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Mikhail Sergachev and the art of defending without playing defence

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A case study on how the Canadiens’ top prospect plays to his strengths by maximizing possession and minimizing defensive zone time

Sergachev
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Traditionally, the perceived value of defence in hockey is a skill mostly determined in the defensive zone. This places a premium on defensive zone skills such as keeping the attacker to the outside, preventing and blocking shots, protecting the slot, and preventing zone entries.

However, this isn’t the only way of looking at defence. In many respects, the old saying, “the best offence is a good defence” has it backwards. Yes, the best defence can be good offence.

Of course, this is not entirely attainable at the NHL level. Hockey is a game defined by luck—even the most dominant offences in the NHL can’t spend the entire game in the offensive zone.

Therefore, defensive efficiency is key, such as limiting entry attempts against and exit attempts for, while maintaining high success rates.

This flips the traditional from-the-net-out structure of defence around. This means defence is regaining possession as soon as feasibly possible and maintain it for as a long as possible.

The art of denying the shots-against begins when preventing the opposition from exiting their own zone, followed by denying the opposition the red line. If those fail, denying the entry returns to preventing a controlled exit through forcing a dump-in or dispossessing the forward. Then, if failed, defensive zone coverage, boxing forwards out, etc. become important.

To illustrate these skills (and more) in a case study of sorts, is none other than Mikhail Sergachev, the 2016 NHL Draft’s ninth overall pick.

This is not to argue the ideal style of defence, but rather that for highly-skilled defencemen, like Mikhail Sergachev, this is a legitimate way to maximize their abilities.

(i) Blue Line Activation

There’s no denying that Sergachev is at his best with the puck. His puck skills are high-end, not just by virtue of soft hands, an explosive top gear, and crisp passes, but also through his strength, composure, and awareness.

It’s not just highlight-reel end-to-end rushes or laser beam outlet passes that cross three lines that make Sergachev so special—it’s his ability to activate off the blue line, too.

This ability is a key reason why Sergachev has averaged a team-leading 5.55 individual shot attempts per game and 2.82 shot assists per game (even-strength).

This clip demonstrates three different ways Sergachev creates offence: Lateral movement, vertical movement, and diagonal movement.

Sergachev’s movement shifts the opposition’s structure, and in some instances can rip it apart. It forces the opposition to chase or change assignments. Sergachev draws attention to himself an skates into pressure, which enables him to fire a pass to an open teammate, or dangle through traffic and fire a shot.

(ii) Denying the Exit

The first line of defence? The offensive blue line.

Once possession changes hands, it’s time for the defence to make a decision: Give the offensive zone up or make a pinch.

Pinching is best made with support, possibly a backchecking forward already high in the offensive zone ready to take the defender’s place or pressuring the puck carrier.

I defined a pinch as: An exit attempt intervened with by one of the opposition’s defenders before the exit has been denoted as successful or completed. These means that three conditions need to be met for a pinch to occur:

  1. OZ has been gained by the ‘attacking’ team, but ‘defending’ team has possession.
  2. The ‘defending’ team is attempting to exit the DZ, whether that be with or without control.
  3. A member of the ‘attacking’ team’s defence activates into the OZ to disrupt the exit attempt.

This is narrow definition by design, as it distinguishes plays that defend the offensive blue line and/or maintain possession from other forms of OZ plays by defencemen like blue line activation discussed in the previous section.

I broke pinches up into three categories: (1) Blue line AND possession-maintaining pinches, (2) possession-maintaining, but blue line relinquished pinches, and (3) failed pinches, meaning the pinch resulted in both the loss of possession and the blue line.

Sergachev is significantly ahead of his teammates when it comes to pinching. While he has more failed exits, that is the necessary risk to be so outrageously good at maintaining possession and/or the offensive zone.

So how does he do it?

The blue line and possession-maintaining pinch has an obvious benefit—the attack continues. In the case of Sergachev, it’s clear that this results in more offence created off his own stick. Another benefit not described in the clip: The creation of the so-called in-zone rush, in which the failed exit/successful pinch creates mini-odd-man scenarios in the offensive zone and catches the defending team out of structure.

