Excerpt: Hockey Tactics 2020, Chapter 1
Why Does the Lightning Win, But the Habs Lose?
March 5 2020, MTL 0 @ TBL 4
Tampa Bay opens the game strongly, rimming the puck deep into Montreal territory off the opening faceoff. Goaltender Carey Price nimbly skates behind the net to meet the puck. However, instead of making a direct play to a teammate, he sends the puck knee-high right back where it came, toward the shin pads of left winger Artturi Lehkonen.
The puck is intercepted by an alert Lightning player even before it reaches Lehkonen, as three more blue-shirted attackers lock on and hem in the white team. In the face of pressure, center Phillip Danault turns the puck over. A nifty first touch by the Lightning’s Blake Coleman slides the puck under a Montreal stick and into the most dangerous part of the ice.
Linemate Alex Killorn now finds himself with a delicious scoring chance at the top of the slot. He slides his left hand down and locks it in place, committing to a kill shot over Price’s glove. And then, nothing. Canadiens captain Shea Weber has Killorn under his thumb all along. MTL6 goes stick on puck and Killorn’s scoring chance becomes a pop-up into the mesh, causing a whistle. A nothing play turns into an opportunity but then is neutralized by expert defensive awareness.
Twenty seconds have elapsed.
After starting with his do-it-all third line, Lightning coach Jon Cooper deploys one of his two scoring trios. On the wings: Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. At center, Brayden Point. The Calgary native is a rarity in the NHL – a right-handed center who can carry the puck, construct passing sequences through defensive pressure and finish chances with ruthless efficiency. A top-five pick in the Hindsight Draft, he nevertheless slid to 79th overall in the 2014 NHL draft due to his lack of height (5’10”) and “slow boots” (since turned into a strength with the help of skating guru Barb Underhill).
But not everything Point touches turns to gold. He loses the faceoff cleanly to Danault, coach Claude Julien’s first choice for shutting down the opponent’s best every night. On cue, defenseman Ben Chiarot grabs the puck in the left corner and looks up ice. But he doesn’t go there. Instead, he sprints toward the back of his net, rounding it and gathering speed while partner Weber squashes Palat’s forechecking efforts with a seldom-called moving pick. Of course, the interference goes unnoticed by the referees. Momentarily destabilized by Montreal’s play to the weak side, Tampa Bay peels back to a more passive 1-2-2 forecheck, hoping to pinch off the Habs’ sequence at the offensive blueline as opposed to taking a chance this early in the game with a 2-1-2 split forecheck.
The gambit fails as MTL41 Paul Byron, the fastest skater on the ice, sprints up ice with enough pace to intimidate perennial Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman and cause the Swede to back off toward the red line. Called “pushing the pace,” this industry-standard tactic is frequently misunderstood by fans and even media. While many think the term refers to playing hockey with greater speed and intensity than the opponents, it actually describes one or two forwards (usually the wingers) moving up ice and “pushing” their corresponding defenders out of the zone, creating a 4v4 or 3v3 situation around the puck where more time and space are available. The coach’s philosophy informs the next step. Many strongly encourage their players to punt the puck up ice and get it out of trouble (for now). Other coaches promote the concept of passing laterally inside the small area in the hope of maintaining possession and attacking as a five-man group. Both Cooper and Julien preach possession play coming out of their end.
Chiarot reaches Byron with a well-measured pass north. Sensing an opportunity to kill the play before the icing line, the six-foot-six Hedman attempts a poke check. What happens next is a trademark of 2020 Canadiens hockey. Byron makes a five-foot bump pass toward the middle where Lehkonen has a step on Palat. The Finn catches the puck cleanly. His tremendous speed carries him past Hedman and into the offensive zone for a controlled entry. Using his newfound speed on the defensive side of the puck, Point tracks back to deny the middle. The pragmatic Lehkonen settles for a middling wrister from the top of the right faceoff circle. A decent shot from a decent, but not great player. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy easily blocks it away. A promising drive ends with one shot and no follow up for the visitors. Now the home team revs up for a counterattack.
