The Common Thread Between Dallas and Tampa
The role of complexity in hockey systems
W. Ross Ashby (6 September 1903, in London – 15 November 1972) was an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics, the study of the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things.
His two books, Design for a Brain and An Introduction to Cybernetics, were landmark works. They introduced exact and logical thinking into the brand new discipline of cybernetics and were highly influential.
In An Introduction to Cybernetics Ashby proposed the Law of Requisite Variety:
“If a system is to be stable, the number of states of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled.”
Some examples: A jet airliner may appear elegant and streamlined from the outside, but its cockpit is filled with gauges, screens and control apparatuses designed to keep the entire machine airworthy. A TV remote always has more buttons than the TV it is designed to control.
Five skaters plus a goalie form a small group that works together to recover, retain and advance the puck. Yet there are hundreds of set plays, tactics and systems that could be devised to manage their actions.
Complexity as a Response
The first way to interpret Ashby’s Law is to understand that coaching adjustments need to be made with complexity in mind.
Situation: On your OZ faceoff losses, the opposing team is stretching both wingers out of their zone and flipping the puck high in an attempt to create a breakaway.
Response: The most logical solution to the challenge is to tell your defensemen to back out of the zone early and stay above both opposing wingers.
But what happens if you win the OZ faceoff and have full possession? Certainly the defensemen should support the attack rather than retreat.
What if the faceoff is a 50/50 battle?
What if the other team’s flip is short and weak rather than high and deep?
Suddenly your tactical response to a simple opposing gambit becomes much more nuanced, with plenty of if-then scenarios branching out from the initial premise.
All this complexity added into the system due to a single element introduced by the opposing team.
To a certain extent a coach must accept the challenge and make his/her best attempt to build a complex tactical scaffold enveloped by compact, illustrative labels such as 1-2-2, 2-1-2 or 1-1-3.
But at some point the complexity of the system takes on a life of its own.
“Are they playing a 1-1-3 or a 1-4 on line change?”
“F3 is swinging into the middle instead of locking the wall. Is that more of a 1-1-1-2?”
“They’re backing off earlier so this 1-1-3 isn’t the same as the other team’s 1-1-3.”
“What do we do? How much does this matter?”
At the highest level not much separates winners and losers. But there’s also a line between detail and triviality.
Simplicity As a Choice
The Dallas Stars and the Tampa Bay Lightning have vastly different styles, personnel and statistical profiles. Both are led by knowledgeable and motivated coaches who are evidently at ease designing and deploying complex strategies.
Yet both team’s signature patterns of play can be expressed in strikingly simple terms.
We see all five Dallas players moving cooperatively to close space and take time away from the Vegas Golden Knights. Forwards alternatively pressure VGK Ds on the regroup, while defensemen either step up to kill the rush early or stay back to prevent a clean entry against.
If we consider this five-man dance as a complex system then its control mechanism must evidently be even more intricate. Once we accept it as such, it would be only a matter of time until triviality overtakes detail and the entire scaffold falls apart under the weight of “too much information.”
Therefore the way to escape this vicious cycle is to simplify the system rather than complexify the controls.
Consider the following thought experiment:
How would you teach the Dallas neutral-zone forecheck to eight-year-olds?
Here’s one possibility:
The first two players up-ice chase the puck carrier to one side.
The next three players stand side-by-side and protect the blue line.
Real simple. But that’s enough to get started, no?
What about Tampa’s exciting offensive-zone movement?
Once these seemingly complex systems are condensed into its most basic and simple forms, then it is possible to restart the process of adding if-then statements to the tactical scaffold in order to help players understand their roles and internalize their responsibilities.
If the NHL is a copycat league then I’d expect half of its 32 teams to play a 1-1-3 neutral-zone forecheck and to play 2-3 in the offensive zone next season. But will these 16 teams grasp the essence of what makes DAL and TBL (or NYI, who play 1-1-3 NZ and 2-3 OZ too) championship contenders?
Seven years in pro hockey condensed into 120 pages.
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