Breakout Analysis: The 6 Foot Rule

(Photo credit: Amy Irvin 38 Photography)

(Photo credit: Amy Irvin 38 Photography)

“Dump and chase,” “pucks in deep,” “protect the house,” “screen the goalie” are examples of the numerous hockey platitudes that you may have heard of. One rule that you may not have heard of is the 6 foot rule.

The 6 foot rule demands that when a player possess the puck within 3 feet of either side of the offensive or defensive blueline, that player should skate that puck through the entire length of those 6 feet.

In much simpler terms, if you’re carrying the puck and you’re about to cross the blueline, you should keep it on your stick the 3 feet before you cross, and the 3 feet after you cross. By keeping the puck on your stick with a 3 foot margin pre and post the offensive line of demarcation, this is supposed to increase your chances of successfully advance the puck vs a pass or dump in a transition play.

To see the 6 foot rule executed properly, in the clip below you will see Shayne Gostisbehere carry the puck out from deep in his defensive zone. The frame will freeze as he approaches the blueline where his head is up to survey his options, and more importantly to make sure he isn’t skating himself right into a forechecker. Gostisbehere will secure the puck out of the defensive zone, pass to Claude Giroux in the right lane where the frame will freeze again to illustrate a successful execution of the 6 foot rule into the offensive zone:

One reason why you probably have never heard about skating the puck in and out of zones with this specific moniker is that: 1) It’s difficult to do and at the NHL level, few have the skating ability of Gostisbehere or Giroux to execute it; and 2) Since it is so difficult to execute the 6 foot rule, many strategies have designed clears, dump-ins and/or passes to conduct zone transitions.

Case in point, in the clip below we’ll see the much less fleet of foot Michael Raffl attempt to carry the puck as far as he can to breakout before he attempts a drop to the only open option he really has:

To no fault of his own, Raffl skates himself into a two man trap. If he were to attempt to execute the 6 foot rule breakout he would have been dismembered, and even worse, turned over the puck putting the Flyers in a vulnerable position. Raffl astutely recognizes that he’s in trouble and drops the puck backward to Michael Del Zotto. All in all, a pretty benign play with no real ill effects. However, just because this play didn’t result in the worst possible outcome, doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a better option.

Understanding that Raffl played the puck back to Del Zotto under the guise of Dave Hakstol’s system puts a high priority on possession through the neutral zone, I would rather see Raffl advance the puck forward light enough to force Carl Gunnerson to regroup in his own zone, but not hard enough for icing. This is of course a difference in philosophy, but the reason I prefer advancing the puck to essentially start the St. Louis breakout is that drop passes require everyone to be on the EXACT same page and are crazy hard to execute. Even though the alternative would be to willingly give up procession, at least you could easily move into a regroup in a controlled manner and be ready for the imminent St. Louis attack.

In other words, the puck is 3′ x 1′ and there is almost no reason why it cannot be advanced. There are, however, numerous reason as to why the puck can’t be advanced with possession. So, if the puck has to be turned over, I prefer to have it turned over as far away from my goalie as possible.

This of course was judgement call by Raffl that results in basically a non-play. When the 6 foot rule attempted and fails miserably, it looks a little something like this:

What you just saw is that when the frame first freezes, Radko Gudas and all 3 Flyers forwards are attempting to overload the left side to outnumber the Kings in transitioning from defense to offense. The table is set for Gudas to create a 4-on-2 when the frame freezes again. When you replay this clip, you’ll see that Gudas has four options: 1) chip the past Umberger along the wall which would be the safest option; 2) go for the home run pass to Simmonds which is the most dangerous option; 3) make a “micro pass” to Laughton to get around the forechecker; or 4) allow Laughton to get in-between him and the forechecker to set a moving pick, and then carry the puck out of the defensive zone towards the middle of the ice.

Pretty much every option besides trying to complete a pass through one guy who is trying to cover four guys would have been a better decision. Even the lead footed Gudas would have been better off attempting to skate the puck out of the zone because he would have probably been able to push the puck further up ice, and the turnover wouldn’t have happened in as vulnerable a position.

So, why is the 6 foot rule important?

It is well known that carrying the puck to gain offensive zone entries results in more scoring than dump and chase. The same is absolutely true for breakouts. I chose to over illustrate a concept that you probably already knew about because I have been noticing that the Flyers breakout is electing to pass the puck laterally instead of safely carrying the puck outside of their defensive zone.

If this is a new trend in Hakstol’s system, it make sense. By overloading the strong side of the breakout with two forwards on one side of the ice, it forces the forecheckers to stay with the two breaking forwards up ice which opens up room for the puck carrying defensemen to survey his options. It also makes sense for the puck carrying defensemen to try to hit the the third forward (who is now in one-on-one coverage) on the weak side with a cross ice pass.

While this conceptually makes sense, it drives me absolutely insane to watch the puck carrying defensemen stop inside of the defensive blueline to attempt a passing option that still would have been there if he skated just 6 more feet.

Analyzing a team’s breakout is tricky because there is never ONE scheme. One of the things I love about hockey is that it’s as if every single player is both the quarterback and receiver, and all of them have 3 different option routes built into every second they’re on the ice. That being said, the group of players that gets their options more aligned than their opponents win the game.

In those terms, if the Flyers continue to stop right before exiting their zone to make a sketchy cross-ice pass, it’s kind of like a flea flicker. Sure it can work and generally pays of big when it does, but chances are the most reliable game plan is to play more of a north-south game.


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