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Offence away from the puck or: What Montreal can learn from the Tampa Bay Lightning

Investigating better strategies the Canadiens can use to score more goals.

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Toronto Maple Leafs v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

Hockey is a game of space. Defenders fight to reduce it, attackers to create it. Controlling space requires the coordination of all players, as scoring chances are a product of movement with and without the puck. But not all areas of the ice are as valuable to battle over.

It’s well known that shots from the slot are converted at a much higher rate. The analytical work of Ryan Stimson and Hockey Graphs (The Passing Project), and Steve Valiquette also adds another layer to the offensive dynamics.

Those analyses confirm what is also intuitive: a shot has more chance of beating the defence if the puck moves prior to it, especially in the direction opposite to which defenders are facing.

That movement is ideally cross-ice, which maximizes the distance the netminder has to travel to block the shot, or from right around the goal line. When the puck is below the goal line or on one side of the ice, the defence has to at least partially turn in that direction. This way, it becomes harder for defenders to track players moving behind them and cutting through the defensive box.

Creating passes that lead to better shots

As it’s the prime-scoring area, defenses care a lot more about preventing the opposition from accessing the slot than the periphery of the zone. They collapse on low puck-carriers, cutting off all routes to the middle of the offensive zone. When the puck moves to one side of the ice, all defenders follow to confine it, outnumber the opposition, and steal it away.

From Ryan Walter’s Hockey plays and Strategies

The structure makes it very hard for attackers to make plays into dangerous areas from the crowded half-ice are from about the top of the circles down. When they do, a lot of their attempts become reliant on luck or bounces from forcing covered plays.

But there is a downside to that common defensive formation: it is somewhat predictable. It can be broken down by staying one step ahead of it, and forcing defenders into mistakes by having them consistently move and make choices.

There’s a lot that can be said about how to do it at the player level (and that might be for another article), but the best teams also aim to do it systematically.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, by far the best offensive formation in the NHL last season, found their goals by working their talent together, creating cross-ice passes and plays from below the goal line through in-zone movements.

Spacing and player movement

An offensive player is much more effective when moving and facing his teammates versus battling on the boards at a stationary point, back turned. This second scenario is exactly what defences want. A player being able to turn to the play and look for openings is, again, directly dependent on the space that player has.

Systematically, creating space is done by moving the puck away from the defence:

  • passing it to the point for a defenceman to receive (low-to-high)
  • sending it to the other side of the ice, away from the defensive box (or to the weak side).

This is where spacing matters. If all players are clumped together, there is nowhere to release pressure; the defence is able to cover all options easily due to its multiple layers.

The traditional cycle play that we have seen for so long in the NHL aims to create switches in coverage, but still forces puck movements on the side where the defence is stacked. In the interest of creating better pre-shot movement (ideally cross-ice or from below the goal line), players have to give supporting pass options by expanding outside of the defensive box and skating away from traffic, forcing the defence to move, straining it and creating the potential for errors.

There are a few recurring elements in the Lightning’s structure that are not unique to the team, but are used more distinctively in their offence compared to other NHL formations:

  • Looking to drive the puck away from pressure, doing so multiple times per offensive sequences when necessary — low-to-high, into D-to-D, into a chip back down.... They consistently rotate possession to keep it out of the defence’s grasp.
  • Moving pucks quickly. The longer they wait to make a pass while drifting to a teammate, the closer their own coverage will be to that teammate, and the less space that teammate will have to make a subsequent play. One defender ideally shouldn’t be able to make a defensive play against two attackers.
  • Keeping good offensive spacing through the deliberate usage of a high forward.

The usage of a high forward

The high forward is an attacker who climbs up along the wall all the way to the point, often — but not exclusively — following a low-to-high play. This forward escapes the low collapsing defensive box and helps to support the defencemen as they exchange the puck on the blue line, or covers for a defenceman pinching down. In that case, the forward takes the place of the defenceman as the formation rotates.

Quick puck movements and a forward moving up can create a runway for a defenceman to come down the wall on the opposite side of the ice, This defenceman can then look for passing plays inside or through the box. As he descends, he can hit a forward across the ice, or get all the way to the goal line to find the stick of a teammate in the slot.

