There have been a lot of questions about what system the Avs are running this year or even if they have one, so it seems proper to discuss what a system is and how jerk fans like ourselves can possibly glean what's going on during games.
First of all there is no such thing as an all-encompassing system in hockey that can be easily quantified and named for easy recognition. A team system is a collection of many strategies and tactics that cover the myriad situations that occur in the course of a game and break down basically into:
- Static Offense: Puck in the o-zone with possession
- Transition Offense: D-zone breakout, O-zone entry
- Transition Defense: Forecheck, Neutral zone defense
- Static Defense: Puck in D-zone in opponent's possession
- Faceoffs: All 3 zones have separate tactics and set plays
- Power Play
- Penalty Kill
- A dog's breakfast of other stuff that doesn't happen often like 4v4, 3v5, 6v5, etc
I won't pretend to know all there is to know about what teams do in all these situations or have catchy names for all of them, but I can give you, dear reader, some things to look for if you care enough to want to know more about what the Avs or their opponents (or other teams you might watch) use for tactics. I'll go through them in their corresponding situational pairs, let's go.
Static Offense/Static Defense
This happens any time the puck is inside one of the bluelines and possessed by the attacking club. Since the dawn of time the basic setup is to have the defensemen at the points covered by the wings and the forwards down low covered by the Ds and the center. Play is dictated by the defense since they have 6 players and luck on their side while the offense's main objective is to force mistakes.
What to look for: We all want to watch the puck but what happens away from it is the important stuff. Sometimes that's difficult because the cameraman wants to watch the puck too. I like to key on the defensive Wingers and especially the weak side or side opposite of where the puck is.
If both wings are low in the zone it's generally thought of as 'collapsed' which makes it difficult for the puck to get in the high danger areas but leaves the attacking team's points wide open and it's also easier to move the puck quickly from side to side, which is something you generally want to avoid. Early in the season, the Avs wings were low and and also active in trying to create mismatches along the boards, ostensibly to gather the puck and clear it. This is called various things like 'layers' or 'The Swarm' and works for some teams but it sure didn't work here. This is a setup that also requires a lot of shot-blocking to have any effectiveness, so it turns into a Corsi nightmare.
The common setup is to have the wings higher in the zone, able to effectively defend the points and creating a barrier that prevents the puck from going East-West easily. It's more spread out so the attackers have more freedom to move the puck but it's limited to low-danger areas and tends to suppress more shots. This is your basic zone or hybrid-zone defense. Watch what the weak-side wing does in these situations, they can cheat to create mismatches and turnovers or end up leaving someone wide fucking open for easy shots.
Transition Offense/Transition Defense
This is anything that happens in between Static situations and it's really where the game is won or lost. There's lots of data to support the idea that most goals happen outside of or right at the beginning of static situations and that zone entries and exits determine the overall effectiveness of teams' strategies.
What to look for - Breakout: The key is where the forwards are. If the D have the puck unsupported with all 3 forwards around the redline then things can go south in a hurry. I like to see at least one forward back with the D and the other 2 somewhere where they can get open. Side note, this is when you want to change lines, not after working the puck up ice and punting it.
What to look for - Zone Entry: This is the old dump vs carry. Carrying has shown to be more effective but if the attacking team has speed and the defenders are lined up at the blueline then dumping can be very effective too. Punting it in and getting a line change isn't a zone entry, it's just a turnover.
What to look for - Forecheck: A real forecheck is there to delay the opponent's breakout and perhaps even create a turnover. Usually its one guy just keeping the other team honest. An aggressive forecheck is two players, one pressuring the puck, the other supporting and they switch off as the defending team moves the puck to and fro.
What to look for - Neutral Zone Defense: This flows from the forecheck and you hear terms like 1-2-2 or 2-1-2 with the first number being the number of players forechecking in the zone while the opponent tries to break out. This is where you see the downside of an aggressive forecheck. Since the puck is faster than any skater, the other 3 or 4 guys are what's left to prevent zone entry. If it's only 3 left, there could be a problem.
This is also where we see our old friend the trap/left-wing lock/1-3-1. For about a month now, the Avs have been doing a little 1-3-1 in the neutral zone. Look for 3 guys lined up, usually in a slant to direct the puck carrier to one side or the other, and what is called "standing up" at the blue line. Standing up is taking up space on the blueline so there's no easy entry for the puck carrier and the result is often a failed zone entry or offsides. If you see the Avs forcing lots of of offsides, you know it's working well. The Rampage are often quite good at this as well.
Power Play/Penalty Kill
I don't want to talk about the PP. It's not fun to watch and we all know the issues.
The Penalty Kill is just an extension of the Static Defense, just more compressed. The Avs started out with a collapsed diamond but have been gradually shifting back to a box that lets them cover the middle better and have a shot at limiting space at the points.
What to look for: Who is not covered and how scared this makes you.
The Avs are really inconsistent on faceoffs and don't have much as far as set plays. With all the other issues they have it's understandable that they can't spend a ton of time on this in practice. If you want to watch a team that's really interesting on faceoffs, watch Montreal. They have a ton of set plays and are comfortable even if they lose the draw itself.
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All that being said, this isn't easy stuff to follow. Like I said above, we all like to follow the puck and Johnny Cameraman does too. You have to train yourself to look at the weak side of plays or isolate one player and follow him through a shift just to see what happens. It's pretty cool learning to recognize the patterns and once you get the hang of it they become apparent peripherally even when you focus on the puck.
I've also found it's a lot easier to focus on tactics when watching a team you're not emotionally invested in. I watch a lot of Habs games a) just because I've always liked the team and b) because they are disciplined, well-coached and pretty much fun to watch. There's a lot of tactics they use that I'd like to see the Avs be able to add to their repertoire as they become more talented and experienced.
For anyone that is interested in this stuff, I'd love to jaw about it in the GDTs or Post-Game threads. It's been a while since the Avs were interesting from a tactical standpoint, they've really never been much of a system team, but I think we're seeing the initial signs that the staff realize that talent alone isn't going to get them where they want to be in today's NHL.