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 defensive zone breakouts, forechecking, offensive zone entries, special teams, and in-zone defensive coverage. What originally started as a three-part series will expand now to cover a multitude of systems based on request. The first two parts are available below.
In-Zone Defensive Coverage
To some, the coverage in a team's defensive zone might seem pretty simple. Basically cover your man and everything is fine, right? Well, defensive zone coverage can get significantly more complicated as teams introduce different wrinkles depending on where the puck is located in the offensive zone. While the simple structure may be "man-to-man", this can be complicated by having a team utilize a "low-zone collapse" when the puck is below the goal line or a "half-ice overload" when the puck is on a particular side of the ice. These situational aspects are drilled into each player's head in training camp but can still take time to adjust to when a new system is put in place. I went through the first 20+ games from the Red Wings and pulled out some of the situational systems the Wings have utilized thus far.
The basic premise of the half-ice overload is to overload one side of the ice and outnumber the offense in order to force a turnover. By putting all five players on one side of the ice, the defense is minimizing the amount of room the offensive team has and makes it easier to force turnovers. Below is an image of how the half-ice overload is run (Red Wings are team in red).
As you can see, all five of the red dots are on the side of the ice where the puck is and there is very limited room for the puck carrier to operate. This strategy allows the Wings to utilize their speed to try and force quick turnovers. Below is an animated example of how this strategy works, followed by a live game example.
In this animated example, I've shown what a typical cycle looks like and how the half-ice overload works. All players stay on the puck-side of the ice, making all passing options very difficult. The only option for the offense is to cycle the puck down low. Eventually the offense finds an outlet pass to the weak side of the ice, but the RW has done his job and forced the pass to come all the out to the blue line instead of allowing an easy slot pass. Now see this same example in real life.
In this example you can see how the Wings do an outstanding job of denying the cross-ice pass on the first attempt and ultimately force a long cross-ice pass to the blue line. This strategy takes advantage of the Wings skating ability as it allows them to use their speed to pressure the puck carrier as well as use their speed to recover when a pass is completed. The downside is that by overloading one side of the ice, there is the potential for a backdoor play.
Pay special attention to the RW in red in this picture. This forward is the key to the entire system working as he is responsible for shading the defensemen at the top of the point while not giving up a clear passing lane through the slot. The position of this player is critical to the entire system working. If the RW plays too high, the following can happen.
As you can see, the weak-side defenseman can dive down and by playing too high, the RW gives up an easy slot pass. This is why you will often see the RW play lower as the downside to that is that you will give up an open point shot. For most teams, this is a tradeoff they are willing to make.
In this example, Dylan Larkin is the "key forward" in this play. As you can see, he is confused about his role because he is typically the LW on the line but he is supposed to cover the RW responsibility here because Justin Abdelkader pinched into the play. Due to the miscommunication, Larkin drops too low, leaving the ability for Vladimir Tarasenko to find an open passing lane to Jay Bouwmeester for the tip-in goal.These kinds of miscommunications can happen when a team is adjusting to a new system. The Wings have made many of these mistakes in the early season, but they have dramatically reduced the rate of these to where there is truly only one or two miscues as bad as this in a single game. This will have to continue to get better, but it is a promising trend.
Low Zone Collapse
Another hallmark of Blashill's system has been the low-zone collapse. In the simplest terms, the entire 5-man defensive unit will drop below the faceoff dots to take away time and space from the player with the puck down low.
In this diagram, you can see how the defense collapses below the faceoff dots to take away all passing options from the offensive player. The key to this system working is the chemistry between the C and two defensemen as well as the intuition of the wingers to know how to fan out to play the defensemen.
In this system, the defensemen closest to the puck is known as the "hitting" or "engaging" defenseman. This player is responsible for engaging in contact with the player with the puck to try and win the board battle. The center that is lurking behind the defenseman is known as the "support". The role of this player is to assist the engaging defensemen and help win the puck battle. Finally, the 2nd defenseman in front of the net is known as the "net defender". The purpose of this defenseman is to block any plays that come towards the net and to keep his head on a swivel for any players that may be cutting in to the slot. These three players have to know where each other is in order to have this system work successfully.
Additionally, once the puck is moved from down low back to the point, the wingers have to know their responsibilities.
As you can see, when the puck comes from down low back to the point, both wingers have to quickly get out to the point to prevent a clear shot to the net. There are a lot of moving parts to this system, but it can be extremely effective when performed correctly.
In this example, pay attention as to how the Red Wings defend this as the puck moves from corner to corner. When the puck starts in the left corner, Mike Green is the "engaging" defenseman, Pavel Datsyuk is the "support" player, and Niklas Kronwall is the "net-front" defenseman. As the puck is carried from the left to the right corner, Kronwall has the option of staying at his net post and letting Datsyuk chase the puck carrier, or he can chase the puck carrier as he does. When Kronwall chases the puck carrier, Larkin comes down to act as the "support" player to force the turnover while Datsyuk skates across the front of the net to serve as the "net-front" player. Like I mentioned before, this system requires a significant amount of team chemistry that was missing early on but has slowly improved as the season has gone on.
Another subtle benefit of this system is that if your defenseman wins the puck battle down below the goal line, he has an easy outlet pass to a number of different players in order to start a quick breakout. This is an unheralded part of the breakout and the Wings take advantage of this all time time by performing a pass to their "net-front" player who can then turn up ice and hit the wingers.
As with all systems, there is a downside to the system. If the support/net-front presence isn't good enough, there's the possibility of giving up a one-timer in the slot. Additionally, if the puck is moved to the point and the wingers are late in getting out to the defensemen, it can be a tough screened shot for the goaltender to stop.
In this clip, there are several things that went wrong. First, Kronwall establishes himself as the "engaging" defensemen and Larkin establishes himself as the "net-front" player. As Green comes in to act as support, he needs to recognize that the Wings are outnumbering the San Jose player 4-1 and he should jump in to ensure his team wins the puck battle. Instead he supports passively and allows San Jose to cycle the puck. The wingers (Pulkkinen and Tatar) do a nice job of getting out to the point when the puck gets to the blue line, but problems ensue when the shot goes behind the net.
Matt Nieto of the Sharks picks up the puck and as he goes to skate behind the net, Kronwall elects to chase him. Nieto skates behind the net and instead of disengaging from the forward in front, Green is unaware that the play has shifted to his side of the ice and that he needs to become the "engaging" defenseman. Additionally, Tatar is late to recognize that the puck has come back down low and that he needs to drop down low to prevent Nieto from walking around the net. All of these failures led to a wide open shot for Nieto who buried the opportunity.
As I mentioned previously, the Wings struggled with a lot of these subtleties early in the season but have corrected most of these as the season has progressed. I believe that a large part of the struggle was related to the insertion of players that did not play for the Red Wings last year or played sparingly as Blashill's system is almost identical to the system utilized by former coach Mike Babcock. Both preached puck-side pressure and good defensive positioning. I think the insertion of new guys like Mike Green and Brad Richards as well as youngsters such as Larkin, Teemu Pulkkinen, Andreas Athanasiou, and Alexey Marchenko has led to a few more miscommunications than usual. I think for the most part everyone has adjusted and you will see fewer mistakes as the season progresses.