Unlike a singular rigid structure in the defensive zone, neutral and offensive zone systems fluctuate upon game factors including score, time remaining, and game situation (5v5 or 4v4). They also vary line to line and shift to shift.
Varying conditions make it difficult to really pin down one specific system being applied as a core philosophy, while personnel and opposition systems further muddy the set of variables that need to be addressed. The philosophy holds the entire system together, with other variables contributing to the on-ice decisions.
A primary proponent to score effects, a passive forecheck is desired when defending a lead with some variation of a passive 1-2-2 formation as its primary component.
Teams playing from behind and looking for a goal would likely implement a more aggressive approach, using variations of a 2-1-2 set up. If, for instance, it’s the start of the game and teams want to establish a presence, they can use a 2-3 press.
The main phrase to remember is aggressively passive.
With these formations in mind, I stopped trying to focus specifically on the core system and tried to view their adaptation during the play with the end result of providing a small glimpse into explaining why coach Randy Carlyle is viewed as a primarily defensively-oriented bench boss.
I initially wanted to incorporate regroups as well as counters in the neutral zone, but almost every good NHL team is able to regroup and try to find entry into the zone and there were more pressing matters to tie into the overall view of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For the sake of what is troubling Toronto, it was better to look at the tie-ins as to the reasons they’re spending so much time in their own defensive zone, and that all begins with forechecking systems.
As presented in analytic pieces, controlling and maintaining the neutral zone seems to be the starting point from where the Leafs begin to operate under controlled conditions, but are woefully weak, and in turn allow easy entry into their own zone.
For the Leafs, the formula seems to be an aggressive offensive zone forecheck, bolstered by passive neutral zone formations, followed by easy entry into the defensive zone. At which point the defensive zone woes begin, but we won’t rehash that here.
Let’s start here, with the word being passive.
This begins shortly after the Leafs cleared the zone .. sort of. I should restate that as, Cam Fowler bobbled the puck at the line and it came out of the zone. The momentum changes from the Leafs forecheck.
Initial reaction to the play is passive, especially in regards to Mason Raymond (I won’t expand on here, but he’s systematically suspect as a decision-maker, despite his success this season).
It’s an even strength situation with Joffrey Lupul watching the puck carrier, just like the other forwards. Lupul has forward momentum, and Mason Raymond slows looking for the set up in the neutral zone.
The chase moves into the Ducks zone and pushes to behind the net with three Ducks players in their zone, and only one Leafs player within that frame. Just outside of the frame at the blue line are two Leafs players. Waiting. Just lining up in formation, but not forcing anything.
Fowler outskates Lupul, swinging from behind the net at full flight.
The forwards start backing up as Fowler makes the pass to the awaiting Ducks forward, who tips it into the zone down the left wing side where Bernier is able to play it from behind the net to the winger and move the puck out of the Leaf zone.
That four-skater formation in neutral zone is a common set up, waiting for the play to come to them instead of forcing the issue; for the most part, it’s fairly successful at forcing dump ins and successful puck retrieval.
That play ended up originating from a breakdown at the Leafs blueline.
Let’s see what happens when the play originates in the offensive zone.
Here what you see is the first forward engaging the puck carrier as there’s a pass D to D, before moving the puck up the strong side to the neutral zone where there are players waiting to engage. Along with the player exiting the zone is backside pressure. The puck is sent back into the zone with another D to D pass, this time with Kessel as the first forechecker. The pass is made across and the Ducks end up moving out of the zone once again. Tyler Bozak takes Kessel’s spot on the forecheck in the middle pairing at center in the 1-2-2 formation. The Leafs again wait for the play to come to them.
A solid explanation of what the 2-1-2 looks like based on the type of support from the second player is in this video here from Jeremy Weiss. He talked about the ‘spread’ versus ‘stack’ and the way teams approach a deeper forecheck with two players.
Teams using a ‘spread’ try to limit the D to D pass and apply pressure if that pass does occur. The point once again is to engage the puck carrier, finish the hit, and retrieve the puck.
When using a ‘stack’ forecheck, forwards both enter the zone on the strong side, with the first man pinning the carrier and the second retrieving the puck.
Both formations have their inherent risks and rewards, and they’re both also interchangeable depending on game situation, and the ability of personnel to read the play.
The ability of personnel to react after a successful read is probably the most important aspect tied to any successful system. Teams can always stay within the structure of their philosophy, however they must be able to adapt to this ever-changing conditions present on the ice, on top of the game conditions.
The main point about a deep forecheck using this style as we recall is the first forechecker getting in hard, making the hit and pinning the player, while the second player picks up the loose puck.
This is one area where the Leafs sadly just don’t conform. The first player may get in hard finishing checks, but the support player struggles to pick up that loose puck. It makes it very easy for teams to move the puck back out of the zone and start back up ice.