Hedman and Byron are back in the play and converge on the loose puck in the corner. The Swedish defenseman cuts off Byron and makes a simple 10-foot play north to Kucherov, who recognizes that Danault is closing fast. The Russian, who is scoring at better than a point-per-game pace for the fourth consecutive season, makes a cheeky slip pass under Danault’s stick. The puck crosses to the weak side where Point gathers it in full flight for a Tampa Bay entry. The center now finds himself at the top of the right circle in the same predicament as Lehkonen seconds prior; he has full control of the puck, with speed, but his path to the slot is closed off by a backchecker. Instead of settling for a low-percentage shot, Point executes a tight cutback, spinning 180 degrees and leaving the defender overcommitted and out of the play. Sniffing a chance to get involved, right defenseman Erik Cernak sprints from his point and accepts a handoff. He carries below the goal line, forcing all five Canadiens players to collapse to the “house,” a default response in every NHL defensive zone scheme when faced with a behind-the-net threat. Cernak finds Kucherov standing in the opposing corner. TBL86 then makes a second genius-level feed. He feathers a saucer pass over Byron’s stick and onto Hedman’s. Four Montreal players are stranded two zip codes away. The fifth is tangled up with Palat in front of the net and screening his own goalie. Through parted seas, Hedman walks into the promised land and snaps a shot between Price’s leg.
1-0 Tampa. A microcosm of why some teams score and others don’t.
I blame Guy Lafleur.
I don’t say this lightly because he’s the reason the eight-year-old me fell in love with hockey.
Growing up in the Montreal neighborhood of Verdun, before the advent of social media and Elite Prospects, I spent my weekends shuffling between home, the rink that bore local legend Denis Savard’s name and the public library down the street from young Scotty Bowman’s house. At home my busy parents usually left me to my own devices – LEGOs or computer games. At the rink I was as much a spectator than the folks in the stands, even though I was on the ice, fully decked out in hockey gear, standing like a dumbass on the red line the only time my Novice B coach had the absurd idea of putting me on right D during a late-game 6v5. True story.
At the library, however, I was in full flight. Having mastered the Dewey Decimal system, I prowled the 796 section, looking for everything and anything related to hockey. Although this was the late 1990s, most of the musty-smelling volumes detailed the prewar exploits of Howie Morenz, the superhuman feats (and the WWII opportunism, I would later conclude) of Maurice Richard, the class of Jean Béliveau and the flair of Guy Lafleur. Although I had never seen The Flower skate a single shift, I was hooked.
Of course, the moment seared into the collective consciousness of Habs fans everywhere is the Too Many Men Goal, which forced overtime in the deciding game of the 1979 Stanley Cup semifinals. Minutes away from vanquishing their forever archrivals, Boston is protecting a one-goal lead in the face of repeated Montreal onslaughts. A momentary lapse in judgment results in six Bruins skaters (at least) going over the boards. The referee calls a penalty. Lafleur comes out “rather gingerly” on the right side, head-mans the puck to Jacques Lemaire, who drops it right back to Lafleur. HE SCORES! Bruins goalie Gilles Gilbert topples over in agony. In the misty memories of thousands of French-Canadian fans, players and coaches, the Yvon Lambert overtime tap-in is a mere formality.
But what did that moment actually teach us?
You are losing late in a Game 7. You have a 5v4 power play, your best player (Lafleur) chucks the puck 70 feet up the wall to a guy who is just standing there (Lemaire). The guy with the puck then makes no attempt to attack the middle of the ice and bumps it back to the guy who passed to him, while three other guys in the same-colored jerseys look on from the other side of the ice. Lafleur immediately takes a forty-foot slapper from the right side board that has maybe a two per cent chance of going in against a present-day NHL goalie. Looks like a scene from a minor hockey game at the Verdun Auditorium.
But we Lafleur fanatics are left in a bind. The Blond Demon gave us the indelible impression that offense was all about skating faster, stickhandling sharper and shooting harder than everyone else. If you weren’t blessed with those traits, you were not – could not – be an offensive star. In hindsight that slapper from the gods turned out to be the high-water mark for Lafleur and the last Habs dynasty. Only 27 years old, with one final 50-goal campaign left in his body, Lafleur was finished being the best hockey player on the planet. Faster, sharper, harder lost the -er suffixes. He was then merely good until he quit in 1984. Unfortunately, there was no time for anyone in Quebec to sober up, because it coincided with Mario Lemieux’s first NHL season. The province has not produced another transcendent offensive star since.
The reasons become clearer as you look around the rinks. At a Midget Espoir practice, elite teenagers spend a full 10 minutes working on a 1v1 drill. A forward starts outside the dot in his defensive zone and attempts to carry the puck down the corridor against a backward-skating defender. In his prime Lafleur would take three strides, blow past his check and snap it over the glove of the goaltender. Here, the first six forwards don’t even get a shot on net. The seventh produces a weak dribbler; the goalie barely acknowledges the puck before guiding it into the corner with his paddle. There will be no Guy Lafleurs in this crop of youngsters. “Skating down the wing and shooting from the outside” remains a popular tactic among house leaguers and beer leaguers everywhere, but that’s no longer the case in the upper echelons of the game.
