Changing of the guard: The state of the Canadiens defence, with Jack Han

Part two of this series focuses on the Canadiens defensive zone schemes, strategies, players, and prospects.

Changing of the guard: The state of the Canadiens defence, with Jack Han
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Allowing 300 goals is rarely a recipe for success, and suffice it to say that the Montreal Canadiens are a work in progress defensively. Eyes On The Prize reached out to hockey consultant Jack Han to talk about the Habs' defensive systems, strategies, and personnel. Han, a former assistant coach with the Toronto Marlies, is currently a coaching consultant for ZSC Zurich of the Swiss National League and the Connecticut Whale of the PHF. He 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.

After the introductory article looking at the philosophical differences between the current Canadiens and the Marc Bergevin era, I had originally planned to next discuss the Habs' offensive strategies. Han disagreed: “When we talk about offence in a team setting, we're actually talking about the ability to recover from offensive misplays, which is defence. If we want to improve offensive output, we need to improve defensive recoveries so that the team can play in a more fearless and a more spontaneous way.” So instead, we talked about defence: how to play it and how to build it.

Broadly, how should one approach team defence in the NHL?

I’ll start off with an anecdote. I’m 34 right now, and when my dad was this age, I remember him having severe back pain. You can treat the pain directly — with painkillers, through rest, or even via surgical intervention. But what he did was a little bit more indirect, a little bit more holistic. He was a computer programmer who spent long hours sitting. He wasn’t very active, he didn’t always eat the right way, and he smoked at the time. He started playing sports with me (and it helped that I was at the age where I was getting into more sports). He stopped smoking, he started eating better, and he lost some weight. He even changed his working situation, and now, at 61, he’s in better shape than he was at 34. None of these things were direct interventions for his back, but he has no back pain now.

What I’m trying to say here is that pain is rarely the thing you need to work on directly. Rather, it’s usually a symptom of something else. So if we turn to the Canadiens now, the pain signal that we’re seeing on the surface is that the team is absolutely terrible at preventing shots at/on goal. But the solution is not to work on defensive-zone coverage or the neutral zone forecheck. Instead, the pain signal actually signifies that the team as a whole is just underdeveloped right now. When you look at a team that “can’t defend,” the thing that will fix it over the long run isn’t necessarily focusing on defence, it's focusing on getting better in general.

It’s better to defend less, rather than defend better?

Yes. But there’s also a right way and a wrong way to teach defending principles. The wrong way is to just throw players into a formation like the 1-2-2 and tell them to execute. Instead, the right way is to give them more general principles and guidelines: things that will make their life easier when they’re defending, and things that will help them win the puck back so that they don’t have to defend as much.

The way I see it, to return to the back pain analogy, is that there are people who treat the symptoms and people who treat the underlying root causes. Obviously, the more successful practitioners are the ones who do better at identifying and solving the root causes. Moreover, across different sports, good defence alone only allows you to move to the league average. If you’re bad and you adopt defensive strategies, you’re going to be less bad. But if you want to be good consistently, whether it’s Barcelona FC or the Golden State Warriors or the Tampa Bay Lightning, you need to be good offensively as well.

What are the Canadiens doing right now and why isn’t it working?

The Habs aren’t doing anything too dissimilar from what other NHL teams are doing. In terms of schemes, the Canadiens are pretty middle-of-the-road. They’re not crazy aggressive like the Carolina Hurricanes, nor are they crazy passive. They try to play the right way, but it’s not working because this team just isn’t at the stage where they’re good/fast/strong/experienced enough. I was colleagues with Stephane Robidas for three years when we were both in the Leafs organization. He said to me, “If I were to coach young players, I would teach them how to play man-on-man all the time.”

Watching Robie’s team now, they’re not able to play man-on-man because if they started chasing, gaps would open up right away and they’d get scored on. If you watched the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday [April 8, 2023], by the end, they were so outmatched that they essentially [defaulted to zone defence by] just standing in their assigned spots in the defensive zone and waiting for Toronto to make something happen. All of this tells me that the Habs just aren’t there yet.

When we talk about defensive-zone coverage, we tend to fixate on defencemen. What is the role of the forwards?

