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Offensive spacing allowed the Danault line to become effective against the Blues

With some issues to open the season, it looked like the elite 2018-19 trio on Saturday night.

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NHL: St. Louis Blues at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive spacing is not a concept often talked about in hockey; it’s mostly a basketball term. It’s a simple notion, but it requires high mental engagement from all players to execute well. It boils down to this: players are asked to spread out on the floor (or in hockey’s case, the ice) to distance their defensive coverage from their teammates’.

I touched on it over the last few months in a series of articles:

Imagine a highly skilled skater gliding down the offensive zone. That skater has a defender coming directly at him, presenting a perfect occasion to try a few dangles to beat the opponent and attack the slot. The feint is successful and that player advances to the middle of the zone.

Now two things can happen. If his teammates have bad offensive spacing (they are standing still in the slot inside heavy defensive coverage), it becomes easy for other defenders to converge on the skater that beat the initial coverage, as they are in range to block the path of this incoming forward. If teammates have good offensive spacing (they are moving in ways to stretch the defence and create space inside the zone), this same player who beat his coverage gets the room for a shot on net, as defenders covering his teammates aren’t close enough to block his attempt.

In other words, the rule is “don’t bring your own defensive coverage onto your teammates.”

This is still a concept that is very underutilized in hockey. That’s mainly due to coaches being scared that their players will be caught above the puck, which is regarded as a big sin. Most players are consistently asked to be in both a good defensive and offensive position at all times in the offensive zone, and sometimes if you want to space out on the ice, you risk being ‘‘too offensive’.’

I’m certain that, as hockey evolves to counter a hard-collapsing defence, we will see better and better offensive spacing from players. It will become necessary to take those risks to create offence against better and better defensive formations.

Considering this, I was pretty excited to read in The Athletic that the Phillip Danault line had a video session where they stressed the importance of offensive spacing, pointing out that the players being clumped together was a reason for their lack of offensive success in the first few games of the season.

[... I]t was about little mistakes, finding ways to support each other. It’s finding the fine line of when a guy needs support and when you need to spread it out as well. The three of us are pretty good at battles and protecting the puck. When we have control, one of the things we want to do is spread out a little bit and get them running around and trust that the other guy is going to hold on to the puck and not turn it over. Instead of coming close and drawing another defender, just spreading them out a little bit. — Brendan Gallagher to The Athletic

It’s a great article, a great quote, and I think it’s spot on.

Take a look at this sequence from the game against Detroit:

After a faceoff, the puck moves to one side of the ice, and all three Habs forwards cross the middle of the ice to follow it there. Detroit, in their pure collapsing defence, also regroup around the trio, easily guarding them all.

As Tomas Tatar is first on the loose puck, he passes it to the point. It’s the only viable option as his teammates are clumped together and surrounded by defenders. The Wings’ defence is fine with this pass to the blue line as a puck fired from there only has a low chance of scoring. After receiving the pass from Tatar, Shea Weber shoots at the net, and as expected no dangerous looks are created from the play.

Then Brendan Gallagher, like the puckhound he is, jumps on possession and descends along the wall. He stops and looks at the picture in front of him. It’s bleak.

If this were anyone other than Gallagher, and this other player was mic’ed up, we could have probably heard a sigh. Teammates are standing inside coverage, all passing lanes are about to be blocked, and the path to the net is filled with red-and-white obstacles.

As we all know, Gallagher, pitted against a defensive wall, rams it until there’s a 5’9” door. He fakes attacking one way, turns the skates of the defender in front of him to give enough space to accelerate in the opposite direction, and follows the goal line to reach the net. There he was met with multiple sticks, and a second later the entire Wings defence.

The play still resulted in a scoring chance, but the attempt would have been a lot more effective if Tatar had gone behind the net as a pass option and Danault moved outside the slot before Gallagher attempted his net rush. The movements of the supporting forwards would have stretched the defence. That would have dragged opponents slightly outside of the slot, creating room for Gallagher to attack the middle and making the defenders less able to react to his charge.

Poor offensive spacing also reduces passing options. When players are all clumped together, they don’t give good passing options as the lanes are all closed by defenders.

In the above play, Tatar, by moving behind the net, and Danault, by circling away from the slot before coming back in, would have better separated from their coverage, ultimately giving Gallagher other options to use with the puck on the half-wall besides brute-forcing his way to the net.

The first half of the offensive sequence below is another example of poor offensive spacing by the trio. In the third period of the game against Buffalo, they skate in the zone and work extremely hard to connect with passes.

Again, all players are a few feet from each other with defenders at a stick’s length, so their puck movements are easily blocked. The three forwards also rotate for a net-front presence that won’t be useful, as possession is never established for Montreal and there is no chance for a shot at the net.

Then something refreshing happens. As the puck gets to Victor Mete, he creates space for his forwards. Not with a Hail-Mary shot on net, by instead sending the puck to the opposite corner, where Tatar will be first on it. With Mete’s choice, for a few seconds the offence breathes. It comes alive.

Defenders previously suffocating Habs attackers suddenly scramble into their positions on the other side of the ice, leaving plenty of holes for the speedy Habs first line to connect with passes to high-danger areas. Two great scoring chances are created in a couple of seconds. Montreal is finally in control of the play ... until Weber touches the puck on the half-wall.

The captain blasts the puck toward the cage from almost the goal line, a shot that had barely any chance to go in as all players are again clumped together in the slot. The puck could have bounced in the net, but luck that day decided otherwise. It instead sprung the other way and created an odd-man rush against.

If the Habs’ formation had spread out again after their missed net-front chance, the team wouldn’t have place their offence in the hands of luck. They would have had a better chance of sustaining their presence and a better chance of creating more dangerous looks through passes from the half-wall or below the goal line.

Overall, there were many early-season inefficiencies in the Danaults line’s offensive movements. The good news is that, after the team’s video session, the changes were noticeable.

Philip Danault’s goal from Saturday night is a good example of it:

It’s a quick offensive zone presence, but the spacing and puck support of the forwards turns the short sequence into a goal. Specifically, Gallagher’s decision with the puck and Tatar’s movement make it happen.

In the play, Gallagher gets the puck in the corner, He could send it back up toward Danault or his defenceman at the point, but this is exactly what the St. Louis Blues’ defence wants. So he instead moves it toward Tatar, who didn’t go to the front of the net and into coverage, but behind the net and on the other side of the ice.

This choice from Tatar stretches the Blues’ defence as it has to respect the new position of the forward further from the play. Indirectly, it also creates space inside the slot — space that Danault uses by exploding from the wall to one-time a pass from Tatar into the net.

The Canadiens’ first line dominates by outworking the opposition, but for them, that doesn’t mean working harder, but smarter. The trio has to make opposing defences hustle to match their movements, and not the opposite. If they stick to their better offensive principles, the last game could easily be a springboard for another great season for what was one of the most dominant lines in the entire NHL last year.