Offense implies getting into a scoring position, and it was Lafleur’s successor who introduced the Holy Trinity of playmaking to the masses. In 1979-80 Wayne Gretzky took over as the NHL’s leading scorer. He was neither big nor fast nor strong, but he could outwit and outplay anyone in his way. One day, Brendan Shanahan described to me the essential difference between Gretzky and Lemieux:
“Lemieux was just such a dominant physical player,” Shanahan said. “He was so much better than everyone else on the ice and he knew it. When he gets the puck, it’s like he’s looking around for the next guy he can skate or stickhandle through. And then you make eye contact, and he gives you that look, and you’re like ‘Oh shit!’
“Gretzky was way different. Kind of a weird-looking skating stride. Not that impressive. Somehow he manages to draw two defenders on him. He’s fading out toward the corner, looking like he’s going to get caught and get crushed against the boards. But then the puck just magically emerges from the pile, right onto his teammate’s stick, and then it’s in the back of the net.”
On his backyard rink in Brantford, Ont., No. 99 had mastered the Holy Trinity of modern offense: change of speed, change of side and the slip pass. We remember him best for his uncanny ability to find a seam from his office behind the net, but it was those three tools that allowed him to get up ice with unparalleled efficiency. Point, Kucherov and Byron learned them well.
When you look at underlying numbers, the 2019-20 Lightning and the 2019-20 Canadiens share more in common than you might think. According to the online statistical database Evolving-Hockey.com, both teams are dominant at 5v5, controlling more than of 54% of Expected Goals, figures that trail only those of the Vegas Golden Knights (56.5%). When isolating the offensive side of the equation, Montreal is third in the league in xG for (a potent 2.66 expected goals for per 60 minutes played at 5v5), while Tampa is seventh (2.49/60). In layman’s terms, both the Lighting and the Habs have an outstanding ability to drive the play into the offensive zone. Once they get into the zone, they are able to attack the net and generate both quantity and quality.
However, TBL and MTL use their firehoses in different ways.
While Tampa looks to get off the wall, attack the middle of the rink and thread passes to the high-danger between the faceoff dots, the Habs are happy to take shots and ask questions later, in the form of rebounds retrieved and loose-puck races won.
There’s not one definitive solution. In past years Tampa’s surgical approach was favored by the Chicago Blackhawks, who were led by Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Meanwhile, the heavy, defensively aware LA Kings anchored by Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty relied on low-to-high point shots, tips and rebounds. Both teams won multiple Stanley Cups in the 2010s. A knack for getting into the OZ early and often is the only common thread.
At this point, Montreal fans must be disappointed with me.
“So you’re saying that the style of play is fine and that the team is actually good? Then why are we out of the playoff? Again?”
Well, I do think that the current Habs are as fun to watch as any I can remember. They had 96 points in 2018-19; only an heroically poor season by backup goalie Antti Niemi prevented them from making the playoffs. Ironically, the 98-point Columbus Blue Jackets grabbed the last postseason berth and prompted swept the favored Lightning.
Ok, so I will get to the point. Montreal’s problem is PD.
Not the local police department. They do fine work.
Not Porter Airline, a regional carrier based out of Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport.
Not even Panic Disorder, a condition caused by excessive fear or anxiety.
I’m talking about Player Development.
Simply put, very few Canadiens draftees seem to get any…better.
Sure, Tampa Bay was “good” or “lucky” to pluck Kucherov in the second round (58th, 2011) or Point in the third round (79th, 2014), but it has also promoted 16 player from junior or their AHL affiliate since 2011. Not just can’t-miss-superstars like Kucherov, Point or Jonathan Drouin (we’ll get back to him shortly), but also effective support players like Palat, Cedric Paquette and Anthony Cirelli and a starting goaltender in Vasilevskiy. Meanwhile, in the same time frame the Canadiens have graduated:
- Nathan Beaulieu (17th, 2011), who was shuffled out of town after topping out as a third-pair D.
- Charles Hudon (122nd, 2012), an exciting scorer in the QMJHL and AHL who lacks the zest to make plays at the NHL level.
- Sven Andrigetto (86th, 2013), a nifty middle-six forward who now plays in the KHL after a few decent NHL campaigns in Montreal and Colorado.
- Artturi Lehkonen (55th, 2013), whose best career move was to time his injuries to coincide with Habs summer development camps. He stayed in Sweden to play for Frolunda and immediately made the jump to the NHL.
- Mikhail Sergachev (9th, 2015), traded for Drouin. In hindsight the Canadiens lost the trade.
