The University of North Dakota is my favorite college hockey team because I love the way they play the game. It is a fast, aggressive, north-south style that fits into my philosophy as to how I prefer the game to be played. So, when Dave Hakstol got hired out of nowhere to be the Flyers Head Coach, giddy as a school girl I was.
As exciting as it was to have Hakstol coach my favoriteous team, his system has not been without its growing pains. Hakstol’s breakneck/super aggressive style at UND initially didn’t translate to the NHL simply because NHL players made less mistakes, made quicker decisions, and had the strength and size to absorb Hakstol’s trademark Kamakazi forechecker. Much to Hakstol’s credit, he was able to make the strategic adjustments which resulted in over achieving and getting this team to the playoffs despite it (very much) not being a playoff caliber team.
The forecheck will always be the keystone in Hakstol’s system, but what about the breakout?
There are really only so many ways you can execute a breakout. You can “rim” the puck around by keeping it out of the middle and send it around the boards. You can go for the “quick up” by making a quick, accurate pass into the neutral zone. Then there is the modern day adaptation to the “quick up,” the “alley-oop” pass that we saw the Penguins utilize to a Stanley Cup Championship. You could “wheel” the puck out by skating it out yo own damn self. And then there is the “reverse” which is pretty self explanatory.
Just like in any other sport or game, you can’t run the same play over and over because it would become super easy to defend against. This is why team’s have multiple breakouts. Interestingly, Hakstol’s breakouts and zone entries (a future topic of discussion) remind me of this classic scene from an even more classic movie, Top Gun:
Hakstol didn’t invent this, but a lot of his systems (both offensively and defensively) are designed to take advantage of over aggressive opponents. This is an interesting strategy to employ especially since hockey is a game of constant motion and wave like currents. Instead of trying to be faster and staying ahead of the current, Hakstol wants his players to “hit the breaks” and let forecheckers fly right by to generate zone exits.
There is an old cliche in sports that every coach has spewed out of their dumb coachy mouths and therefore, every player ever has heard the phrase, “If you’re going to make a mistake, make an aggressive mistake.” All of Hakstol’s breakouts try to exploit this platitude in one way or another.
In the video below, we see TJ Oshie skate into a 4-man Flyers defensive trap like an idiot. Brandon Manning does a great job of separating Oshie from the puck to his support Claude Giroux. The video will stop when Giroux has possession of the puck because 99% of the hockey players on Earth would start advancing the puck up ice when in Giroux’s position.
In stead, Giroux recognizes that Evgeny Kuznetzov is back checking and will be right on top of our beloved ginger to negate any real threat he may pose. So, Giroux “hits the breaks,” passes back to Nick Schultz who is uncovered, and let’s Kuznetzov fly right by.
The video will stop again because once Schultz has possession – just like before – most players would take the route around the net to try move up ice to exit the zone. Schultz instead recognizes that by the time he gets to the other side of the net, he’d be in a 50-50 puck battle with Andre Burakovsky to significantly reduce his chances of getting out of the zone. Schultz then elects to reverse the puck again back to Manning.
The video will stop for a third time because Manning doesn’t even for a millisecond consider bumping that puck up to Giroux who has at least 4-5 steps up on a would be forechecker which would be the shortest/safest pass to make. Manning triple reverses the puck around to Jake Voracek who has 40 feet of open ice in all directions because all of the Capitols forecheckers get caught trying to be too aggressive.
All eyes will shift to Voracek and the defense then has to shift over to protect the weak side, they will have forgotten about Giroux and by the time they put pressure on Voracek, Giroux is wide open on the former strong side where Voracek slides the puck back to him an easy offensive zone entry.
If you think that was super complicated, you would be correct. It took me almost all season to figure out why Manning would intentionally spend more time in the zone, and risk a turnover. Why not just bump the puck up to Giroux the second time the video stops when Giroux is guaranteed a successful zone exit?
What I have come to realize (and this is the real limitation of watching hockey on TV), is that just outside of the left of the frame, we cannot see how the Capitols defense is aligned. If you were at the game, you would see that yes, Giroux would most certainly be able to skate the puck out. But he would be skating the puck it into a 1-on-2 situation with a back checker trying to kill which is really like trying to enter the zone 1-on-3.
That third reverse is vital because (to borrow a football term) it reverses the field in that the defenseman waiting for Giroux to skate right into them, now have to attenuate and slide over for Voracek. By the time the Giroux gets the puck back as he crosses the offensive blueline, the defense is 2 strides behind. If the third reverse doesn’t happen, then defense has no reason to shift, and the Flyers have to find a way to skate through the defense as opposed to the much easier around option.
Okay, cool! That worked so well so, how come the Flyers kind of suck?
Yep, you guessed it! It turns out that running triple reverses is wicked complicated and doesn’t always turn out so great:
Oy vey! That was rough…
The problem with innovation is that it’s counter to the norm and therefore, is a difficult concept to grasp. So, for Andrew MacDonald and rookie Shayne Gostisbehere, it can get adventurous.
Again, TJ Oshie is Washington’s F1, the puck is dumped in and his job is to compete with MacDonald for possession. What is incredibly telling is that before MacDonald touched the puck, you see Gostisbehere try to motion/communicate to MacDonald to play the puck to Schenn. The video will stop because MacDonlad is an idiot and ignores Brayden Schenn (who could not be more open) on the near side hashmark, and elects to reverse the puck around to Gostisbehere.
When the video stops again, notice Oshie not even looking at Gostisbehere, go off for a line change, and lets F2 come in and take over the forechecking duty. At this point, we know that Gostisbehere is sticking to the system because as fast as he is, this is a situation that he could easily exploit with his speed. Instead, he sticks to the script and reverses back to MacDonald.
When the video stops for third time, we see that Kuznetzov has become the new F1 and Marcus Johanson is the new F2 to the left of the scree. What is interesting about this is their forecheck is in an “I” formation. They know that the Flyers defense is going to keep passing it back and forth until they overskate the puck, so, now they’re literally in line to make them make a mistake.
Very predicatably, MacDonald plays the puck back to Gostisbehere despite having ample time and space to make an attempt to move the puck up ice. Gostisbehere then for some reason elects not to rim the puck around to a less dangerous spot, and instead tries to bump the puck passed Kuznetzov and it doesn’t work out so well.
But again, this is just one version of the breakout. Like I said earlier, if a team only has one way of doing things, then they’d be screwed. Luckily, the Flyers predominately utilize more of a “quick up” style breakout. They even have an “alley-oop” which can be seen attempted here:
(I accidentally forgot to turn the sound off when I slowed the video down, and elected to leave it how it is because super slow voices will never not be funny)
Despite the “quick up” being the preferred breakout of choice, Hakstol’s “hit the breaks”/triple reverse is a novel system is unique enough that I feel safe in saying that I know that I don’t know enough about it. Best as I can tell, the Flyers will “hit the breaks” and attempt the reverse the field as many times as possible only when they are in 50-50 puck battles from the goal line to hash mark. .
Again, Hakstol didn’t invent slowing down and letting the opposition over skate the puck. He did, however, innovate the bejesus out of it. That being said, it is worth repeating that innovation is tough to grasp. We saw the Flyer begin the season struggle to get handle on this system all year. It wasn’t until around the beginning of December to we start to see this team figure it out.
I cannot wait until next year to see how this team will evolve as they become even more in-tune with Hakstol’s system. Before you know it, the breakout will look like this: