Getting To Know Jeff Blashill's System - Defensive Zone Breakouts

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 own zone, how the Red Wings enter the offensive zone, and how the Red Wings set up their forecheck. This will be a three-part series and the first part will focus on how the Red Wings break out of the defensive zone.

What Is A Zone Breakout?

In simple terms, it is when a team reclaims possession of the puck in their own zone and looks to make the initial pass to start the offensive attack. Jen Lute Costella broke this down in a manner far better than I ever will be able to earlier this year and I would highly recommend checking out her piece. Essentially, there are a variety of plays that a team can use to transition the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone with the two most common plays being a motion regroup and a lane regroup. The Red Wings have employed a few different breakout plays this year, but the most common one I've noticed is the motion regroup.

The Motion Regroup

Words won't do this justice so check out the animated drawing I've done to illustrate what the breakout should look like. Imagine the Red Wings as the team with the puck in blue and the opponent is in a 1-2-2 forecheck in red.

Essentially, the RW takes place over on the far right hand boards and cuts across center ice while the C and LW wheel in the defensive zone to build speed and then cut on diagonals as well. In the mean time, the puck is moved from D1 to D2 to open up the passing lanes across the formation. The advantages of this type of breakout is that the forwards often have a good head of steam built up and can catch the opposition's defensemen flat-footed. The down-side is that sometimes this play is difficult to read for the passing defenseman as the C and LW sometimes will switch skating lanes based on the coverage. This can make it tough for the passing defenseman to know where the forwards will be and the defenseman might panic and rush the first pass available. Now that you've seen an animated version, check out a gif of the Wings performing this exact play.

In this clip, watch how Glendening (C) and Miller (LW) wheel towards the right boards and then start to cut diagonally across the neutral zone as Ferraro (RW) cuts across the neutral zone to receive the pass down ice. In this instance you can see that Ericsson moves the puck quickly once he receives it instead of allowing the play to develop. This resulted in a rushed pass down ice that became an icing. Ottawa defended this breakout well by having their forwards drift back, making it difficult for the Detroit forwards to get open. One of the great things about the Motion Regroup formation is that there are a variety of plays that can be performed out of this set. Below is a common play utilized by the Red Wings to break up the 1-2-2 forecheck.

D-to-D Flat Pass

Sometimes, when the defense plays a 1-2-2 forecheck that has the top forwards sitting back in the neutral zone, it can be very difficult to execute the motion regroup as depicted in the video above. One of the modifications that can be done is known as the D-to-D Flat Pass that focuses on hitting the defenseman with speed who then hits the center with speed to get through the neutral zone cleanly. Check out the animated gif below demonstrating this breakout play.

As you can see, D1 hits D2 with a pass in stride which beats the center or "1" of the 1-2-2 forecheck. This forces one of the wingers of the "2" in the 1-2-2 forecheck to step up and take the defenseman. As soon as this happens, the defenseman slides a quick pass over to the center who is breaking through with speed on the side that was just vacated by the forechecker. This play has a high success rate for the Red Wings as they often use Kronwall as the passing defenseman and their centers have a lot of speed. Check out the gif below showing how the Red Wings run this play with Kronwall and Helm.

As you can see Ericsson hits Kronwall in stride who finds a streaking Helm who easily gains the offensive zone. This play forces the opposition to be more aggressive on the forecheck, as the Wings can build up serious speed before entering the neutral zone. The downside to this play is that it requires very quick decision-making from the Red Wings defenseman, especially if the opposition's defenseman pinches up to take away the center. Unfortunately, that's been a weakness for Detroit ever since Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom retired. Nonetheless, they are still able to employ this play when Kronwall or Green are on the ice.

Stretch Play

One play that has been noticeably missing through the first 11 games of the season is the stretch play. Last March, Justin Abdelkader made the stretch play famous as he scored a number of breakaway goals off of pretty feeds. Below is an animation depicting how the stretch play is set up.

In this image you see the center and left winger will both wheel and switch lanes while the right winger cuts up the ice and then darts across the middle off the ice towards the opposition's blue line. Justin Abdelkader was a master at this and the Wings exploited his abilities several times last March. Below is a modified version of this play that resulted in an Abdelkader breakaway goal versus Arizona.

There's a lot that happens in this play that you can't see so I'll try and break it down via an animation.

What allows this breakout to happen is that Arizona's D-man chases Zetterberg all the way up the boards into the the Red Wings defensive zone. At the same time, the RW for Arizona elects to go for a change, leaving the entire left side of the ice wide open. Unknowingly, the Arizona LW continues to press into the offensive zone while the Arizona C drops back to cover the left side of the ice for his left-winger. Only problem is that the pinching defenseman has not recovered. Abdelkader picks up on this and breaks off his wheel route early and turns up towards the offensive blue line. Kindl hits him with a beautiful stretch pass and the rest is history.

In my review of the Red Wings breakout system, there is not really a whole lot different from Babcock's system last year. More than anything, I've just noticed the Red Wings forwards making the wrong reads or Red Wings defensemen trying to make a pass before the breakout develops. Guys are pressing when they don't need to and they aren't playing as instinctively as they did last year. The Abdelkader goal is a great example of this. Instead of cycling back down low and then wheeling, Abdelkader simply turns to the middle of the ice and looks for the stretch pass. As the Wings players become more comfortable with the subtle changes, I expect the game to open back up. The stretch pass is one of those plays that comes later as players feel comfortable in the system and it may be why we haven't seen it utilized yet. Regardless, the breakouts are getting better and look for the Wings to open up the neutral zone more and more each game.