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This post was inspired by an email I received asking me if I would mind elaborating on what exactly Justin Bourne was getting at in one of his System Analyst posts. So, what I’m saying is, when this thing runs approximately 8 million words, just know: it’s not all my fault. That said, the answer, if you’re ever curious, to the question do you want to talk about X? Where X is something related to hockey – is Yes. Yes, of course I want to talk about it. Please let me talk about it with you. At length.



If you’re into hockey, by the way, or into writing about hockey (or both!) and you’re not reading Justin Bourne – start reading Bourne. He’s writes for The Backhand Shelf. And you should especially, ESPECIALLY be reading his Systems Analyst posts – they’re an easily digestible series on hockey strategy and break down interesting hockey plays. Genius. This is just a breakdown of that breakdown. A Systems Analyst Analysis, if you will.

And here’s where I’m going to put my disclaimer: unlike Bourne, the farthest I ever made it in hockey was a college club team, for whom I played RW and Center (badly). The only thing that qualifies me to talk about hockey strategy is the same thing that qualifies all of you to talk about pro hockey strategy – namely, an abiding interest in watching and understanding the game. If you disagree with what I write, or have a better explanation, please (please) – I’d love to hear it. And link me to your posts if you’ve done anything similar to this!

Moving on.

The way this works is, I’m going to give a screenshot, with labeled talking points, and then I’m going to talk about them. Groundbreaking, I know.



1. Okay, so this particular post is breaking down a Calgary @ Chicago, earlyish season game (11/3/13). It’s about Patrick Kane scoring a goal, and Calgary not doing enough to prevent it. If you think neither of those things sounds surprising, and what could I possibly run on about them for: OH JUST YOU WAIT.

2. One of the first things Bourne says is that he’s surprised by the game’s outcome, right? And why shouldn’t he be? The Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup Champions, in November, the Flames were if not bad bad - well - they were certainly not projected to do much this season. But more than that: the Flames beat the Hawks with a rookie goaltender making his debut. The reason I’m pointing this out though, is that defense is basically the last thing to come back after extended time away from the game. Everybody’s defense sucks more at the beginning of the season, and the reason (or at least a big part of it) is that defense is the most coached part of the game. (You could make a strong argument that goaltending is the slowest to come back/most coached, but here I want to focus on team effort stuff. Being a goalie, no matter how much you depend on/interact with your D, is still a one-man sport.



1. Patrick Kane, Patrick Kane, Patrick Kane. Why are people always asking me to say nice things about Patrick Kane? Okay, well, here you go: Patrick Kane is really fucking good at hockey. I think we can all agree on that, right? So the whole point of this play (go watch it; watch it a couple times. I’ll wait) is that Kane holds the puck for a long ass time, and then he scores.

Patrick Kane is probably one of the top 10, if not the top 5 most talented guys in the league, so this isn’t entirely surprising, but it does bring up the opportunity to say that the vast majority of hockey statistical analysis aka “advanced stats” aka “#fancystats” just comes down to trying to quantify possession. Why possession? Well, I think Ken Hitchcock puts it best:

“If you have the puck… the other team’s best players don’t”


Eh?

What I’m saying is: fancy my ass.

Puck possession is also really easy to keep track of in this clip: P Kane has the puck the whole time.

2. Okay, so the Blackhawks execute a “double scissor” – wtf does that mean? Well, let’s start with what a scissor play is. Take a look at this.

It’s nice cause it’s a teaching video, so it’s basically in slow motion. So, in the video, two defensemen skate back and toward each other (away from the walls), one drops the puck off for the other, while not looking at him/pointing his body at him.

The fact that it’s two Dmen isn’t important (in the Systems Analyst post, it’s not going to be two Dmen) and the fact that the puck changes hands isn’t even important (in the SA post, it’s not going to change hands). What is important is: a) the two players involved swap places with each other on the ice, b) the exchange of places involves an opportunity for the puck to be exchanged, c) deception.

A lot of hockey strategy is deception based: you have to make something think you’re going to pass when you’re going to shoot. You have to make the goalie think you’re going left when you go right, etc etc etc. The ability to conceal your intentions AND execute them is part of what makes elite players elite.