The offensive zone is lost, but that’s OK because possession is maintained. This allows for the attacking team to reset and attempt another zone entry.

A failed pinch, however, has just as many drawbacks as a successful pinch has benefits. An odd-man rush is possible result if the defender pinched without support. Even with support, a forward playing defence is a far from ideal.

This is why pinching is a delicate balance. The decision to pinch should be based on whether or not the prospective pincher has support, the opposition is advancing with speed or numbers, or if the exit attempt is controlled or uncontrolled.

(iii) Denying the Red Line

If defending the offensive blue line is not a realistic option, the next “line of defence” is the red line. The importance of the red line is that if not gained, any uncontrolled attempt is icing. While the benefits are not as immediate as a successful pinch, defending the red line allows for possession to be regained, and therefore prevents any further attack and.

Sergachev establishes his gap at the offensive blue line. This leaves the opposing forward with a few options: Chip the puck off the boards, a lateral pass (likely the best option), or skate laterally across the ice. As the forward makes his move, Windsor is already established in a neutral zone formation, which makes denying the entry simple.

Another benefit of this is that it can force the opposition to slow down, which in turn enables backchecking forwards to apply back pressure and/or establish neutral zone structure. Strength in numbers.

Fewer immediate rewards for defending the red line than defending the offensive blue line are balanced with fewer drawbacks. Establishing gap this early is problematic when the opposition has speed and/or numbers. Just like with a pinch, the decision to step up in the neutral zone is often based on the existence of support and the type of exit that the opposition made.

Even if the red line is given up, often times the defender has already established the appropriate gap to prevent the zone entry.

(iv) Denying the Entry

If the red line cannot be realistically defended, the next “line of defence” is the blue line. The controlled entry can be prevented in two ways: (1) Preventing the blue line from being gained (which can force an uncontrolled entry attempts through gap control), or (2) relinquishing the blue line, but preventing the attacking team from establishing offensive structure.

Both present a degree of risk. Attempting to prevent the blue line from being crossed could result in speedy forwards cutting wide or firing a cross-ice pass, waiting to dispossess in the offensive zone allows more time for the attack to get organized, and uncontrolled entries are rarely successful, but do pose risk.

Therefore, situational awareness is integral. The two methods aren’t mutually exclusive, and can often be used in tandem as the clips that follow will demonstrate.

Break-up %: The percentage of total controlled entry attempts against that result in the defender breaking up the play (typically a one-on-one scenario) and the defender’s team immediately regaining possession.

Sergachev is far and away the best Spitfires defencemen at preventing a zone entry against. His 65% success rate tops Jalen Chatfield’s second place result by 9%, but his break-up percentage is 7.66% behind Chatfield’s team-leading 36%.

Tight gap control can allow for the attackers to slow down or move laterally, giving the defending team more time establish defensive zone structure or apply back pressure. This is one aspect that Sergachev excels at; however, he’s not as active with his stick as he could be, which may in part explain why Sergachev is so far ahead in terms of preventing controlled entries, but third on the team at being the sole defender to break up the play.

Here’s a clip that breaks down Sergachev’s various skills that enable him to prevent entries against:

(v) Defensive Zone Coverage

This is, undoubtedly, where Sergachev does not shine.

Sergachev is quite passive, often planting himself in front of the net. While he does an adequate job at not blocking his goaltender’s sight of the puck, he does not consistently clear the crease. He’s not one to block shots, and in fact usually moves out of the shot’s way, which may frustrate some but appease his goaltender.

Another issue related to his passiveness is that his reaction time to picking up assignments (particularly when the assignment switches because of his partner’s positioning) is too long, even for the OHL level. This needlessly complicates defensive zone coverage and gives the attackers more room to operate.

Defensive zone turnovers are also a problem. This is likely less a result of Sergachev’s calm style that is often mistakenly called nonchalant, and more a product of a high-skill player trying to make high-skill plays.

When you have a player of Sergachev’s ability, you accept the good and bad—In a game heavily based on luck, there’s bound to be nasty turnovers as a result of the same plays that make Sergachev so dynamic.

