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On Jeff Blashill’s 200-foot game

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Risk/reward shouldn’t be all-or-none

Detroit Red Wings v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For those of us who have willingly spent the time watching the Detroit Red Wings play hockey over the last several seasons, I don’t feel an explainer on the team’s system is truly necessary. For those who haven’t, I think you can get a good enough idea on how the team plays based on how they’re 2nd-to-last in the league for offensive output and just outside the top-ten for goals against per game.

Detroit plays a careful shell system. In the defensive zone, they collapse around the middle of the ice, allowing teams to cycle around the non-dangerous edges more-freely. In the offensive zone, they enter just as carefully and comport themselves within the zone the same.

That’s not to say wingers don’t ever pinch the points or defensemen don’t ever come up the boards, but it’s clear in watching that the Wings’ style is one designed to counterattack mistakes rather than force them.

In a recent article at the Athletic, Max Bultman had a conversation with Jeff Blashill about this. The article is paywalled and so I won’t just quote the entire thing, but Max sums Blashill’s comments up nicely here:

The implication of Blashill’s words is that some teams and players are propped up in the regular season by a brand of offense that doesn’t allow them to win in the playoffs. Meanwhile, others create offense while being responsible, and those teams continue to win.

The other key piece is a snippet from Blashill just below in the article:

To me, everything’s about risk-reward. What’s the reward for the play versus what the risk is. And you obviously want the reward to be really high and the risk low, and if you do that on a consistent basis, you’re going to win tons of games.

The beauty of the way this is all presented is that it makes a lot of sense. Cheating for offense can get you more points and it might even get you a few more regular season wins, but if the core is rotten then you’re not developing toward what any NHL team should be - winning the Stanley Cup.

Learning how to play a 200-foot game is, in my opinion, a critical piece of the development of a championship caliber team.

Now here’s where we get to the problems.

First and foremost, the idea of training to win deep into the playoffs for this Red Wings team is a little like telling a person who has never finished a 5k that their marathon training today is going to be an “easy ten-miler.” Yes, you’ve got to instill the good habits, but for a youth core that’s still learning in the NHL, the habits should be reinforced with the exploration of why they’re necessary.

My biggest worry about the approach to the 200-foot game for this Red Wings team is what Igor Larionov wrote about in The Players’ Tribune back in 2015:

The problem is more philosophical and starts way before players get to the NHL. It’s easier to destroy than to create. As a coach, it’s easier to tell your players to suffocate the opposing team and not turn the puck over. There are still players whose imagination and creativity capture the Soviet spirit — Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago just to name a few. However, they are becoming exceptions to the rule. Many young players who are intelligent and can see the game four moves ahead are not valued. They’re told “simple, simple, simple.”

Nobody ever accused Igor Larionov of not playing a 200-foot game, did they?

Here’s the lone specific example of a risk-reward play from Blashill in the Athletic article:

And when guys can come into the zone and you’ve gotta beat one stick with a saucer pass? No problem. Try to make that play. If you’re coming to the offensive blue line and there’s two guys and it’s a one-on-two, and you try to beat them both? Come on. It’s not happening in the National Hockey League. Almost never.

How many times have you seen a guy split two defenders? How many times have you seen a guy try to split two defenders and have the puck knocked off his stick only for it to be picked up by a trailing teammate who now has a lot of extra room thanks to the collapsed defense?

I don’t like this example. Sure there are lots of times when making this play leads to a turnover and a chance the other way, but those are always contingent on a mistake being made somewhere else alongside this specific turnover.

Ultimately, I really like the risk/reward calculus behind the strategy and believe it’s a good way to go, but I don’t trust in Jeff Blashill’s calculations. I think his style boils down to “don’t take risks and wait for rewards”.

I think the team’s play over the last few seasons shows that quite clearly.

In terms of the process of development, my biggest fear is that this is being trained into young players who learn much better about which risks they can take to get rewards by actually trying them out. I don’t mind the team scoring more goals in 2021 and also allowing more if it’s going to lead to Filip Zadina knowing better how NHL defenders are going to react to a specific stickhandling move at the offensive blue line on a 1-on-2 he’s leading in 2023.

Avoiding unnecessary risks to “cheat” for offense is a wonderful concept and a completely defensible position for Jeff Blashill. Unfortunately we lean towards no risks and I’m deeply concerned that slows the learning process down for a team that can afford to make creative mistakes.