Double just means Kane’s going to do it twice.

3. “force the defense to make reads and switches” – as I mentioned above (and as we’ll get into more later) defense is coached. Defense is the most complicated part of the game.

But very, very basically:

Reads: the defensive player must see the offensive player entering the zone and intuit his intentions (“read the developing play” in the parlance of analysts). He has to know/guess what the O player is going to do, and react accordingly. The know/guess line is what separates vets from rookies, and greats from goods. (And is part of what people mean when they say things like, “Sidney just sees the ice so well!”)

Switches: We’re going to talk about this more later but say you’re playing D with your partner Gigi Marvin (yes and please). You’re covering Player X as she enters the zone (ie, it is your job to make sure Player X accomplishes nothing useful). Player X moves to the opposite (L vs R) side of the ice. Do you a) follow Player X? or b) Let Gigi cover Player X, and switch to covering whichever opposing player is now closest to you?

The answer to that question depends on the system you’re playing. Every time you have to make a decision, though, is a chance you could fuck up. That’s why the opposing team wants you to have to make decisions.

4. Okay. Here’s where Bourne embeds the video. And here’s where I’m going to give you the two pointers I always give people who are new to watching hockey (especially on TV). First, don’t watch the player with the puck. Watching the player with the puck tells you what has already happened. Watching the people who don’t have the puck tell you what is going to happen. Second, if you’re having a hard time tracking the puck, watch the players’ shoulders. Nine times out of ten shoulders are going to be pointed toward the puck.

So: watch the non-puck carries. Watch their shoulders.



1. Possession dictates everything. In this case, possession dictates where everyone on the ice should be. Because Patrick Kane has solid possession it's okay for Chicago's D mean to play aggressive (well past the blue line), and it's okay for the other forwards (Saad, Shaw) to be deep in the offensive zone. If Kane loses possession, or possession is up for grabs, all that changes, yes?

2. The Flames coverage/sagging/"perfect position" – what’s Bourne mean by all that? Simply put, in the defensive zone, your coach has told you where you are supposed to be, and what you are supposed to be doing. At least at the beginning of this play, everything’s going according to plan, meaning all of Chicago’s players have been accounted for by the Flames. Bourne lists out the ‘assigments’ aka ‘matchups’ so I don’t have to.

3. Just a brief note here, in the subsequent screen shots, I’ve labeled the players so they’re easier to keep track of, but I’ve switched to their jersey numbers because it’s easier to label them more clearly that way (something Paul MacLean and I have in common, eh?).

So here’s your cheat sheet:

(name, position, shoots, jersey #)

CHI
Leddy (D, L, 8)
Brookbank (D, R, 17)
Shaw (C, R, 65)
Saad (LW, L, 20)
Kane (RW, L, 88)

CGY
Glencross (LW, L, 20)
Jones (RW, R, 54)
Butler (D, L, 44)
Stajan (C, L, 18)
Brodie (D, L, 7)

Good? Good.



1. “burn you like a highschool kid” So sometimes you’re watching hockey (especially when someone’s forechecking) and you’re like: why the eff doesn’t he just hit him and take the puck? This whole “burn you” thing – that’s the reason. The puck moves faster than hockey players, which means if you close on a player (especially if you hit them) – AND they get the puck away before you do – the puck is going to be very far away from you before you can react and get back involved in the play (sorry if this sounds obvious; it wasn’t to me, at least at first). Trying to hit someone and grab the puck is a high risk/high reward scenario – maybe you get the puck, but maybe he just fires off the pass. And maybe, if he’s Patrick Kane, and thus about 10x better at hockey than you, he just skates around you, fires the afterburners and boom, that’s all she wrote.

2. The first scissor play! Kane is deep in the corner. He skates up towards the blueline, Brookbank sees him and switches places with him. That’s it. That’s the scissor. I know, I know, but in hockey, everything needs a fancy name. The reason Kane’s moving here, though, is the same as the reason people are, for example, always calling for more “movement” on the power play, and that is…

3. Offensive player movement makes defense more complicated. Like I mentioned earlier, the two closest Calgary players (7 and 20) now have to make a decision: stick with their man, or switch coverage. Bourne throws a few of jargony terms around here that are worth unpacking.

