Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Systems Theory: Ken Hitchcock and the Nonstop Blues



The Blues have been amongst the top defensive teams in the league since Ken Hitchock took over last season. I liken him to the Tom Thibodeau (known as the NBA's preeminent defensive genius and hard ass) of hockey. The NHL is a league of possession and scoring chances (unless you're the Nashville Predators). The less shots the other team gets, the less likely they are to get scoring chances. The less the other team has the puck, the less likely they are to get chances. This is something Ken Hitchcock understands intrinsically. Currently, the St. Louis Blues are allowing 23.4 shots against/60 minutes at even-strength, the second-lowest in the league to the Kings at 23.2. Last year, the St. Louis Blues allowed 26.0 shots against/60 minutes, the lowest in the league. The last team Hitchock coached, the Columbus Blue Jackets, allowed 25.9 shots against/60 minutes in the last full season he coached there (2008-09). I think it's fair to say Ken Hitchcock has built up a fairly effective system. He's one part tactical genius and one part demanding taskmaster. It's a system that has allowed Steve Mason, Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliot to look like, and actually become, all-stars and award winners. 

There are details and intricacies to the system, but Hitchcock himself says his current system is rooted in the forecheck. The focus is on making the other team spend as much time in their own zone as possible. It's an interesting point that he says it's the system that was implemented with the 2010 Olympic team, and that Mike Babcock (another possession-minded coach) is in agreement with the system's core philosophies. His system's overarching model can be surmised in a quick point for each end of the ice: you have to play really, really fast defensively, and protect the puck like crazy offensively. He's mentioned "buzzwords" and "terminology" in the past, and I tend to think it's a pretty big part of the reason players are able to pick up his systems and execute them to perfection, almost regardless of the personnel at hand. He's able to communicate and distill what can be a very complex and intricate system into its core components — something more digestible. 

Hitchock is trying to achieve defensive perfection and the results are fairly startling. Watch film of St. Louis' forecheck for hours on end until you want to pull your eyes out — I did — and it becomes clear the execution level is next to none. The precision and effort level is constant and unrelenting. The NHL season is a long one, and despite less games, the schedule is slightly more compressed this year. The Blues aren't tailoring their game plan to each team they play, they're bringing the attack, there's too little time between games to risk what Hitchock calls "information overload." Hitchock is a Civil War buff that has studied and recognized historic trends and strategies in extracting the last drop of potential and battle level out of his troops.

Borrowing from stereotypes developed in years past, it would be easy to think that a Hitchockian system would be slow, plodding and defensive — particularly given the Blues' propensity to let in less than two goals a night on a regular basis. But this edition of the Blues couldn't be farther from that notion. The pace that this team clicks along at is staggering and borderline exhausting to watch, let alone play at. The amount of full speed skating that the team engages in is unbelievable and unlike most other teams. They're incredibly aggressive on the forecheck, in engaging the body as well as on pinches. As stated, the execution is second to none, the amount of passes zipped right on sticks is staggering. The urgency, aggression, pace and support on the forecheck combined with their veracity on the backcheck simply wears opponents down and leaves little time to think or react.

In defensive coverage, their system is pretty simple as a standard slot-point coverage for the wingers with net front presence and support on the puck down low from the centreman. The emphasis is to move the puck as quickly as possible from the back-end, and the Blues have the personnel to do that.

The Blues, on the forecheck, digress into a powerful and high-octane forecheck that takes no prisoners and stresses support, support, support:
  • The first forward, F1, enters the zone with speed. He wants to get in on the defenseman, take away his lanes, hands, and establish physical contact. The second forward, F2, is barely trailing F1 and ready to support the puck immediately. F2 is either trying to force a reverse quickly, so the other defenseman is forced to receive an awkward pass, or force the original defensman to chip it up to their winger on the wall where the winger won't have time to get his feet moving.
  • While this is happening, the last forward, F3, remains congnizant of his responsibilities as the "high" guy. His duties rest on being support for the D in the case of a pinch, or establishing immediate pressure on the other side of the ice once the puck is reversed behind the net.
  • Once this pressure is established, F3, who is always above the slot, can either cut off the winger on the strong side with speed on the backcheck, or the Blues defenseman can pinch in on the winger and be covered by F3. When he's cutting off the winger, F3 is looking to funnel the winger into his defender so that the defender will have an opportunity to step up in the neutral zone. The key here is that all the parts are moving and every player is moving with speed when they go to their positions.

Here, we see in real time how the system works in a variety of scenarios. Remember to keep your eye on F3 (to see how he is constantly supporting high) as well as the defenseman when he decides to pinch.

Hitchock's system is based heavily on trust. Forwards are able to commit fully to pressure, and defensemen are able to commit fully to pinches because of what the system allows. The third man high and a system that has a built-in speed component (where player's legs are always moving) allows pressure, and its accompanying support comes fast and heavy.

Here, we see some extremely aggressive pinches by the Blues' D (Pietrangelo and Cole) that involve almost zero hesitation because of the inherent trust for F3, the high guy. They also execute the F3 winger cut-off to perfection and support the puck down low after the D pinches in. Overall, a greatly executed shift by Hitchock standards.


