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Fancy Stats Simplified: Systems and Passing

Mentions of pizza at all time lows, I actually get into a basic fundamental that evil coaches are trying to kill in today's sport. (Imagine a sad-face emoticon, which I will not make for you, but IMAGINE IT.)

Here is a Ducks defensemen mentioned in my post
Here is a Ducks defensemen mentioned in my post
Victor Decolongon

Last post was a massive digression. This week, SRS BSNS!

And I’m jumping right in, because this has the opportunity to be my longest post yet, even without the jesting.

Hockey is a pretty simple game when everything is broken down: score more goals than your opponent. As I’ve touched on previously, possessing the puck more correlates with a greater chance to make that happen. As I also mentioned before, a good defense drives stronger possession.

Easy peasy. But how does it all come together? Systems, dawg.

The game of hockey takes place in three zones. The system of play in each area differs, but ultimately the goal of two of them is to progress the puck into the offensive zone. And the goal in the offensive zone is pizza (Post 2). Unless people clamor for it, I’m not going into an in-depth zone by zone breakdown – too deep for my P-mets sensibilities. (Maybe I’ll do so for the Boudreau Ducks after some games into the season.)

But here comes the Randy Carlyle stuff. Why him? Because while Boudreau is finally getting a full offseason to work with. The team we see was mostly built with Carlyle’s input and coaching structure in mind. The meta-story for this upcoming season to me will be watching what differences Boudreau’s system will have on players who adhered to the previous system. Was the performance of Corey Perry last season a clue into some adjustment troubles? Who knows. But Ryan Getzlaf, Perry, Saku Koivu, maybe Teemu Selanne, Andrew Cogliano, Jonas Hiller, Francois Beauchemin, Luca Sbisa, and Cam Fowler are all dudes who played under Carlyle and thus "learned" to play his system, good and bad. The young ones like Getzlaf and Perry and Fowler are of primary note to me because he’s all they’ve experienced in the NHL prior to Kirbs.

I’m going to stay with puck movement and progression for now, since it more loosely applies to the possession metaphor I’ve been working with this summer. I’m going to start on defense because working it out from there will eventually bring into discussion all three zones. Unless I magically turn less verbose, you can probably expect a series of posts about this then. (Yay for killing time during offseason summer weeks!)

Carlyle has been looked at as some kind of defensive genius. Maybe he is. The problem is, as I touched on earlier (defense post), good defense includes decent puck movement. Carlyle defenses don’t typically move the puck very well. While his setup might be the most brilliant stuff ever to grace the ice, without that movement, it’s all just staving off scoring chances against and not generating them. Games are not won this way, and coaches don’t get fired when teams win games.

See, Carlyle was actually a very safe coach – which is weird, considering who he was as a player. By this, I mean his breakout and puck movement scheme specifically. He wanted a lot of passing – more on this in a second – but wanted them kept to the side, away from the middle. That’s also smart in some cases, but there’s always more space in the middle of the ice, which is the tradeoff.

Now, a safer, less risky scheme generally works well with a team lacking skill overall. It isn’t a bad strategy. But safe generally means reactive play, not directing play, and possessing the puck is directing play. A rigid structure and adherence to it can beat individual achievement on a whole, but part of that rigidity in this case will rely heavily on a goaltender being the best player, because it is a sort of counterattacking system (recall my Gold Cup game stuff here).

I say that because safe play starts in the defensive zone…or at best ends up there very quickly. "Safe" offensively is perimeter shots and/or cycling the puck along the boards (opposed to a good puck moving cycle) and/or dumping the puck in. I could write six posts about the flaws in that style of game – specifically, dump and chase. I hate it. Nothing is more intrinsically antithetical to scoring goals than dumping the puck. "International" players learn a soccer-style scheme of regrouping to gain the zone with speed and possession over dumping it in. (This is why the Red Wings are called a possession team, when really it’s just not dumping the damn puck in very much.)

