(Photo by: Amy Irvin 38 Photography)
God save the Queen. Praise which ever Lord is your Lord. All hail Spaghetti Monster. Thank whatever embodied power you like because the Flyers scored MULTIPLE goals! While we all took a massive sigh of relief last night, let’s not get ahead of ourselves by thinking this squad is going to all the sudden be the Wayne Gretzky Oilers. The fact of the matter is that all three goals last night were special teams goals, and the Flyers remain last in the league in goals per game.
Don’t full yourself into thinking that Flyers don’t have 5-on-5 offensive issues and especially don’t fool yourself into thinking that Peter Straka is the solution to our offensive woes. It doesn’t make sense to disrupt what is a better than expected season of development for him to play 5 NHL minutes a night under the guise of, “well at least calling-up Straka would be trying to do something.”
The lack of goal scoring is not because we don’t have the right players (at least offensively). We’re not scoring because Dave Hakstol’s system isn’t being executed properly and needs to be tweaked. Before we can understand what’s wrong with Hakstol’s system, let’s understand what it is trying to achieve compared to other systems that we’re used to seeing.
The way that a lot coach’s systems work is that they like to create situations where opposing team’s breakouts skate into a favorable formation in the neutral zone to create a turnover and/or force the opposition into a less than ideal offensive zone entry. Hackstol has no time for this crap. He wants his players to be aggressive in all three zones and if you can’t keep up, you’re not playing (Lecavalier). So, instead of allowing the opposition to skate up ice in a less than ideal situation, Hakstol employs the most aggressive 2-3 (two players go after the puck while 3 sit back) forecheck that I like to call, the “Super 2-3.” The goal of the Super 2-3 is to not allow the opposition the opportunity to execute their scheme. It works like this:
(First, here is the key to my “John Madden” scribbles:
F1 is the first forward in the zone, with F2 and 3 being the second and third.
Same for D1 and D2.
Dashed arrows = a pass.
Double solid arrows = a shot.
Solid arrows = a skating path without the puck.
‘S’ shaped arrows = a skating path with the puck.
An unconnected semi-circle arrow = a backward skating path.)
Just about all breakouts start behind the goal line. What we see in Hakstol’s Super 2-3 is that F1 goes directly after the puck carrier to limit/force X1 into safer option along the boards. F1 will then make contact to eliminate X1 from being able to get back into the play while F2 will be on his way to either already turnover the puck or, kill X2 to prevent him from making a clean exit out of the zone. I have always admired this part of Hakstol’s system because it forces the opposition into making a hurried decision they don’t want to make. Even more impressive is that it demands that F1, F2 and (sometimes) F3 be smart enough to read the play and essentially hunt and separate the opposition like a pack of velociraptors.
The Super 2-3 is the very reason why Flyers do well in offensive attack time, and part of the reason why they can generate 30 shots on goal per game. Both of these factors would suggest that the Flyers should be better at goal scoring so why is this not the case? Shots + zone time = goals, right?
Except that if you pay closer attention to how the system is actually being executed, the shots are not coming from quality scoring areas (more on this in a bit), and a majority of the offensive zone time is spent without the puck actually on Flyers players’ sticks. So, while the Flyers do generate turnovers and are able to keep the puck 200 ft away from their own net, they’re not really generating offense but rather creating a sort of “holding pattern” until the opposition can survive the Super 2-3.
Then there is the defensive involvement in the Super 2-3. Just like the forwards, D1 and D2’s directive is to go get the puck, and not wait for it to come to them. Unfortunately, when you have defenders that are not very good like ours, you see what we saw on Saturday in Ottawa where the Senators forwards burn the over aggressive pinching defensemen in two seperate instances, both times resulting in odd-man rushes, both times resulting in goals. The old adage of defense is, “to always make sure you get puck or man,” meaning that you have to either stop the player who is carrying the puck from getting by you, or let the man go and stop the puck from getting by you. In Hackstol’s system, this rule should be revised to getting “puck or puck” because even if you eliminate your man, you take yourself out of the play while all three forwards are below the dots on the forecheck which will almost always result in a 2-on-1, which is not a favorable defensive model for preventing goals.
