As the 2015-2016 season starts to wind down, the Detroit Red Wings are working hard to clinch their 25th consecutive playoff berth. With 75 points already in the bag and 19 games to go, the Red Wings are 3rd in the Atlantic Division with a six-point lead over the 9th-place Philadelphia Flyers. While they are in great position right now, there have been some troubling tendencies that have popped up over the last few weeks. Namely, it has become very noticeable that the Red Wings are struggling to break out of their zone cleanly.
What Goes Into A Breakout Play?
Breakout plays can start off of a loose puck recovery in the defensive zone, after puck recovery on a dump-in, or they can be controlled setups against minimal pressure. I've already briefly touched on Detroit's controlled breakout plays in an earlier piece this season, so I will spend a majority of my time discussing puck recovery off of a dump-in. As soon as the offensive player makes the decision to dump the puck in, several things happen over the next few seconds.
The first decision made is which defenseman will go back for the puck. As the retrieving defenseman skates back to retrieve the puck, he's relying on his defense partner, goaltender, and three forwards to read the forechecking pressure and call out the appropriate play. Plays you might hear are "wheel", "up", or "reverse". Goaltenders will usually call out "time" or "pressure" to the defenseman to let him know how aggressive the forecheck is. Additionally, as the defenseman is going back to retrieve the puck, he should take a look over both shoulders to get an idea of how the forecheck has set up and where his outlet options are located. Depending on the degree of forechecking pressure and the play called out by his teammates, the defender will make a maneuver to begin the breakout. Seems simple enough, right?
Reading The Forecheck
A majority of defensive lapses occur when the forechecking pressure is incorrectly read and the wrong play is made by the retrieving defensemen or supporting teammates. Forecheck pressure can be broken down into three types - no forecheck, close forecheck (>6 feet away), and hard forecheck (within 6 feet away). In the scenario of no forechecking pressure, the defenseman has time to retrieve the puck, stop, and setup a controlled zone exit. A real life example is shown to you below.
No Forecheck Pressure
Mike Green sees goaltender Jimmy Howard coming out of the net and recognizes that he has plenty of time. He slowly retrieves the puck and waits behind the play for the Red Wings to begin their breakout play.
Close Forecheck Pressure
In this scenario, the forecheck is present, but not so close that the forechecker could physically hit the defenseman. Think of the forechecker being at least six feet away from the retrieving defenseman. The objective for the retrieving defenseman is to pick up the puck and either make a slight move to lose the forechecker, or make a quick pass to counteract the forechecker's speed. The overarching goal is for the defenseman to either buy time for himself to make a play or to get the puck to another player who has more time to make a play. An example of this is shown below.
In this example, you see Danny DeKeyser identify the forechecker and assess his oncoming speed. Recognizing that the forechecker is not pursuing aggressively, DeKeyeser slows up as he approaches the puck and then makes a subtle back pass to Kyle Quincey who then makes another reverse pass up the boards to start the breakout.
Hard Forecheck Pressure
Finally, with hard forecheck pressure, the forechecker is right on top of the defenseman and will likely be able to physically check the retrieving defenseman. In this scenario, the retrieving defenseman has one responsibility - protect the puck. Most defensemen will slow down and brace themselves for the hit, or even "reverse hit" and launch their shoulder into the oncoming forechecker. While retrieving the puck, the defenseman should be thinking about how his support is setup and where his breakout options are located. An example of hard forecheck pressure is shown to you below.
In this play, Alexey Marchenko recognizes the aggressive pressure being applied and rapidly identifies his outlet pass to Tomas Jurco. He takes the hit to make the play and the Wings are able to exit the zone cleanly.
Detroit's Struggle On Forechecking Reads
When you evaluate Detroit's defensemen from a skating standpoint, you aren't exactly blown away by their abilities. Ericsson, Quincey, and Niklas Kronwall are not exactly the most fleet-footed while DeKeyser, Green, and Marchenko could all be considered above average skaters. As a result, I've found that one of the biggest issues plaguing Detroit is that they read "close" pressure far too often as "hard" pressure. Instead of looking to create separation and space with a quick move or a quick pass, Detroit's defensemen are more apt to slow up as they approach the puck and look to protect the puck. This allows the forecheck to close in on the defenseman and create a board battle. An example of this is shown below:
Here, Green has plenty of time to skate back to the puck, but because of the angle he takes to the puck, he has no opportunity to pick up the puck with speed. As a result, this "close" forecheck pressure quickly becomes "hard" forecheck pressure and as a result, Dallas almost forces a turnover. Now on this particular example I think you might find two groups of people. The first group, agreeing with me, will point out that Green had ample time to create something himself even though Dallas defended his outlet options well. The second group, which I think will fall more in line with the Detroit fanbase, commends Green for recognizing that he didn't have a safe play and eating the puck on the boards.
I think the second line of thinking is a product of the low-event system that Detroit has employed for several years. Defensemen are instructed to not take chances. They are asked to make the safe plays. In this situation, Green could have certainly tried to skate the puck out himself, or make a drop pass to Ericsson or Andreas Athanasiou behind him. However, these would not have been "safer" options when compared to eating the puck along the boards. Here's another example where a "close" forecheck is turned into a "hard" forecheck due to a poor read by the defensemen.
In this clip, Quincey braces himself for a hit as he retrieves the puck which leads to a slow initial pass to Ericsson. Ericsson is then immediately pressured and throws it back to Quincey, who instead of turning the puck up ice, elects to pass it back to Ericsson. After playing hot potato for a couple more seconds, Ericsson finally fires the puck along the boards and out of the zone. For Detroit, this is fine in their low-event system as this was the "safest" play. However, I kept the clip rolling to show you the ramifications of giving up the puck as an unforced turnover. Dallas quickly retrieves the puck and is able to get up ice before Detroit can set up their neutral zone defense. This allows for an easy controlled entry for the Stars and results in a fairly dangerous scoring chance.
Obviously you all know where I'm heading here. I've been a big Brendan Smith supporter, almost to a fault this year, and one of the big reasons why is that he is the only Red Wings defenseman consistently willing to take chances at creating offense. It's why he leads all Red Wings defensemen in 5v5 Corsi For per 60 and is second in 5v5 scoring chances per 60 and 5v5 high-danger scoring chances per 60. However, his skills on the breakout are also a significant contributing factor as to why he leads all Red Wings defensemen in 5v5 Corsi Against per 60 and 5v5 scoring chances against per 60. Successful, controlled breakouts prevent rapid re-entries by the opposition and can therefore reduce the number of shot attempts faced by your team. Plays like the one shown below demonstrate why he can be so valuable to this Red Wings team.
And again, another great little breakout play by Smith. He's Detroit's best at starting the rush pic.twitter.com/epiuUnLbAj— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) January 5, 2016
Unfortunately, Smith doesn't fix everything. The return of Smith doesn't even come close to fixing the problem of immobile defensemen. Fortunately, with guys like Xavier Ouellet, Joe Hicketts, and Vili Saarijarvi in the pipeline, the Wings have the potential to rapidly improve their zone exits over the next few years.
Ultimately, zone exits are a team process. The entirety of the blame cannot be placed on the defenders alone. In the Green example above, it's clear that he had very limited outlet options and he would have been forced to create for himself. However, as the season has progressed, it's become evident that the Wings defenders are far more willing to do whatever it takes to get the puck out of the zone as opposed to looking for a controlled exit. Unfortunately, as stated previously, this is not an easy fix as it would require a significant overhaul of personnel and philosophy. The Wings are best to recognize their limitations and focus on providing strong support from the forwards to generate clean zone breakouts.