Carlyle LOVED dumping it in. I will touch on this a lot in a different post. I’ll even post some numbers at that time, because it is staggering how obvious dumping the puck is in killing offense. Anyway, a safe offense will give the puck to the opposing team pretty quick – due to dumping it or shooting it on the perimeter or holding onto it to "cycle" too long – so back to square one: safe play starts in the d-zone.

Carlyle preached safe passes, almost always to the boards and away from the middle of the ice. There is a reason for this, but it isn’t sound in the same way giving up the puck isn’t a good way to improve your chances of scoring with it. I have to digress to get point that out though. You are overjoyed.

Passing is a key component of directing puck movement, which is a key component of possession. A good pass is the ideal to move the puck in nearly all cases. "Good" is the relative part of that, but the gist is: a moving puck is ALWAYS faster than a moving skater. To get the puck away from pressure more quickly and efficiently, a pass is good.

A good pass is one of these things: sending the puck to a teammate with space (not under pressure); sending the puck to a teammate who has speed (less pressure than the passer); sending the puck to a teammate near the goal (pressure is irrelevant due to proximity to pizza oven). Sending the pass forward is a false perception of a good pass, but that isn’t always the best option. Space and pressure are the real keys, for obvious reasons.

In the defensive zone, keeping the puck out of the middle of the ice (the slot, the home plate, the "house," whatever) is smart – but more so when reacting. When directing the puck, things reverse. Using areas with space improve possession, which increases its ability to be used properly (to score). Consider: when a defenseman gets the puck in the faceoff circle and looks up to skate or pass, he has 360 degrees with which to work. If he’s along the boards, his basic mobility, or space, is cut in half.

Furthermore, re-gaining the puck against the boards is easier to accomplish with a sheer brute force tactic. Charging in, poking the stick wildly, knocking the defenseman against the glass to unbalance him and unseat the puck works out, because if a forechecker misses he isn’t going that far away from his man. The puck might leave, but the man is there, and that’s one fewer man who can join the possession game. This is why, even when a guy is clearly going to get the puck away, a forechecker will "finish his check" to remove the man from play. The puck goes, but there’s a trade most coaches will accept there.

Re-gaining the puck in open ice is much trickier, and if an attacking player misses, the puck and the man can go in literally any direction. Not only that, it is much harder to "finish a check" against a guy in open ice. The forechecker can’t come in as reckless in this case, and the defender has far more options to relieve pressure (and thus KEEP the puck).

But open ice isn’t "safe" because a turnover or takeaway there has a much higher chance of being shot at net. So there you go. Safe is along the boards, where a turnover has less of a chance to burn you (but you also have a higher chance of losing it). It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? One of the biggest fundamental changes in hockey in the last, say, 40 years is how this is coached. We’re presently in a very defensive, reactive mindset here, because most coaches will tell you to keep the puck away from the middle, which is a "safe" but totally limiting strategy. Look at the positive possession teams (check the top of the standings, sans the Ducks and Leafs aberrations) and note that all of them have good puck moving defensemen who skate and pass well in space, not from the boards.

That’s why Carlyle preached quick, safe passes on his breakout. Less risk. Less chance of a successful breakout and transition to offense. But less risk, and dammit isn’t NOT being scored on what the game is all about? (Well, no, it’s scoring.)

Clearly I’m not a fan of safer systems. I dislike that one of the basic tenets of puck possession – solid passing, with the purpose of making the pizza so much tastier – gets coached out of the game at certain stages to prevent goals instead of score them. But also, the practice of it sucks to watch: I hated watching Carlyle’s Ducks hemmed in the zone because once they gained the disc, it went to the boards, or maybe up along the boards toward the neutral zone – where the opposing team’s defense usually kept it in pretty easy. It was predictable. It was boring. It was safe, but…well, success is all chance-based when you aren’t gambling smart.

I’ll pick this up again next time, probably skipping straight to the dump and chase because why not.