Low: near the net
High: near the blue line

Man-on-man: *takes deep breath*. Okay. DEFENSIVE STRATEGERY. You know what, nevermind, in the interest of brevity (ha!) we’re gonna keep this super simple. Man-on-man coverage is just that: you have a Dude You Are Assigned To Cover and you cover that dude, no matter where he goes. The advantage here is that it’s super simple. No decisions. If your job is to cover Patrick Kane (or, more likely, F1, say) then you stick with Patrick Kane, wherever he shall go. If you’ve been watching a bunch of Colorado Avs hockey, or reading/following a bunch of hockey analysis this season (especially Adrian Dater or Jeff Marek. Jeff’s a fan) you know Colorado’s been playing man-to-man this year to great success. The reason this is noteworthy is that not many teams do it, or at least, do a ‘pure’ version of it.

The alternative to man-to-man (and much more popular across the NHL) is some variant of “zone coverage”. ‘Zone’ – as far as I know, but I’m biased by my upbringing – is a football term – but whatever they call it, most teams in the NHL play some variant of it, they just call it a bunch of different stuff. “defensive layers” “sagging the D” “playing deep” you could even argue that “the trap” (aka the neutral zone trap) is a version of zone coverage. Zone just means instead of being in charge of A Guy you are in charge of a Piece of Ice. Advantages: a) you (as a defending player) are not exhausting yourself skating all over the ice, b) you are not (quite as much) trying to guess/anticipate what one offensive player is trying to do, and c) as Bourne alludes to, you don’t end up in wacky situations where the Dman is high and the backchecking forward is low. Boston is famous for playing a very complex version of zone coverage and, as you’ll note, Boston is doing quite well at The Playing of The Hockey.

But zone is also more complicated because when (for example) Kane and Brookbank switch places, you and your partner have to decide who is going to cover who and when the switch is going to take place. Kane is trying to force the Flames’ D to make decisions and hopefully mess up who’s supposed to be doing what.

4. One version of “messing up” that Bourne alludes to is one defensive player ‘picking’ the other. What does that mean? I’M SO GLAD YOU ASKED. You find versions of picking and ‘pick plays’ in football (where it is only sometimes legal, and in basketball. You can probably find them in soccer too, but I don’t know enough about the sport to tell you. Baseball? I dunno. Defense in baseball is weird.

But anyway.

The essence of the pick is an offensive player (sometimes the ball/puck carrier, although not always) moving in such a way as to cause two defending players to interfere with each other/run into each other/prevent each other from doing their job. When it works, oh, it is glorious.

But that doesn’t happen here.

5. What happens instead, is that the two Flames players swap coverage, so that now Glencross is covering Kane. What I wanted to point out here, though. Is that you know how players always look like they’re yelling on the ice? And you can sometimes hear it when the mics pick it up? This is one of the things they’re chatting about. “I’ve got X! You take Y!” etc etc etc). (My real point is there should be more of this in hockey fic, because I love it).



1. So that, what just happened, was the successfully defended scissor play. Now Kane is up near the point, with Glencross (20) still hot on him. Kane cuts across the ice (and for all of you bemoaning the lack of ‘east-west’ play in the league these days, here it is. Revel in it).

Kane’s about to initiate the second scissor of the sequence: Swapping places with Leddy (8).



1. So, okay, remember how early I said deception was an important part of scissor plays? The important thing here is that it looks like Kane (88) could pass the puck off to Leddy (8) if he wanted to (aside: here, Leddy is creating passing options which is one version of a little thing we call puck support When people are yelling about puck support, this is it). Kane doesn’t want to pass – but Glencross (20) doesn’t know that.