So many times throughout the games I watched, St. Louis was able to bring sustained pressure for minutes and minutes at a time while rolling lines. They barely give the other teams a chance to breathe with the pace they play at and are truly a team heavily oriented on offense. In the following clip, the transition of forecheck to defense to forecheck is completed almost to perfection:

Even when they're protecting a lead they play all out — somebody must have told Hitchcock about score effects. (Or he probably figured it out a long time ago.) A lot of teams have the misinformed idea to sit back and defend while holding on to a lead, but even in the last minute, Hitchock has his horses firing on all cylinders to pressure the puck like mad. (A theory Darryl Sutter also subscribes to as well.) The best defense really is a good offense. Note the time on the clock and the score, but also note how the forecheck pressure and pinching barely deviates from the previous clips which were taken from numerous times in games.

Implementing the system properly and executing it cleanly (as it has been), is also a matter of a proper intersection between the player personnel and the coach. St. Louis employs a team chockfull of players that can skate, handle the puck at speed, and ferociously protect the puck. Backes, Oshie, and Steen in particular. It helps when your best players are out there constantly setting the tone for the rest of the team. A player like Ryan Reaves might look slow and lumbering on a lesser team, but in St. Louis he almost looks like a bruising power forward on the fourth line because he gets to keep his feet moving and doesn't have to drag his huge frame to stop and start. Chris Stewart, as skilled as he is, has looked disinterested at numerous times in his career, but he's bought into the system and bought into an all-out attack rather than involving himself only when it interests him. Stewart saw a downtick in his ice-time big time last year even though he was supposed to be the centrepiece of the Erik Johnson trade. This year, it appears he has decided to buy into what Hitchock was selling and integrated himself as a moving, and very valuable, part of the team's engine. The players clearly know their own game plan, and they recognize the other team's game plan under Hitchock. They're well-equipped with their own skills, and well-coached with the coaching staff's game plan  It's been said before that a coach like Hitchock has a short shelf life because he demands so much perfection, but it's hard not to want to at least try him out if this is how close he can get.

It should be said again that the Blues allow the lowest number of shots in the league at even-strength. By the time they're finished dogging their opponents in their own end, opposing shots that are finally recorded off the rush are often of little threat because the other team is so tired.

We've seen how coaches across the league can talk until they're blue in the face about systems and process and execution. They could probably could go on for hours and I would be begging to soak it all in from every one of them; every coach in the league is an engaging speaker, easy to respect, heavily experienced, and extremely knowledgeable about the game. Yet, for example, the Oilers have been at the very bottom of the league for shots allowed at even-strength for the past number of years. Part of this could fall on the side of management for not supplying the proper personnel, but it could also be an inability to reach the players as succinctly as a coach like Hitchcock — or perhaps a combination thereof. On the Blues, the personnel aspect is notable with the defense in particular. Having defensemen that can change directions fast, think the game fast, handle the puck fast, react to pressure fast and execute and focus on making plays fast makes an immeasurable difference in the performance of your team. The game is moving more and more towards being possession focused, and as the first point of access to the puck, defensemen MUST be able to move the puck on the tape of forwards in motion in an instant. You can ill afford that extra second if you want to be a team that possesses the puck more often than not. Passing and puckmoving has to be an instinctive and trained reaction, not a processed and informed action.

Make no mistake, last year's Blues record was untenable, with Elliot and Halak performing at historic and unsustainable levels. They were bound to come back down to Earth at some point. However, unlike a team like Minnesota last year, the underlying performance of the team remained stable throughout the goaltending struggles earlier this year. Their possession numbers were high and shots allowed remained low, they were just receiving unsustainably godawful goaltending — the opposite end of the spectrum from their season previous. They've been lucky to walk into another hot goalie in Jake Allen to carry them through the middle (and hopefully the latter half) of this abbreviated season — it may yet be enough to hold them over. Going from historic quality goaltending to barely minor-league quality can cause things to appear very different on the surface, but the machinations under the surface are operating in much the same way as they were when the team was meeting astounding success — and that's a good thing.

What Hitchock is bringing to the table, and what the players are doing on the ice, has worked well enough thus far to be a strong regular season team over parts of two seasons. Playoffs is a whole new ballgame, although St. Louis did run into another elite possession, stingy defensive team with an unstoppable goaltender in Los Angeles during last year's playoffs. It remains to be seen how the Blues will perform in the playoffs this year, especially when hot goaltending (as always) becomes much more prevalent, with its ability to affect results severely heightened. A lot will also depend on St. Louis' ability to stay healthy with players like Oshie, McDonald and Steen having been out for extended periods of time. Oshie and Backes are leaned on extremely heavily by Hitchcock as the mules of the team and will be expected to carry a lot of the load in the postseason against talented offensive opponents  If the goaltending maintains itself and the Blues are able to find scoring from their players with more offensively slanted ice-time like Stewart, Steen and Berglund, St. Louis has to be considered one of the top contenders in the West.

3 comments:

  1. 5 Stars man! I loved the detailed, step-by-step instruction of the forecheck, along with the videos to see it in action.
    -Jay

    ReplyDelete
  2. This was a excellent breakdown. I expect more!!

    Out of curiosity, I read a similar breakdown of our forecheck against the kings last year. It showed how the kings beat the system. Do you have any idea where that is?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post here. I will be following your blog from now on. Fascination stuff about my favorite team and favorite sport (which I am still struggling to understand fully).

    ReplyDelete