- Victor Mete (100th, 2015), a nice value pick who is now a staple in the Habs’ defensive rotation.
- Jesperi Kotkeniemi (3rd, 2018), who was a surprise 3rd overall pick, a surprisingly effective NHLer at 18, and surprisingly an AHLer at 19.
Of course, there is an eighth player on the list: Alex Galchenyuk (3rd, 2013), whose woes we will document here:
2011, Sarnia Sting: Scores 83 points in 68 games a season BEFORE his draft year. More than any other player in his draft class except linemate Nail Yakupov.
2012, Sarnia Sting: Misses all but two games during the OHL season due to a knee injury. The Habs, coming off their worst season in a generation, still draft him third overall because of his size, skill, and potential to become a prototypical first-line center.
2013, Sarnia Sting & Montreal Canadiens: The 18-year-old center dominates the OHL with 61 points in 33 games before making the Habs out of camp as a winger during the abbreviated regular season along with 2010 5th-rounder Brendan Gallagher.
2014, Montreal Canadiens: LW Galchenyuk combines with RW Gallagher and C Lars Eller to form the EGG line, a dynamic, fun and effective third line to complement the Tomas Plekanec-Brian Gionta-Some Guy shutdown unit and the David Desharnais-Max Pacioretty-Another Guy scoring unit. Coach Michel Therrien then breaks up the trio. “Galchenyuk to center!” chants emerge online. He scores 31 points in 65 regular-season games, a solid output for a 20-year-old. I worked for the team that year. I sensed everyone liked him, and that he was having a lot of fun.
2015, Montreal Canadiens: Emerging as a key player, Galchenyuk scores 46 points in 80 games on the second line alongside Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec. “Galchenyuk to center” chants intensify.
2016, Montreal Canadiens: Galchenyuk starts the year at center with Eller on LW and newly signed Alex Semin on RW with absolutely breathtaking results. In one of the strangest years in team history, Montreal wins its first nine games. On Nov. 25, 2015, with the team boasting a 16-4-2 record, Carey Price strains a knee ligament in a 5-1 win against the New York Rangers. Semin is relegated from the second line to the press box, and the team finishes 38-38-6 and out of the playoffs. But Galchenyuk, who plays most of the year at center and scores 30 goals for the first time, has a great season.
2017, Montreal Canadiens: The future finally arrives in the form of a Pacioretty-Galchenyuk- Gallagher top line to begin the season. The unit does not make it to the end of October and is split up permanently in the name of spreading skill up and down the lineup. Galchenyuk suffers a knee injury mid-season and ends the year on a whimper alongside Andrew Shaw and Steve Ott.
2018, Montreal Canadiens: Another injury-marred year from Price torpedoes the season. Meanwhile, Galchenyuk plays 82 games for the first time but puts up horrendous defensive numbers while battling off-ice issues. Montreal only scores 39% of all 5v5 goals when he was on the ice. In the off-season, he is traded to the Arizona Coyotes for Max Domi.
A sentient person is complex. We would need to experience life in many parallel universes to know whether Galchenyuk would have turned into a star had he suffered fewer injuries, made better lifestyle decisions or played for more forgiving coaches. However, we can dig into some physical evidence in our present universe.
Compare the image of Galchenyuk (above) to that of Point (below).
When attempting to cut around a defender or when forechecking, poor skater will resemble the letter A. Their legs will splay, shifting their center of gravity back onto the heel of their outside leg. This technique increases the stability and comfort because the player will be fully dug into his outside foot’s inside edge with no possibility of falling. However, it also prevents the player from changing directions quickly or changing speeds immediately after getting out of his turn. Here, Galchenyuk exhibits an egregious example of this flaw, at least by NHL standards. His propensity for turnovers and his inability to check effectively led to a gradual erosion of his confidence and instincts. Did no one know, or did no one care?
Conversely Brayden Point demonstrates excellent dynamic posture while avoiding a defender. While Galchenyuk’s inside foot is entirely off the ice, Point’s inside foot/outside edge (circled) is digging strongly, indicating that his center of gravity is solidly over that foot. This allows him to turn tightly without losing the puck and come out of the turn with an explosive crossover to make a head-up play to a teammate. Tampa Bay knows what it takes, why it’s needed, and how to implement it. These and other technical details are taught each prospect from the moment he is drafted.
So there you have it. Montreal plays a fun style at a fast tempo and it is a better team than many realize. But when it comes to executing under pressure, the Canadiens just can’t do it. Their toolbox is only half-full.
(Written April 2020)
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