Also, a note about “cheating”: As Bourne mentions, Glencross is hoping Kane is going to try to pass the puck to Leddy, because the pass will create an opportunity for him to steal the puck. Because of where he’s positioned (high in his own zone) this will set him up for a lovely breakaway opportunity. Generally when coaches/analysts/loud mouths talk about a player “cheating” they’re talking about him staying too high in his own zone, sniffing around for these turnovers and offensive chances, rather than being down low where they can most effectively contribute to defense – you know, like all Good Ole, Hard-Working Canadian Boys Should (side note to the side note: this is one of the areas where “Canadian” hockey and “Russian/European” hockey start to differ style-wise and the fact that we call it "cheating" (here) has all sorts of interesting judgment ramifications that I’m not going to get into because, oh my god, this is already almost 3000 words*).

ANYWAY.

2. Bourne also notes that shit has started to get fucked below as well. Stajan (18) is effectively covering no one, and Brodie (7) is sort-of covering Brookbank (17, the point man). No one is covering Saad (20) – this will be important later. Anyway, they’re probably out of postion/fucking up, because they’re all watching Kane because even pro hockey players get distracted when someone’s That Good.

You may have noticed that Butler (44) has not moved much. That is because Butler is playing the role of the Stay-at-home Dman. And is thus, staying home.



1. Kane and Leddy have swapped postions. For the reasons Bourne describes, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the two defending Flames players (Jones (54) and Glencross (20)) to swap. So they don’t. Jones is successfully defending Leddy, but Glencross – who, as you’ll recall, was hanging back, hoping for a Kane to Leddy pass – is now way behind Kane.

Oops. (this, by the way, is the second scissor: the one improperly defended)

I think it’s pretty clear how Glencross has fucked up (right?) so let’s focus on Jones (54) – and specifically I want to point out his stick. See where his stick is? That’s good stick. Good stick is getting your stick in firing lane, in the passing lane, or otherwise taking away options from the offensive player. Good stick.

2. EVERYONE IN THE PANIC ROOM. What does that mean? Basically: EVERYONE ABANDON YOUR STATION AND GET IN THE SHOOTING LANE. PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DO NOT LET PATRICK KANE TAKE AN UNCONTESTED SHOT ON OUR BRAND NEW BABY GOALTENDER.


3. When people say “he needs to keep his head on a swivel” this is what they mean. Well, that or he’s about to get lit up. One of the two. Situational awareness, people.



1. Here’s where Kane takes his shot. Bourne’s attention is on the goalie, and we’re going to get to that, but for now look at Kane. Look at where he is on the ice. The triangle you can make by connecting the goal crease with the two face off dots is essentially the “danger zone” for scoring goals. The real magic of Kane is that he manages to score goals from outside that area. Look, for example at this heat map of Kane’s SOGs verses Shaw’s (who is also on the ice) – yes most of Kane’s shots/goals come from “inside the dots” but the success he’s had outside is pretty impressive, and is a big part of what makes him so dangerous (ugh, I feel so dirty saying all these nice things about Kane).



1. Okay, now the goalie. Bourne’s point about the goalie is that he ends up at the left side of the crease. Which means he was moving laterally R to L. Bourne’s question is: Why? And he guesses that this is because the goalie thought Kane was going to pass to Saad.

Which he had to be nervous about because he knew no one was covering Saad.

You fuck up your coverage, your goalie will notice. Trust me, he’ll notice.


2. We’ve already talked about where Kane’s shot came from, and this got SUPER LONG, so in conclusion I’ll just say: Good try Calgary, sometimes Patrick Kane is just Patrick Kane :(

Questions? Comments? Corrections? Disagreements? Please let me know in comments!


* Sidenote to the sidenote on the sidenote: The degree to which all players are expected to contribute defensively also varies widely WITHIN the NHL. On one hand you have teams like NSH, PHX, LAK, where everyone is expected to play D; on the other you have teams built for more specialized roles (TOR, WAS, some people would argue ANA) but that, my friends, is a post for a different day.

Date: 2014-04-03 02:54 am (UTC)
hananobira: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hananobira
Ummm.... any and/or all of them would be greatly appreciated? I think my record is lasting three paragraphs in once.

Re: more fic needing to include dialogue on the ice, I AM TOTALLY HERE FOR THIS. That would make a *fascinating* post: what sorts of things are the players shouting at each other on the ice (aside from the F-bombs and comments about each other's mothers, I mean).

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