Now that we've seen the Detroit Red Wings play a few games under new head coach Jeff Blashill, I wanted to bring to light some of the tactics that he has brought to this team. Specifically, I wanted to look at how the Red Wings breakout of their zone, how the Red Wings set up their forecheck, and how the Red Wings enter the offensive zone. This will be a three-part series and the second part will focus on how the Red Wings set up their forecheck. The first part was on defensive zone breakouts is available here.
What Is A Forecheck?
To put it simply, a forecheck is the defensive formation that a team assumes when the opposition has the puck and is looking to move the puck out of their own zone. The purpose of the forecheck is to apply pressure to the player with the puck in his own zone while taking away passing options in order to force a turnover. There are a variety of strategies commonly employed by teams and the usage of each often depends on the score and time remaining in the game. A few years ago, BlueSeatBlogs put together a compilation of five of the most common forechecking strategies you will see in the NHL, a piece that I highly recommend reading all the way through. Over the years, as the rules have changed, the Red Wings have bounced from a variety of systems, including the left-wing lock. This season, the Red Wings have most commonly employed the "1-2-2" forecheck.
The 1-2-2 Forecheck
The 1-2-2 is one of the most commonly utilized forechecking formations because it is also one of the most versatile. The basic formation of the 1-2-2 forecheck is shown below.
As you can see, there is one forward high, two forwards backing him up, and then the two defensemen in the neutral zone. As mentioned previously, this system is highly versatile as the position of players 2, 3, 4, and 5 can be altered to play more aggressively or more conservatively. Forwards 2 and 3 can be moved deeper into the offensive zone to create more pressure or can be drifted back to the top of the blue line to play more conservatively. In the case of the Red Wings, the Wings will often start the game with forwards 2 and 3 and defenseman 4 and 5 playing aggressively to force errant passes. The Red Wings early game forecheck often looks like this:
As you can see, all five players are aggressively attacking the side of the ice that the puck is on and pressing the puck carrier into a poor pass. The forwards are aggressive and well inside the blue line and the defensemen are stepping up on the forwards down below the center line. Check out a video of the Wings running this exact forecheck.
In this instance from the November 8th game against the Dallas Stars, you can see how aggressive the Zetterberg line is, especially Brendan Smith pinching up on Jason Spezza inside the blue line. This is the major difference from Mike Babcock's Red Wings. Babcock preferred to have his defensemen play more conservatively, opting to force turnovers in the neutral zone by having his forwards backcheck aggressively. The upside to Blashill's system change is that the Wings can force more turnovers on the offensive side of center ice. The downside is that there is still a lot of room in the neutral zone for the opposition to get open and spring odd-man rushes. Check out this example of how this strategy can go wrong.
In this particular example you can see that when the defenseman engages early, he does not stop the puck carrier from advancing the puck. This leads to a 1-on-1 with a potential for a 2-on-1 as the Red Wings forechecker comes back. This strategy differs significantly from the strategy that Mike Babcock employed. Check out an animated example of a Babcock 1-2-2 forecheck below.
In this animated example, watch how deep the Wings defensemen play despite all five of the opposition's forwards playing below center ice. The advantage of this setup is that it is very hard for the opposition to generate odd-man rushes. Suppressing scoring chances was a staple of Babcock's system and he would have his defensemen play deeper and then step up on the forwards as they got to center ice. This had the added bonus of allowing the backcheckers time to catch up as the players with the puck had to slow down to make a move against the defensemen. Most importantly, this strategy forced teams to dump the puck in instead of being able to carry the puck in cleanly. Check out an example of this play from last year against the same Dallas Stars.
You can see that the Wings defenseman waited until just after the puck carrier crossed center before engaging him. This forces him to relinquish possession of the puck and dump it in. The Wings defensemen could then use their speed to beat the opposing forward to the puck and get an early zone exit. Additionally, this strategy plays right into the strengths of Petr Mrazek, a fantastic puckhandling goaltender. By forcing the opposition to dump the puck in, Mrazek can then come out of the net to intercept the dump-in and then make a quick pass to start the breakout. Check out an example of Mrazek negating an attempted zone entry.
As you can see, Mrazek can quickly neutralize a dump-in chance with his superb puck-handling skills. One could argue that Petr Mrazek is one of the top-3 puck-handling goaltenders in the NHL right now along with Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop and Arizona's Mike Smith. Jimmy Howard has also shown dramatic improvements in his puck-handling this season, making it imperative that the Wings take advantage of these skills.
Overall the Red Wings forecheck system has not changed dramatically under Jeff Blashill but the subtle change of having the defensemen play more aggressively has so far worked against Detroit. The Wings have allowed more pucks to be carried in cleanly which in turn has led to them spending more time in their own zone. I don't necessarily think it's time to abandon the change as the Wings are slowly getting more comfortable with the system as each game goes by. I think ultimately once each player feels comfortable playing their specific role in the forecheck, the Wings will be a very fast and difficult team to play against.