Sparky the Dragon has been the mascot of the New York Islanders for a while now. While the current playing style of the team under Barry Trotz, its defensive tendencies, and the way the Isles protect the vital slot, might lead NHL fans to call for the replacement of old Sparky with a great big turtle, the winged mascot fits the new direction of the organization well. A dragon is a scaly, armored creature. It’s equipped for defence, but it puts opponents under heat, too.
When I read Arpon Basu’s article on the Montreal Canadiens’ identity, in which Claude Julien presented the Islanders as a model for his own team, that weaponized heat is exactly what I thought the Habs should replicate.
“No doubt, our team right now, when it’s at its best has more or less four lines going and pushing the pace,” Julien said Wednesday. “You see the Islanders are doing the same thing right now, they push the pace with four lines. I think that’s the secret to our success right now with our hockey club. So hopefully we can get a little bit of depth up front that can allow us to do that, but no doubt, we’ve talked about that and there’s no doubt Marc (Bergevin) is going to certainly work hard at trying to help us improve our team that way.” — Julien
Both formations defend well (at least that’s usually the case; an 8-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning doesn’t represent the norm for New York). Both teams forecheck well, and both teams know how to get their players to buy into their respective systems. Once the young Canadiens players mature, they will suffocate more offensively inclined opponents just like the Islanders can.
But there’s one aspect of the game in particular in which I think the Isles edge the Habs:: the way they run line changes. It directly contributes to the team’s ability to play with pace.
While a given Canadiens game features moments of intense pressure and counter-attacks, they happen in spurts, with peaks and valleys. The Islanders, contrary to the Habs, disturb the opposition up-ice at all times. They raise the heat until opponents crack. Changing lines efficiently is one of the ways they do so.
It’s impossible to fully plan a line change, just like it is impossible to execute any other system perfectly every time. The flow of the play ends up dictating how they happen. But as much as possible, the Islanders aim to switch early in their shifts. They dictate the terms of their substitution, making them as favourable as possible, before their legs get too tired.
Their bottom-six forwards are especially good at creating those favourable line changes. They sprint to the bench when they know that the next line will have possession of the puck or a chance of stripping it from the opposition in the offensive zone.
It’s not just when the Islanders change that make them effective, but also how they do it. New York often changes in a staggered fashion, particularly on the forecheck. Two Islanders forwards pressure up-ice — part of the forechecking strategy of the team — while the third one changes. The player switching with that third forward either joins his teammates in the offensive zone if they gain control of the puck, or locks down the neutral zone with his defencemen if the opposition manages to escape the double forecheck.
New York aims to stop the opposition from executing controlled breakouts initiated by a blue-liner set up behind the net and skating up-ice with his forwards. The team hunts opponents standing on the back wall and forces them to make decisions quickly, leading to turnovers and scoring chances. Even when the Islanders players reach the tail end of a long shift, one or two of them often still pressure the opposing breakout as the rest of the team changes.
Flyers zone exits vs. the Islanders forecheck. Provorov was their only defenseman who exited the zone with control on at least 50% of his attempts. Sanheim & Niskanen were the only other ones close to the league average.— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) September 8, 2020
Lee, Eberle, Cizikas & Bailey causing a lot of problems. pic.twitter.com/jBEctoo3by
If the forecheck misses, the Isles’ system still protects against rushes. The three-man group standing between the blue lines can absorb attackers quite easily, or at least push them to the outside as they transition to zone defence.
The Canadiens usually change as a group. They skate to the bench together, content letting the opposition set up a controlled breakout. It remains an effective strategy. By forming a neutral-zone trap and waiting for the opposition to crash against it, the Habs can create an equal amount of turnovers. But it is a more passive tactic, one that doesn’t fit the team’s goals to play with pace and pressure the opposition into mistakes.
A speedy Montreal formation would be better served sending players up-ice to pressure the puck while reloading their lines in a staggered way. The Islanders way. They wouldn’t necessarily have to change their forecheck — the Canadiens use one leading forechecker as opposed to two for the Isles — but they would have to commit to the strategy. No more pretend chase, where the forechecker traces a large arc in the offensive zone, but doesn’t force opponents to make choices. On line changes, it should still be hunting season for the Habs.
This strategy is more aggressive, but it still fits Julien’s defensive mentality. When the forecheckers fail to steal the puck up-ice, New York creates a safety net by locking down the neutral zone with three players.
In many situations, replacing a forward with a fresh one who directly joins the defensive line can facilitate the backcheck, especially if the puck changes hands quickly in the offensive zone.
In the last video above, Alex Belzile decides to stay on the ice and join Joel Armia and Jake Evans on the attack. He fills the corridor on the opposite side of the puck (the weak side). The Philadelphia Flyers win the puck back and counter-rush, which forces Belzile to skate all the way to the other side to pressure the puck-carrier.
In this situation in the New York system, another forward would have replaced him early and attached himself to the defensive line. This would have allowed that line to posture more aggressively against the rush and maybe stop it before it led to a shot on net.
In the offensive zone, the Islanders’ selfless attitude in line changes also creates sustained offensive pressure. At the end of shifts, as players move to the blue line following the flow of the play, they switch with fresh teammates to create both a constant, reloading offensive cycle and defensive confusion for the opposition.
New York scored with an offensive line changes against the Flyers. After 20 seconds on the ice, Josh Bailey switched with Derick Brassard. Brassard sprinted up-ice, received a drop-pass, and broke Philadelphia’s defence with his speed.
Line changes are just a small part of a team’s overall strategy, but all competitive advantages matter in the playoffs when any one play can make the difference between advancing or packing your bags.
In this off-season, the key for the Habs is not to change their identity or style of play, but to look for ways to improve it. An in-depth analysis of how their Long Island counterpart edges out wins is as good a start as any.