These two factors—passive defensive positioning and turnovers—mean that once Sergachev gets beat, a defensive zone faceoff often seems like the only way out.

With that said, Sergachev has shown an improved ability to recover and handle speedy forwards this season.

There’s no denying that this aspect of Sergachev’s game will have to improve. But how much of a concern is it, given his ability to prevent defensive play via his play everywhere else?

(vi) Turning Exits into Entries

With possession regained, it’s time for Sergachev to showcase arguably his best asset—His ability to transition the puck.

What’s better than a controlled exit? A controlled exit followed by a controlled entry.

Sergachev crushes his teammates in controlled exits, both carry-outs and pass exits. His controlled exit success rate is just one-percent off McEneny’s team leading 93.75%, but Sergachev is far more effective because he makes far more exit attempts with control (80.5%) than anyone else (second highest: 70.5%).

Sergachev’s controlled entry success rate is third best on the team, but he also successfully enters the offensive with control 1.91 times per game, while only one other defender is above one per game.

While Sergachev’s ability to carry the puck is what makes the highlights, he’s also a deft passer who creates lanes with ease:

It wouldn’t be a proper Sergachev article without end-to-end rushes, so here’s his best from this season:

In most of those above plays (in both clips), Sergachev challenges forecheckers and defenders. He actively endangers himself in order to create more room for not only himself when gets around them, but also his teammates. For players of lower skill levels, putting oneself into pressure limits options, but for a player of Sergachev’s calibre, it creates options.

The Results

The most important question is: Does this style actually work?

In Sergachev’s case, yes it definitely does.

Player CF% CF%.REL GF% GF%.REL
Mikhail Sergachev 64.23 16.91 61.29 11.29
Jalen Chatfield 51.93 1.48 62.79 19.04
Logan Stanley 44.49 -7.15 48.65 -10.17
Austin McEneny 49.06 -1.9 44.19 -13.35
Sean Day 49.74 -1.13 60 7.14
Tyler Nother 38.89 -12.73 40.74 -14.81
Patrick Sanvido 45.33 -5.77 40 -4.44

The results are simply staggering at this point. His relative GF% is impressive, but his larger Corsi sample really separates him from his teammates. His 64.23 CF% is a over 12% higher than Chatfield’s second place 51.93%.

Further illustrating the immense effect that Sergachev has had on shot attempts is Sean Day’s 61.2 CF% with Sergachev (184 events) and Day’s 34.15 CF% without Sergachev (162 events).

Look at how Sergachev has been pulling ahead of the pack lately:

Conclusion

To recap: Sergachev is an aggressive pincher, who loves to cut out exit attempts as his first defensive choice. When successful, this protects the offensive blue line (the first “line of defence”) and/or maintains possession.

If the pinch isn’t an option, he establishes his gap as the opposition exits their zone, protecting the red line (the second “line of defence”). If the opposition gains the red line, Sergachev’s already established tight gap control makes him highly successful at preventing entries.

While Sergachev’s defensive zone coverage needs improvement, he isn’t forced to spend much time in his own zone thanks to the previous steps.

Finally, Sergachev is a controlled exit machines thanks to a plethora of tools, includiung his explosive skating, soft hands, vision, and ability to create options by skating into pressure.

The benefit of Sergachev’s style is not just what happens, but also what doesn’t happen. Without a successful exit and subsequently a successful entry, there can’t be a shot attempt for. This is not to say that pinching or establishing an early gap is always the best option; however, it is preferable to not given the right circumstances.

Although Sergachev undeniably has flaws defensively, they are related to his defensive zone coverage and assignment recognition. And sure, he’s not one to dive in front of a shot or beat an opposing forward down with his stick in the slot. But Sergachev’s skill set and style result in less time doing these and more time attacking. Simply put, his style maximizes his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses.

While Sergachev’s style might be risky, perhaps it would be even more risky if he didn’t play his aggressive, offence-oriented game because that’s what has driven his dominant results so far, and ultimately what places him among the NHL’s top prospects.