But we knew the defense was going to suck! We should still be scoring goals especially with the puck hunting Super 2-3! Why then aren’t we losing games 6-5?
The answer to this question is zone entries. Again, the Flyers are an exceptional neutral zone team because they don’t wait to get the puck, they take it from their opponents – so, why no goals?
To answer that question, close your eyes and think about the Flyers carrying the puck in on rush and think about how long that rush lasts in real time.
Okay, how long did that last? One second? 2 or 3 seconds…maybe?
I don’t have time to break the game tapes down but if one were to measure the average possession time I bet what they would find is that the Flyers have a couple of series of long, sustained attacks with a whole bunch 10 second or less failed rushes. Kind of like a guy I know in another sport that thinks the sheer volume of plays being run will skew the ratio of probability in their favor.
What you’ll see if you dissect the zone entries down is that there are 3 different kinds of offensive zone entries the Flyers employ. The first is a simple dump-in which the they are pretty successful at for the aforementioned Super 2-3 reasons. The second is what Hakstol wants to see employed the most amount of times unfortunately:
What is supposed to happen is that F1 gains the blueline with possession slowing down and then put a shot off the goalie to generate a rebound for F2 and F3 that is supposed to create a mini 2-on-1 because when F1 slows down, this should draw the near side defender closer to him. Essentially you’re trying to pass off the goalie’s pads to score a goal, or in baseball terms, kind of like trying to manufacture a run with sac-fly.
This has not been working for the Flyers the way that it has worked for Hakstol at North Dakota simply because NHL defensemen will let F1 attempt a weak shot-pass off the goalie every time as the know that NHL goalies don’t kick rebounds into the slot for F2 and F3 to collect their garbage goals. Even worse, the Flyers don’t seem to like this strategy because their execution of it is horrendous and their body language looks miserable especially when F1 throws that puck on net from the wall. Watch them play tomorrow and count how many times you see the 3 Flyers forwards and 2 Islanders defenders in what is essentially an evenly spaced, straight line on the rush. To execute this attack properly, F2 and F3 have to create more a of a bunch formation so F1 can go 1-on-1 with the near side defender leaving the F2 and F3 with an advantageous 2-on-1 with the far side defender. At very least you should see F2 and F3 trying to out compete the far side defender for a potential rebound in such a way that all three forwards aren’t in a straight line on the attack.
Compounding the issue of entering the zone in a straight line is that again, Hakstol wants all of his players to be aggressive in all three zones so, what ends up happening to the F1 shot-pass off of the goalie turns into a shot-pass to the opposition and makes for a pretty easy 3-on-2 transition for the other team as all three forwards are aggressively pursuing a puck that has already been turned around.
But it’s not all bad.
As previously mentioned the Flyers are good at the dump and chase, but they’re also good at generating offense once they are able to set-up and stretch the offensive zone in a north-south manner.
I would say about a quarter of the zone entries you see F1 gain the blueline, flatten out and then try to hit F3 for a backdoor play or pass it down to F2 in the strong side corner to generate a give-and-go attempt. Any situation where the Flyers are able to sustain any kind of pressure is usually a result of this latter, less used zone entry. This tactic is then suffocating for opposing defenses because with all three forwards aggressively attacking the net, it forces opposing defenses to collapse around the net leaving the point wide open to start dropping #GhostBombs from the high slot with the forwards already in place for rebounds and screens.
What all of this translates to mean is that the Flyers shouldn’t be as brutal as they are at scoring goals. They really only need a couple of adjustments to the existing system with the existing roster to start seeing a more productive output which is encouraging. However, even when this system is executed properly, it is susceptible to odd man rushes on the counter attack and we just simply don’t have the defense to succeed at the NHL level playing this way. But sooner than you think, all of our super-stud defensive prospects will be up and believe it or not, we’ll have some cap maneuverability again.
Just like his loser counter-part across the street wearing green, here’s hoping that next year Hakstol finally gets the guys he needs to execute the system that worked so well for him in the NCAA because when it does work, it is some of the most entertaining and aggressive hockey I’ve ever seen, and has the potential to define the next generation of “Flyers hockey.”