This could be a long discussion involving a lot of diagrams, but I think there’s one important thing to mention for now. The Habs use the forwards to make stops at what we call pressure points. In a zone system, each player is responsible for a portion of the ice. Pressure points are kind of the grey areas between those portions. For example, a very typical pressure point for the Canadiens is along the sideboards at the hash marks. When the puck gets into that area, the defenders can apply two-on-one pressure — especially so if the opposing puck-carrier has his head down or is facing the boards on his backhand. This double-teaming usually involves one forward and one defenceman working together, and if your timing is good, you can cut your defensive-zone shift short and get back on the attack. If your timing is bad — as is the case a lot with Montreal — you’re stuck in your zone for another 10, 20, or 30 seconds.

Why is Montreal bad at this?

The Habs have iced a lot of rookie defencemen this year, and experience is really important here. When you go into a double-team attempt, if either individual isn’t committed or in the right place, then the whole thing falls apart. That creates a game theory aspect: the best scenario is when both players commit, but the second-best scenario is when neither player commits since it just maintains the status quo. The worst outcome is if one player commits but the other doesn’t, then the opposing puck-carrier has a lane into the middle and can create a scoring chance. If you repeat this enough, you’ll get burned at some point, and eventually, neither player commits because they’ve stopped trusting their teammate.

I’ll use an example that I saw on Fault Tolerant Tennis. Basically, if you have a shot that you can’t place in the court at least 80% of the time during practice, it’s useless for match play because you’ll never trust it enough to use it. The same thing exists in hockey, where I think every player has this mental calculus that says “well, if this move isn’t going to work at least this often, then I shouldn’t be trying it because I’d be exposing myself.” However, going back to gradual development, as a player gets more reps, gets a little faster, a little stronger, maybe a little quicker at making reads, maybe trusting their teammates a little bit more, suddenly, a three-out-of-five success rate becomes a four-out-of-five, and the player’s gained a valuable new tool that he’s willing to use.

Having established that Montreal’s defensive scheme is far from complete, what do you think that the next stage — or the final product — could look like?

I don't really foresee Montreal needing to do anything crazy schematically. Instead, their long-term strategy appears to be to draft and develop players that are capable of both moving the puck and making unassisted defensive stops — players like Arber Xhekaj, Kaiden Guhle, and even maybe Logan Mailloux—

—I just want to clarify. The conversation about size shouldn’t be centred on clearing the net front, but rather should be about winning one-on-one battles in a zone entry situation or on the boards?

Yes, exactly. Are you able to either retain possession or force a turnover in a one-on-one situation? If you have a defenceman who can make a stop on his own, then you don’t have to play a 1-1-3 or a 1-3-1 [for insulation]. If you look at Tampa Bay or Toronto, even though they’re good teams with good players, they play 1-1-3 because they don’t trust their defenders to win one-on-one engagements at the blue line. If, say, Xhekaj develops into a sort of Mattias Ekholm, or Guhle becomes the next Jaccob Slavin, or something like that, then you have one or two players who can deny entries all by themselves. That frees up more players to counter-attack.

The same principle goes for defensive-zone coverage. If Xhekaj can routinely push the opponent into the wall with one hand, draw the puck free, and move it to a teammate, that’s a huge advantage for Montreal in terms of offensive transitions. Also, it creates more opportunities for a Lane Hutson, and means that he wouldn’t have to play so much defence. This is why players with size and speed, even if they’re a little less skilled, still have value in the NHL.

If the Habs are building with this defensive philosophy in mind, is there anyone specific that you see as potentially not a fit?

Fortunately, the Habs are not yet in a position where they have to choose. There’s enough roster spots to go around and there are no cap implications tying their hands. But more than that, you need different types of players. Your bigger “less skilled” players, if they’re effective, can open up more opportunities for your more skilled played. Hutson’s success as a Hab is very much tied to the success of Guhle and Xhekaj and so forth.

This applies to the forwards, too. It’s going to take a mix of high-end prospects like Juraj Slafkovský and Cole Caufield, players like Xhekaj and Guhle, players like Jake Evans who could maybe become high-end shutdown guys, and then guys like Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and maybe Xavier Simoneau to fill in the blanks. That would create a team that’s much better-rounded defensively: a team that can suppress opposing shots by holding onto the puck, winning the puck back through forechecking, making blue-line stops, and executing better zone breakouts. Of course, as I talked about last time, it’s not something that happens overnight. The players will have to grow into these roles.

This is part two of 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 will break down the Canadiens’ approach to generating offence at even strength (for real this time).

Part I: An analysis of the Habs' systems and philosophy

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