Let’s look at the game against Pittsburgh, with a fairly aggressive forechecking style at the end of November.
There’s a good example when Bozak engages Crosby and finishes his hit, shortly after #87 makes his pass across to the other side. James Van Riemsdyk then gets hard onto that defenseman and finishes his check right after the puck is sent up to the halfwall. Of note at this point is how Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel retreat immediately to the neutral zone, as a pass is being made back across ice with Kessel once again confronting the puck carrier and Van Riemsdyk finishing the check.
Kessel is then stranded as the pass goes back to the other corner, and this time the puck gets out over the line with Tyler Bozak as the mid-lane lock in the neutral zone.
It’s just too easy to get out of the defensive zone. In the second part of that video, similar procedure occurs where the pass across the ice from one defenseman to the other leads to pass outside of the zone, with the puck bobbled and picked up by the Leafs and entered back into the zone.
The point in that one is just how easy it is to break through the Leafs aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck and get the puck out to center ice – bobbling aside. It’s like the Leafs are waiting for the other team to make a mistake and capitalize on that instead of generating turnovers with a strong forecheck.
In the last snippet, Jerred Smithson approaches the puck carrier sets up from behind the net, yet gets into close to the goaltender and is absolutely useless in trying to set any forechecking pressure, making it easy to get out of the zone. We will see this again from the fourth line again shortly.
That’s the theme. It doesn’t matter what type of system you’re playing, if it’s easy to get out of the zone, the puck will immediately get back into your own defensive zone, and we all know what happens when that occurs.
This take a look at what happened versus the New York Islanders, a game where the Leafs easily won.
The video starts with Nik Kulemin as the loan forechecker in the offensive zone chasing the puck carrier and taking away the cross ice pass to the other defenseman. This creates a lot of space on the strong side to get the puck out of the zone.
The second little snippet features the Leafs with puck possession trying to cycle, losing it and the forecheck set up with direct pressure from within the offensive zone. As the puck moves behind the net Kessel is the first player to engage, can’t finish the check, with some confusion via JVR also trying to apply pressure and leaving distribution options along the half wall, affording the Islanders the ability to just skate out of the zone. Even if they were playing this correctly, the high forward in the zone is already checked and in no position to engage the puck carrier. Now it’s scramble mode.
Formation is secondary here, the fact that it’s really easy to get the puck out the main point.
The next item in this video that is somewhat baffling, once you realize that it’s the Leafs fourth line doing forechecking, particularly Colton Orr. At the point where the pressure is being applied by the first forward getting in, nobody goes to the puck carrier. Both head directly to the front of the net.
Frazer McLaren tries to cut off the skater moving up the weak side and once the defenseman stopped in the back of the net, the perfect opportunity to engage by Colton Orr was foregone for the opportunity to just sit in front.
Both players could be covered with a blanket, offering room for the Islanders to move the puck out of the zone and that’s exactly what happened. The actual end result within 3 seconds of that play was a shot on goal at the Leafs net. So much for forechecking pressure.
The third part of that video shows how the Leafs use a 1-2-2 formation directly off the faceoff. The play is broken up at the Islanders blueline with Paul Ranger sending the puck back in deep with Peter Holland applying forechecking pressure in a 2-1-2 spread as Phil Kessel becomes the player forcing the defenseman after the first pass. He’s a little slow getting there and the defenseman moves it up the strong side.
Some of these could be simple positional errors; they can’t only be attributed to a systemic breakdown. The onus on the players to stay within the concept of the system is based on their on ice decisions and ability to read the play, react to changes in variations, and flexibility to adapt to changing conditions.
Let’s move on and take a look at the Nashville game a few days later, where the Predators Barry Trotz referred to the Leafs as being a team that likes to score off the rush. Perhaps it’s not the ability to score off the rush and more of the inability to establish and sustain a proper forecheck.
Even with that similar aggressive style, getting the puck out of the zone was ABC-123 for the Preds. Toronto had two players in a control breakout situation and allowed the defenseman to get that first pass up and get the puck out of the zone.
In the third part, even with a partially successful forecheck as Nik Kulemin engages Ryan Ellis in the corner – completing the hit and the second player coming in and retrieving the puck – Nashville eventually fights and wins the puck and easily gets the puck out using the strong side.
The last part shows a similar forecheck, only this time without any support to retrieve the puck, making a small enough gap for an easy short pass to the defensive zone support player that eventually moves into the middle of the ice and out of the zone.
It’s no wonder the Leafs struggle with limited offensive zone time. Without the ability to establish a strong forecheck and sustain pressure, opposition are finding it way too easy to get the puck out of the zone and back up the ice.
The only time there seems to be any semblance of forechecking success is when they line up four players strong in the neutral zone and force a dump in.
And that’s too passive to be successful.
Special teams are next.