More importantly than the plays he unlocks for defencemen, the high forward contributes to stretching the defensive formation. This forward creates a lot more space in the offensive zone by either forcing an opposing defender to follow the climb, or, if that defender lets go (reluctant to leave his slot-protection position), the forward successfully separates from his coverage and is now free to roam.

As the puck continues to be moved away from the defence, this same high forward can cut down out of sight of the defence for a high-percentage shot, either from a cross-ice pass or one coming from below the goal line.

Point shots

This is the bread and butter of many in-zone offences. Pucks gets to the point and are rifled back down to the net with two or more players stacked as net-front presences. The strategy is simple: it aims to capitalize on chaos. The hope is that the right stick hits the puck in just the right way for it to go right in, or that this same shot rebounds and turns into subsequent scoring attempts right around the crease.

Through the usage of better spacing and aiming the puck down but off the net, however, it’s possible to use the point shot to sustain pressure and keep control of the play to generate higher percentage shots.

If a defenceman can’t find the stick of a net-front forward, the puck can be simply sent down behind the defence where the team has a much higher chance of regaining possession. By aiming the chip at the right place on the back wall, the pointman can create an advantageous race between one of his forwards standing a few feet from either post and a net-protecting defenceman.

This play can potentially give this forward space below the goal line in the process. When the play moves from low to high, the defensive box is stretched toward the point as defensive wingers sprint up to block the point shot.

Skating routes and timing

When the puck is finally on the stick of a player with space to operate, he must move it to a high-danger passing area — the half-wall or behind the goal line — and look to feed passes to teammates (like the high-forward) cutting inside the defensive box. (That’s obviously if he doesn’t have a great shooting opportunity by skating to the slot.)

Consistently getting the puck to dangerous areas, away from pressure, and, when it can’t be passed directly there, into advantageous races for teammates is important to the offensive attack, but player movements is equally crucial. There is no point in creating space for a player in a prime position to pass if there there isn’t someone to feed the puck to. You need to have pre-shot movement to get players in the right positions.

To avoid coverage and be great triggerman, attackers need a great sense of timing. It’s their role to circle away from coverage and arrive in position to shoot the puck at the same time the player in possession is making the pass. If attackers arrive too early, they leave a second to the defenders to recognize the threat and check. If they arrive too late, the window of opportunity closes.

Creating those dangerous passes doesn’t have to come from elaborate cycling to keep the puck from the defensive box every time. Sometimes that window presents himself a few second after entering the zone if the movement away from the puck is effective enough.

In the video above, the centreman drives away from the play after skating across the blue line. That leads to defensive confusion as defenders predictably fall back to where the puck is — on the opposite side of the ice — and it allows the centre to sneak into the slot. He times himself perfectly with the pass, and scores.

As a general rule, players away from the puck have to keep their feet moving. Otherwise they make the defence's job too easy. But it has to be movement with a purpose, such as stretching the defence or going out of sight to cut back inside dangerous areas at the right time. A speed difference in the offensive zone can be just as important as off the rush.

In the sequence below, the puck is dropped back to the point after a zone entry and moved D-to-D, or to the weak side. But it’s really the movement of the forwards that creates the goal. They don’t frantically rush the front of the net and stand there, they move away from coverage and arrive in position at the same time the defenceman is ready to make a play.

One forward slides from the far faceoff circle, providing a cross-ice option for his defender above. Another one moves behind the net to come out next to the post, using the obstacle to lose his coverage for a second. A third forward climbs up toward the offensive blue line, stretching the defensive box.

The puck isn’t blindly shot on net, it’s sent to the forward a few feet from the near post. The defensive box turns and descends as a result, allowing the high forward to get an uncovered shot when the puck moves high a second time.

Cuts through the defensive box from behind it can also be used to further confuse the defence. In the clip below, attackers exchange positions to create a cross-ice pass.

