-ice pass on the rush exposes the backdoor. On transition defense, teams want to overload the middle of the ice with forwards and the far-side defenseman, and have the near-side defenseman shove the puck-carrier to the outside. The belief is they can seal off the offensive attempt with active sticks and bodies in the home-plate area. This approach has drastically changed the attitude of defensemen of all skill levels toward their gap control.
The other alternative is slowing down the play after the entry and stalling until the second wave of teammates enters the zone. This method exploits a transition defense that floods the slot too quickly and loses track of the fourth and fifth skater on the offensive. But with teams preparing better for a staggered second wave, a well-timed cross-ice pass that dodges the mass enables a prime scoring opportunity. Generally speaking, the back-side alley to the net is open if the puck can get there. Players that can execute this tactic empower themselves to be offensive catalysts.
2. An ability to shoot an unsettled puck
The value of shooting a rolling or bouncing puck has become extremely important. Opponents have gotten so good at eliminating shooting lanes that the power of the shot means much less than how quickly the puck is released from the stick.
Take this example from last Saturday.
Justin Williams sends a pass toward the net in the waning seconds of the Capitals’ game against the Maple Leafs. The puck gets deflected by Alexander Ovechkin and hits Nicklas Backstrom in the chest. When the puck hits the ice, Backstrom takes a swat at it with his stick and connects enough to score the game-tying goal. And this wasn’t the only example in this game, either. On Alexander Ovechkin’s goal, Evgeny Kuznetsov tried to move the puck backdoor to Ovechkin, but the puck collided with Roman Polak’s foot before continuing in that direction. What was intended to be a pass to Ovechkin’s forehand quickly became an opportunity for his backhand, and in true elite goal-scoring fashion, Ovechkin succeeded in flinging the puck with enough muster into the net.
Fundamentals like stick and body positioning are better enforced than ever, and through intense scouting, teams are prepared to defend pet plays. Also, league-wide, better-conditioned, quicker players allow a defending player to close in on a puck-carrier more rapidly. Puck movement, especially in the home-plate area, is very difficult. Taking a second to dust the puck off can be costly because all scoring lanes are ephemeral. (One of Sidney Crosby’s biggest issues this season has been a slow release.)
Being able to contort one’s body to collect a puck and direct it at net in swift fashion is a strength. There is virtually nowhere to shoot with goaltenders occupying so much space in net. So the reasoning of worrying less about the velocity of the shot and instead directing the puck at net before the goalie is prepared, or when he can’t see the puck because of traffic, is a sound one.
3. The Sedin tip play in the slot
This play has been prominent on power plays over the last half-decade, and its use in even strength has appeared to proliferate every season. But this season is the first year where it seems ubiquitous in all situations.
To review, the player with possession feigns shooting and shot-passes it to a teammate in the middle-to-high slot, and that player tips it toward the goal. The stratagem fits nicely into the broader narrative: the best way to beat a goaltender is by misdirection. There is also a little flip-the-script ideology to the method, too. Too often, bodies envelop the puck before it reaches the net. With the Sedin tip play, the attacking team is moving a player in front of the defensive coverage before the defensive coverage can get in front of the puck.
4. An ability to roll up toward higher ice
This may not be the most exciting play in hockey, but it is in the conversation. The intention is very clear: disorient the defensemen by pulling them away from the middle-to-low slot and toward the gravitational pull of the puck. Gifted puck-handlers like Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom, and Anze Kopitar can receive the puck along the boards in the off-slot, and then move the puck in an arc trajectory toward the point and the upper reaches of the offensive zone. The defense responds accordingly, and a defender promptly pursues the man in possession.
This results in a mutual shift: there is off-the-puck recalibration by the defense and the offensive players without the puck alter their coordinates in a way that extends the defense uncomfortably. The far-side defenseman can move toward a spot in the lower half of the offensive zone. As the puck-handler steers toward center ice at the blue line, the other defenseman can shift toward either board as an outlet of support, and as a safety valve in case the puck is turned over.
The puck-carrier can continue to straddle the blue line and break down the opposite side or he can shoot or pass. Defensively, does one man chase the puck-carrier through the sequence or does his changing positions require different skaters to confront him if he strays into their area of the ice? This is basic man-to-man versus zone, but as simplistic as it sounds, nearly every team struggles to contain this action.
Watch Backstrom work a give-and-go with Matt Niskanen.
A Maple Leafs skater is late to come out and challenge Backstrom, who decides to hurl the puck at net rather than continue to curl upward. It is a shrewd move. Down low, Justin Williams has gotten behind his defender and Ovechkin has gotten in front of his opponent. The puck hits goaltender James Reimer in the shoulder, and the rebound is shoveled in by Ovechkin, who is in a one-on-one battle with Matt Hunwick. Toronto wants the slot to be a maelstrom, but Washington spreads Toronto out because Backstrom moves the puck and himself up high.
Kane, Backstrom, and Kopitar are three forwards proficient at executing this objective, but less skilled puck-handlers are also wise to come up toward their fellow defensemen and pull their opponent away from the net. Tyler Seguin does not have the same high-end puck-handling acumen as the aforementioned trio, but he likes to operate higher because he finds more quiet ice there and it opens up lanes down low for his teammates. Seguin often has defenseman John Klingberg on the ice with him, and his voyage to the point can allow an opportunity for Klingberg to cut toward the net. There is nothing worse in hockey than an offense being staid. Interchange adds unpredictability.
5. A stutter step
The stutter step is interesting because part of its efficacy is a byproduct of the modern NHL. If a defender goes back to retrieve the puck and has a forechecker breathing down his neck, he basically knows it is unlikely he will get pushed from behind into the boards because that is almost always a penalty. More likely, the forechecker will lead with his stick and try to wrap him up. An effective stutter step allows the defender to shed the clutches of the forechecker. Or, if the F1 tries to grab him and only gets a piece of his arm, the defender can perform histrionics and draw a penalty. Without the stutter step, the F1 latches onto his man and the F2 can swoop in and grab the puck.
For a forward with the puck, there is inherent advantage as well. If the puck-carrier is having trouble finding space, he can try to deke out the defender. The defender then has to carefully time his effort to separate the player and the puck because, if he guesses wrong, the player can slip past him, or the puck-carrier could get tripped up, drawing a penalty. Johnny Gaudreau thrives on this very move. The odds are stacked against the player without the puck, so challenging the defender one-on-one and presenting them with the unpalatable option of getting beat or committing a penalty makes this a wise exercise.