First off, I have never coached hockey. I only played roller hockey for a couple years before getting concussed and quitting. But, I went to an Avalanche game this one time so I am a qualified hockey expert.
There has been a lot of discussion about head coach Joe Sacco’s systems being the weak link on the Avalanche (by extension that indicates being solid in other facets of coaching). I first began to wonder early in the 2010 season when it seemed the Avs seemed to fare much better against teams they did not face as often, most noticeably the Eastern Conference.
In short, division rivals that see the Avs on a regular basis seem to have cracked the Avalanche Code. So, can we crack it? And why does Chris Stewart come into play? Take warning, there be diagrams ahead.
Watching sports in person can give a greater insight into a games tactics by nature of seeing the whole playing surface. At certain viewing angles this effect is magnified, such as end seats. That is what suddenly clarified to me what a big portion of what the Avs offensive system is. It is designed to transition to attack very quickly and generate higher quality chances, sometimes at the expense to possession time and shot quantity.
Here we see what seems to be the backbone of the Avs breakout, illustrated in glorious HD to highlight my steady drawing hand! Because hockey is dynamic and fluid, variation occurs but I am confident this is a base play.
Step 1: Defenseman recovers puck down low and immediately distributes puck up near boards to winger or center.
Step 2: If there is space, the forward receives puck and pushes straight ahead to gain the zone. If he covered or unable to quickly turn up ice he makes a deflection pass to the center set forward ice gaining speed with a curl route or straight-line exit if from deeper in the defensive zone.
Step 3*: The receiving forward tries to gain the zone, preferably by splitting the defense. If there is nothing there a pass is attempted to the far winger who was rushing up ice from the start of the play. *Step 3 does not apply if you are Cody Mcleod. You should then only bank the puck outside off the boards and attempt to beat your man inside to regain control. Every. Time.*
Step 4: Make scoring play, typically initiated by a zooming in for a shot. If the play has been slowed up, a trailing outlet pass may develop to the forward that made the initial deflection pass in Step 2 and then busted his arse to catch up on the play.
Here is a pretty dang good example of the whole thing developing into a goal, complete with puck decision check downs. Link: http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?hlp=8476455&event=CHI616
I notice that the team does this sequence a lot. From a muscle memory standpoint, all the skaters are all good at it regardless of which ‘position’ they happen to be in when the play is initiated. The problem is that a defense anticipating the play can push it to the outside. Ideally, the first two steps would draw in defenders to create space for the attackers. The counter is to sit back and close the gap with more defensive pressure on the inside. The net result is the vanguard attacker can get isolated towards the edges. The shot quality is reduced by a lower angle shot or the play bogs down and we see the Avs kick into their less than stellar zone possession play (or lose possession). My obvious frustration is that this is happening a lot and without data to back it up, it feels to happen more in those lower scoring games the Avs lose.
This system puts some pressure on the Avalanche forwards to be able to finish while carrying speed past or through a defensemen. This shows a bit more with Avalanche forwards who don’t rely on high skill plays at very high speed but have high hockey IQ’s. For example, as much as I like Landeskog’s game I wondered if it may be a bit for a square peg to round hole for this particular system (yes, play above disagrees, but hey, hockey is made for exceptions).
Which brings us to Chris Stewart, and no, this is not a commentary on ‘the trade’. Like Jarome Iginla in his heyday, Chris excells at cruising down the wing and turning that speed into shots that beat goaltenders even with low shooting angles on the edge. He was also adept at doing a curl after gaining the zone to distribute the puck to the trailing forwards who had space created by respect for Stewarts drive. He was tailor made for this system and vice versa. The only problem is, he doesn’t wear an Avalanche sweater any more.
Bringing these thoughts together, along with my general observations I don’t have time or space to articulate here, I find a good system in and of itself. However, it isn’t enough to be the bedrock of an offense as it seems to be with little adjustment happening. When you factor in the coaches inability to scheme to the types of players he has, more concern arises.
I don’t want to discredit the good things the coaching staff does. It is just that the NHL is the most elite level of hockey and just a few details make the difference. Coach Sacco simply needs more seasoning to learn the details and head coach shouldn’t be an interning position. And that is the ever so humble opinion of this Hockey Expert.