The sequence also features all the elements presented in this article:

  • Players have good offensive spacing.
  • The puck is moved quickly away from pressure.
  • One forward climbs high, stretching the defensive box and creating space below in the slot.
  • The far player, becoming the puck-carrier, uses the runway created for him to skate to a high-danger passing area (the goal line), dragging the eyes of the defence to himself.
  • Attackers behind the defence cut inside the defensive box (out of sight).
  • Those attackers move into a passing or shooting spot at the exact time the puck-carrier is ready to make a play, to avoid being checked.
  • The high forward comes down and cuts across the slot to shoot from a cross-ice pass — a high-percentage shot.

The defence is quite passive in this sequence, but it’s partly a consequence of overloading awareness capacity with repeated movements, forcing the defenders to adjust, and into errors. They miss switches in coverage and loosely cover attackers.

Tampa Bay, for all their regular-season success, didn’t hold their own very well come playoff time. Unsurprisingly, they are again among the favourites to win the Cup in 2019-20. It’s a safe bet that their talent and offensive strategies won’t be muzzled a second time.

The team that won it all also used great offensive-zone movements on their road to the ultimate prize. The St. Louis Blues prided themselves in their heavy two-man forecheck, man-handling defences and creating turnovers, but they also combined their hard-nosed brand of hockey with creativity when in-zone.

Created from St. Louis Blues | Every Goal from 2019 Playoffs

So ... how does this affect the Habs?

The Montreal Canadiens finished 13th in goals scored this season. They were one of the better formations at generating scoring chances from right around the crease, which is evident looking at the heatmap of their even-strength shots.

Montreal on the left; Tampa on the right. Via HockeyViz

The Canadiens found goals by moving the puck to the point (low-to-high) and clogging the shooting lane. One forward moved into the slot for a tip and another battled at the front of the net for rebounds. It was a style that fit the Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, and Tomas Tatar line especially well.

In the off-season, however, Montreal lost Andrew Shaw, a key piece in enabling that style of play for other lines. The Habs will, in all likelihood, be weaker in their ability to create chaos around the net to score in 2019-20.

The departure of one player doesn’t need to spark a complete change of strategy, but it’s in the interest of the team to keep the offensive-zone production high. This should be done by introducing more diverse play and being less reliant on bounces going their way to find the back of the net. The coaching staff should encourage players to sustain pressure and create more passes across the middle of the ice and from below the goal line.

Tampa Bay can be a good inspiration for that. Sure, they have quite the talent advantage, and that definitely improves their conversion rate, but their success also comes from giving players marks on the ice and reinforcing plays. They create habits by showing where the releases from defensive pressure are, where teammates will be in the offensive zone, how the play should ideally move, and then letting their offensive creativity flow.

For Montreal, a special emphasis should be put on a forwards supporting the blue-liners to allow them to move with the puck and rotate it away from pressure, instead of sending it back to the net most of the time. If the space at the top of the zone isn’t available, off-net shots and dumps that puts low forwards into advantageous positions to win races could be an effective alternative.

Point shots are obviously not the option with the highest rate of success, but their perceived advantage over other plays is that they seem to create a lot of rebonds. According to the passing data of Hockey Graphs, however, shots coming from passes from behind the net create even more rebounds than shots from passes to the point, which reinforces alternative strategies. (Tactalytics: Using Data to Inform Tactical Offensive Zone Decisions).

From HockeyViz

Next season, a change of offensive-zone tactics could help unlock the abilities of some of the Habs’ playmakers, like Jonathan Drouin and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, even more. It could also be what a player like Artturi Lehkonen needs to find more shots from the slot and get back to his rookie-year goal total.

We also can’t ignore that Montreal has a ton of skilled young prospects coming up in the next couple of years. Their game could help further shape the offensive vision of the team.

Cole Caufield wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he planted his feet in front of the net or in a shooting lane from the point, even if it is for just a couple of seconds. He earns his due by deceptively staying open in the offensive zone and one step ahead of the defence. It’s partly due to his size (being small can have some advantages), but also to his innate understanding of how to score goals in the modern game.

NHL hockey is evolving and getting faster and faster every year. Defences are also smarter. To stay on top, offences will need to get better and better at moving the puck where the space is in the offensive zone and use that space to create occasions for teammates to deceptively jump into scoring spots. The top teams in the league have been doing it more and more, and soon this will hopefully be the aim of the majority of in-zone offences.