Changing of the guard: How to generate offence in the NHL, with Jack Han
Part three of this series offers a higher-level examination of how NHL coaches create — or stifle — offensive production.
This season, Cole Caufield amassed 26 goals in 46 games before a shoulder injury cut his campaign short. Those 26 goals would have placed him among the top three in team scoring for every season dating back to 2008-09. Clearly, goal-scoring has not been a defining characteristic of the Montreal Canadiens for many years.
What drives this historical offensive ineptitude, and what has changed now to allow Caufield to buck the trend? Eyes On The Prize reached out to former Toronto Marlies assistant coach and current hockey consultant Jack Han to talk about the Habs' offensive systems and philosophy. Han has recently published Hockey Tactics 2023, the latest edition of his annual examination of the tactics deployed by each of the NHL’s 32 teams.
EOTP will receive a percentage of the proceeds from a purchase of Hockey Tactics through the above link.
Before talking about the Canadiens, Han offered a general primer on how NHL coaching philosophies impact offensive production, whether coaches purposefully tailor their strategies with offence in mind, and the fundamentals of lineup organization.
EOTP: Flipping through Hockey Tactics 2023, I noticed that every team in the Atlantic Division plays a 2-3 offensive system. What is the 2-3 and why is it so popular?
Han: When I first started getting interested in hockey on a deeper level, I read a lot about hockey history. What struck me as strange was that there were many strong defensive coaches — Jacques Lemaire, Pat Burns, and so on — but there weren’t any famous strong offensive coaches. When I looked deeper, I realized that most teams over the last 50 years drilled a firm defensive scheme but relied on skill players to take initiative and step outside of the team structure to create goals. Given that, the best offensive coaches were simply the coaches with the best offensive players.
The question “how does a coach become better at coaching offence” still nagged at me when I started working with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization in 2017. After that, I realized that a coach’s biggest offensive impact is twofold: first is player/skill development, and second is defence. When we talked about defensive systems, I said that defensive output is actually a function of how a team plays with the puck. Offence is very much in the same vein: the better a team plays defensively, the more secure they will feel when attacking.
So why is the 2-3 so popular? Because having three players back means that you don’t have to worry about turnovers and odd-man rushes — a four-on-three isn’t really an odd-man rush; there are too many players involved. So teams playing a 2-3 feel more comfortable taking bigger swings and bigger risks offensively. If it doesn’t work out, they have three players in a solid defensive position. If it does work out, you’re either already in a prime scoring position or the third player can drop down as a new threat.
Each team seems to play the 2-3 a little bit differently. Is that reflective of personal preference or necessitated by team composition?
Some of it is coaching, but some of it is players taking the initiative to move in a way that maximizes their own strengths. Hockey only has five skaters, so they have to individually alternate between different roles on the ice. There’s also much more positional interchange, with defencemen activating and snipers retreating from the netfront.
Does that mean that a team’s tactical structure and objective is different between the first, second, third, and fourth lines?
Yes, and it should be that way. The thing is, your fourth line isn’t going to execute at the same level as your first line. If Nick Suzuki’s success rate for a dangle is 25%, Michael Pezzetta’s success rate for the same move is probably under 10%. Historically, coaches compensate for this by coaching to the lowest common denominator — that is, they won’t implement a system if not everyone can execute it. This, by default, constrains your top players, and leads to the valid criticism from fans that NHL coaches are too risk-averse.
This affects your second- or third-liners more than your superstars. Nathan MacKinnon or Mathew Barzal will have quite a bit of freedom no matter what, but Tomas Tatar and Evgenii Dadonov won’t. These guys are good players, they make plays, they think the game east-west, and they look to improve the dangerousness of a shot before taking it. But if they’re on a team where the coach has a very strict risk-averse defensive system, they’re going to be the ones who suffer the most.
Are the second- and third-liners further hampered by the fact that their linemates are less likely to be other skill players?
Yes, but the thing is, if you watch an NHL team during practice and you didn’t know who anyone was, it’s very difficult to separate the skill players from the grinders. Sure, superstars have skill sets that stand out, but if you compare a Nick Suzuki and a Sam Gagner in practice, they’re very similar. Yet we know that, at this point, Gagner is a depth player while Suzuki is the Canadiens' top centre, so what’s the difference? The difference between a first- and a fourth-liner is the ability to move the puck from a high-pressure to a low-pressure area during a game situation.
When we were with the Leafs organization, Adam Nicholas, Darryl Belfry, and myself often asked ourselves, “how can we move the puck off the wall?” When the puck is on the wall, it’s very easy to get jammed up and constrained. You typically can only move forward or backward. If you can get off the wall, you can get into the middle of the ice and become much harder to contain. At the NHL level, “driving offence” isn’t about a player’s ability when they have time and space, but their ability to get from bad ice to good ice. The current battleground for coaches right now, whether you’re a head coach, an assistant, or a player development coach, is to encourage players to make plays from better areas.
Of course, the paradox is that moving off the wall invites danger. It’s much harder to defend a turnover made in the slot. Here, we go back to the fear that coaches have, that desire to not let their players play freely. It comes from a lack of confidence in their defensive transition. If a coach can get to a point where they’re not worried about potentially losing the puck in a “bad” place, then their players can typically express themselves better, take more risks, and create more.
Is it better to spread talent throughout a lineup or overload a top line?
It’s difficult to say in a vacuum. As a coach, you’re basically cooking a recipe with someone else’s ingredients, so you’re really looking to make the most of what you have. What I will say is that if you look at past Stanley Cup-winners or teams that consistently enjoy post-season success, they always have a really killer first wave — MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog with the Colorado Avalanche; Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov with the Tampa Bay Lightning; and so on. So from a team-building perspective, the first priority is to find top-end skill. Afterwards, you try to find value when filling out the rest of the roster, and hope that the coach can figure out the best recipe.
Still, there are certainly teams that buck the trend. Look at the Seattle Kraken, who have three second lines. You just try to do the best that you can in a way that maximizes what you've got.
This is the third article in a multi-part series where Jack Han will break down the Canadiens' current on-ice systems and discuss their strengths, weaknesses, and where they might go in the future. In the next article, we continue to talk about offensive-zone systems and coaching principles with a specific eye on what the Canadiens are currently doing and where they are headed in the future.
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The previous articles in this series can be found below: