November 27, 2020

How Vancouver’s forwards must adjust to support offensive defencemen

10 min read
One of the things that makes hockey great is that you’re welcome to be as...

One of the things that makes hockey great is that you’re welcome to be as offensive- or defensive-minded as you like, and either strategy can work. You can claim your defence-first plan leads to your offence, you can claim that your all-in offensive plans mean you don’t play in your own end, and you can live anywhere in between those polar examples.

The only caveat is, for each to be effective every player better know exactly where the team has the slider set on that aggress-o-meter, because strategic changes have to made based on its location.

In Game 4 against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Canucks played in a way that I believe gave them a chance to win. At times the aggressive needle teetered into the red, which again, isn’t necessarily bad. They kept their defencemen active in the offensive zone, which allowed them to extend O-zone possessions, and in general, leaned into a team strength.

Watch Alex Edler down the left wall here keeping pucks alive, which leads to a Jake Virtanen chance in the slot. This chance could’ve just as easily ended up in the back of the net (there were offensive options past “smash it wide” here), and had it gone in, we’d be lauding Edler’s play for allowing the play to develop.

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Knowing Edler is green lit to play like that influences how the forwards should react, which we’ll get to momentarily. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that “being green lit to pinch down the walls” does not equal being green lit to stay in the zone and just hope everything works out so you can create more offence.

Here’s how it all plays out after the two Edler pinches and Virtanen chance:

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What kills me is the score (3-3) in a must-win game, the time (middle of the third period), the situation (JT Miller heading into a 50/50 puck battle with multiple Vegas players above the Canucks forwards), and that Edler appears to think “I’m going to just wait and see how this plays out. I might get a puck in a good spot here if he wins that battle at the blue.”

GET BACK, MAN.

Three Vegas skaters have legs clearly loaded to head up-ice, you’re a defenceman, and this has 2-on-1 against written all over it if Miller and a Vegas forward nullify each other (though that never quite unfolds). I honestly can’t believe Edler isn’t in full hustle on the way back given that picture right there.

As I said, though, if Vancouver’s defence is going to be aggressive coming in from the offensive blue line, the forwards have to know that can create rushes against. With that, they need to be not just covering off behind those defencemen (like Miller above), but F4 and F5 also need to be coming back hard too, because Vegas’ defence jumps like pets near fireworks, and their forwards are savvy enough to find them trailing the rush as second and third waves.

There are a number of issues with Vancouver’s play on this particular goal: Miller covers for Edler, but he doesn’t really settle into a proper defensive spot. They have bad body position (really bad) in the puck battle in the neutral zone. You can quibble about tying up sticks. But the bigger picture is that this was part of a small trend, where Vancouver’s defence made dicey decisions thinking offence, and it fell apart going the other way partially because teammates weren’t prepared to cover off for those pushing defenders.

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Rush chances went Vegas’ way in each of the three periods, with Sportlogiq crediting Vegas with a total of 13 to Vancouver’s 7.

This all comes back to the aggress-o-meter, and the classic line from The Wire: “If you come at the king, you best not miss.” If Vancouver’s defencemen are going to get aggressive, fine, but they better make Vegas pay, or be ready for retribution.

Here’s the Knights’ second goal, which saw Quinn Hughes do something you’d like him to do 100 times out of 100: skate at a loose puck on the wall and take it down deep into the offensive zone. You’d want him doing that every time (emphasis on specifically Hughes and his skill set here, and not all defencemen), because more often than not he’s going to do something good with it. He does that so well so often that you actually forget it is, in fact, a real risk. When you don’t do good things with the puck, well…

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Knowing that it’s a risk — and that Vegas is good with jumping defence — let’s return our attention to Vancouver’s F4 and F5. When Ryan Reaves buries Hughes here, Vancouver’s forwards have to get on the right side of the play. As soon as it looks like he’s not in the clear, really.

Tanner Pearson does, by filling in on defence. Elias Pettersson gets on the right side of a guy. Tyler Toffoli, though, has essentially to make the same decision as Pearson here — though if Pearson told him he’s covering high, maybe Toffoli can take a stride or two and see how this plays out.

He just keeps drifting deeper, though, hoping Hughes can get the puck somewhere advantageous. Toffoli’s the deepest guy here, again, just hoping the puck shows up.

You might even want Pettersson (on the wall) to pull out here if you don’t think he can get to the puck first, but he’s pretty pot-committed at this point, so if I’m Travis Green I’m fine with his read.

The worst of it, of course, is Toffoli not back-checking the rush against, and instead choosing to confront Reaves for hitting Hughes, playing into exactly everything the big Knights forward wants to happen. They’re in a square in the below pic, because it’s an utterly blockheaded decision.

ODD-MAN RUSH AGAINST FELLA, TURN AROUND.

Reaves even jumps by him as a next wave threat, which Toffoli can’t contest. Were there a save and a rebound Reaves would’ve finished the job from start to finish.

Finally is an instance where a team just seems like they’re forcing it, trying to make something happen when it isn’t there. The score is 4-3 Vegas now (“let’s go get one”), it’s an O-zone draw (“let’s go get one”), Vancouver has two more offensive-leaning defencemen out there (you get the point). But trying to make a move at the blue line against perennial Selke-nominee Mark Stone isn’t the offensive aggressiveness the Canucks are looking for from their defencemen. There’s nowhere to go even if they get by Stone. Just put it in deep and let Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Miller get to work.

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This whole sequence is a big ol’ 0-for-3 from Myers. It’s a bad offensive play that starts a rush against, he gets back but fails to break up the play, and he ends up standing by the guy who scores the goal, all but holding his hat for him.

Fun fact about this return-to-D-zone from the Canucks: at no point do any of Miller, Hughes, or Myers really seem to have anyone. They’re all vaguely circling roughly about where they should maybe stand, with zero total incidents of us being able to just ‘X’ out two players and say “OK, that defender is cancelling out that Knights player.”

Like in the frame below, who has who? Max Pacioretty is dropping the puck to his stick at this very moment behind the net.

Hughes is clearly about to re-attack Pacioretty, but just a moment earlier it looked like he was leading him in a speed skating event around the oval.

So, nobody is marked overly well.

If you watched a highlight package for this game, most of the clips wouldn’t start early enough to identify where the Canucks had their trouble. The takeaway for me is that if the defencemen on the Canucks are going to try to do offensive things, that’s fine, but they need to: A) do better offensive things, and B), the rest of the team can’t be impatient and get ahead of the play. You saw it from Edler after Vegas tied the game, you saw it from Myers after they fell behind. You just can’t be on the wrong side of “maybe” piles against a good team with active defencemen like Vegas.

So keep the needle flirting with the red on the aggress-o-meter, create those chances, and just don’t miss. Because we’ve seen how it plays out when they do.

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