Sunday, 28 August 2016

A deeper look at the Canadiens' 'overly' defensive system.

Regarding Michel Therrien's defensive dump and chase style, we had this discussion last summer on HockeyInsideOut, when we did a deep dive on what specifically was so defensive about Michel Therrien's system.  I asked the genuine question about what was different about our style of play compared to other teams.  I don't think I absorbed/retained it all, but some of the points made by krob, Ed, Coach K and others were that:

1)  the puck is moved out of the defensive zone predominantly on the left side (which is predictable, easy to thwart in the age of advance scouting and video coaches),

2)  if there is no breakaway or odd-man rush, the puck is deposited in the back of their zone,

3)  at the start of the season, a two-player forecheck was used but for some reason was ratcheted back to one player in most cases,

4)  when forechecking/without the puck in the opposite or neutral zone, the general idea is to cut off access to the centre of the ice, to 'funnel' them to the boards, and,

5)  defencemen were expected to make a 'good first pass', to move the puck up quick, but if there was no obvious outlet they were to chip it ahead and let our forwards get to it first or harry the opponent who was to retrieve it, and generally this created a lot breakaways by Tomas Plekanec, Max Pacioretty, Paul Byron and others.

Now, this emphasis on moving the puck up quickly and pressuring the puck on defence is a) different than the very defensive style of Jacques Martin, which was all about collapsing quickly back to our zone and circling the wagons, as epitomized by Hal Gill and Josh Gorges, and b) not that different than other systems used by other teams, notably Alain Vigneault's Canucks.

I've posted about this before, but the New Pacific Coliseum can be a silent, sedate barn, and when there was a lull in the action, you could often hear Monsieur Vigneault yelling "Speed!  Speed!  Speed!" at his players when they were in possession of the puck and breaking out of their zone.  Chris Higgins, Ryan Kesler, role players like Dale Weise, they'd bust out of there like bats out of hell and wait for a stretch pass.

And there was a dispensation for the Sedins, whose game is more about puck possession and cycling in the offensive zone, like a boxer setting up his opponent with a steady jab, trying to trap him in the corner and waiting for an opening.  The Sedins got lots of minutes, but they tended to start with a faceoff in the offensive zone, which was a good use of their talent, have them already set up there:  Ryan Kesler digs the puck out of the defensive zone, moves it up-ice near their net, where the Sedins can then finish the job.

That got me thinking that that's what the head coach had in mind with David Desharnais, let him start more of his shifts in the offensive zone, which lines up better with his skill set, and let Tomas and Lars take more of the defensive-zone faceoffs, bring the puck up-ice.

And when John Tortorella took over, he didn't believe in this specialization, he believed that everyone should (wait for it...) take a bite of the sandwich, so he had the Sedin brothers take their fair share of defensive zone faceoffs, and kill their share of penalties too, and the Canucks had an abysmal season.

But back to the Canadiens' overly-defensive system, as much of HIO describes it, and Philippe Cantin of La Presse, the dreaded dump-and-chase, the thinking is that this is a simplistic, defeatist style, you have the puck but give up possession, etc.

The thing is, in football, this kind of fast-paced system with long passes and based on speed is actually seen as an offensive system, a no-huddle offence or the old run-and-shoot.  I don't know about basketball much, but a similar system might be what they call a fast-break offence, as opposed to the more plodding Triangle offence of Phil Jackson, or whatever.  It's like the difference between the style of the Expos with Ron LeFlore and Tim Raines, or the St. Louis Cardinals with Willie McGee, versus the Philadelphia Phillies and Mike Schmidt or the Baltimore Orioles and Earl Weaver's strategy of the three-run homer, which sabermetrics later showed was ultimately the right way to go.

So again, I wonder how accurate it is to describe the Canadiens as having a defensive system because they use a dump-in in response to a five-player wall at the offensive zone blue line.  Maybe if we called it a fast-break offence we could view it in a more positive light.

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