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 four parts are available below.
Part 1 - Defensive Zone Breakouts
Part 2 - Forechecking
Part 3 - Defensive Zone Coverage
Part 4 - Powerplay
How Does A Penalty Kill Work?
When it comes to penalty killing, the general belief is that you put your "grinders" on the ice and have them block shots, win puck battles, and pester the opposition. While each of these are components to penalty killing, the system that a team employs is far more important. For this piece, I will focus only on 5v4 penalty kill situations and not 5v3 or 4v3 as both of those has a separate ideology. There are a variety of systems out there, namely the diamond, box, and the wedge +1. Under assistant coach Tony Granato, the Red Wings have primarily employed the wedge +1, a system we will spend some time dissecting now.
Wedge +1 Penalty Kill
The basic idea of the Wedge +1 is to neutralize the most dangerous scoring area on the ice, the slot, while empowering one player to wreak havoc.
Shown here is the Wedge +1 defending against a 1-3-1 powerplay. The players in red labeled "D" and "L" form the wedge to protect the slot and the net front area while the player in red labeled "C" is free to attack the puck carrier and cause havoc. This penalty kill formation requires the forwards to have great instincts on when to chase, the correct angle to chase at, and when it's time to switch positions. As the puck is swung from side to side, the previously attacking forward will join the wedge while the forward that was in the wedge will step out to attack. Observe below how this transition should work.
Before we talk about the wedge +1 in-zone defensive coverage, we first have to discuss how the Red Wings forecheck while on the penalty kill.
Penalty Kill Forechecking
There are a plethora of forechecking options that range from extremely aggressive to very passive. Strategies such as the tandem pressure are very aggressive while the 1-3 is often very passive. The Red Wings for the most part utilize the passive 1-3, making sure to avoid giving up any odd-man rushes while on the penalty kill. Below is an animation showing how the passive 1-3 works, followed by a real life example.
In this clip, pass close attention to the player in red labeled "C". This player represents the "1" in the 1-3 forecheck and is responsible for funneling the player with the puck to one side of the ice. When done well, this player is able to funnel the puck carrier to their backhand side and force them to make a challenged dump in. However, this player will not be overly aggressive in trying to force a turnover unless they are certain that they can win the puck battle. See a real life example below:
You can see in this clip that Luke Glendening represents the "1". He is responsible for steering the Toronto Maple Leafs puck carrier to one side of the ice. Drew Miller, and the two Red Wings defensemen are responsible for making sure that nobody gets behind them for a stretch pass. Additionally, the two defensemen are responsible for standing up at the blue line to force a dump-in. In the video above, you can see that as Glendening funnels the Maple Leafs skater to the right side of the ice, Jonathan Ericsson shifts over and then attempts a poke check at the blue to force a dump-in. The entire system is based on the ability of the "1" to steer the puck carrier to a standing defensemen to force a dump-in.
The major advantages of this forechecking system are that if played correctly, the PK will allow very few controlled entries and will not allow many odd-man rushes as multiple players are always back defensively. The downside is that this forechecking strategy is unlikely to force offensive and neutral zone turnovers and for the most part allows the powerplay to gain center ice with speed. Additionally, this PK forechecking system can fall victim to the drop pass, which can negate the "1" and allow a player with speed to go against a stationary defender.
You can see in the video above how Carolina Hurricanes' defenseman Justin Faulk engages Glendening and then leaves a drop pass to Ryan Murphy who easily beats a stationary Niklas Kronwall for a controlled entry. This is why the "1" has to be careful of engaging too early if he is not certain that he will win the puck battle.
Penalty Kill In-Zone Coverage
Once inside the zone, the wedge +1 will take shape and start to pressure the powerplay. Check out this video example from an early season game against Tampa at how effective this wedge +1 can be.
In this clip, notice how well Drew Miller and Riley Sheahan get out to the points to force passes. Additionally, notice how Sheahan closes the gap on the Tampa players on the far side boards, but doesn't pull himself out of position. This allows him to jump on the bobbled pass and immediately turn up ice. This is a classic example of how the forward positions rotate on the wedge +1 and how good positioning can allow you to jump on bobbled passes.
However, with great power comes great responsibility. The Wings have empowered their penalty killers to play aggressively, but the Wings have often been burned by this. The video below provides an excellent example of this.
In this example, notice how both Red Wings forwards get trapped on the left side of the ice when Joakim Andersson crosses over and Sheahan drops into the wedge. The mistake here is when Sheahan elects to leave the wedge to pressure the point while Andersson is still on the left boards. Andersson's responsibility now becomes to get out to Shea Weber which he has zero chance of doing from the boards. Thus, Weber is afforded an open one-timer that he can step into with only one man to beat. Take a look at the animated sequence below demonstrating responsibilities and how they change as the puck is being moved around.
You could certainly argue that Andersson shouldn't have chased all the way to the left boards and that he should have allowed Sheahan to take over. However, once Andersson makes that move, Sheahan has to know that he can't switch into attack mode when Andersson is on that side. What should have happened is Andersson should have been responsible for chasing out to the point from the left boards, with Sheahan being conscious of the pass to Weber and being ready to step out.
Overaggressiveness has been a major problem for the Red Wings the past couple of seasons, particularly with Glendening and Sheahan. As soon as one player plays too aggressively, the entire system is subject to failure.
In this example, Sheahan unnecessarily attacks a slow pass down low that he is unlikely to intercept. Because of his jump, Andersson now becomes the +1 and is responsible for getting out to the point man. However, Andersson is busy appropriately applying pressure to the man in the slot so he has zero opportunity to get out to the point. The New Jersey Devils defenseman has a wide open shooting lane and gets a fortunate redirection for a goal.
While the Red Wings employ an ultra-aggressive in-zone penalty kill, they still take many unnecessary risks in trying to force turnovers. Not all of their unnecessary gambles result in goals, but they often lead to wide open shots. Additionally, the gambles prevent the penalty killers from being in the right spots to retrieve rebounds. This is why at times it has felt like the Red Wings get hemmed in their own zone on penalty kills and why they are sometimes lucky to survive a kill. The Wings rank 27th in shorthanded shot attempts against and 22nd in shorthanded shots against. A more disciplined penalty kill will go a long way towards correcting those numbers and hopefully preventing a slide similar to last season.