If you haven't checked in on Japers' Rink this week and their series of excerpts from Bruce Boudreau's upcoming book, yesterday's bit was a doozie for on-ice strategy wonks. That Boudreau's hockey philosophy is aggressive is not exactly news, but as James Mirtle points out, it is rather rare for a coach to publicly share it in detail.
Boudreau's puck-pressure approach is certainly the way forward for the "new" NHL (i.e. the NHL that actually enforces long-existing rules about what your stick is for), and most new young coaches are tending toward the aggressive style. It's particularly the way forward if you actually have the horses to run it effectively -- and Boudreau certainly has that.
If you don't have the horses, you get the sometimes chaotic mess Scott Gordon had last year. (That said, I was always in favor of Gordon going whole hog with implementing his system: It was more important that the youngsters who will form our core learn it well, rather than worry about appeasing the grumpy veterans who were not long for this place.)
But do we have that with the Islanders? Is Gordon, the former backup goalie, a variation of Boudreau, the former minor-league sniper? Yes and no.In the excerpt from "Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer" (which you can pre-order now), Boudreau writes:
If an opposing team has puck possession in their defensive zone, my philosophy is that it’s stupid to retreat and let them come to the blue line or red line and gain a head of steam when we can check them in their zone. By checking them in their zone, any potential turnover comes in a spot where we’re able to score.
This reminds me of the most important component of Scott Gordon's system: The desire for high-pressure, skating-intensive forecheck to force the other team into rushing decisions. Rushed decisions lead to mistakes. Mistakes lead to goals. I'm not sure if Gordon is as big on short shifts as Boudreau is, but that's certainly a logical tactic if you're hoping to outpressure the other team.
While "overspeed" is the moniker applied to Gordon's practice tactics to help create this urgency (force players to practice faster than their comfort zone), the in-game approach isn't about speed: "It’s not about having great quickness, it’s about having the desire to get there and make the play."
Back to Boudreau:
Our style in the offensive zone puts pressure on our defensemen and the forward with high responsibility. I call it a triangle offense. That third forward has to be responsible, and the responsibility rotates among all three forwards depending on where the puck goes. There is freedom for a defenseman to go down deep for a puck too, but somebody else has to make the read and go support the position he vacated so we’re not vulnerable to an odd-man rush.
Gordon, as far as I know, has never called it "a triangle offense." But his approach is similar: With intense forechecking comes "high responsibility" for teammates to read the play. Like Boudreau, Gordon ideally wants his defensemen to pinch. (Incidentally, this is the biggest reason I'm disappointed that the Islanders made no upgrades to their blueline.) With pinching comes the burden on teammates to read the pinch and cover (or "support") the vacated role.
Of course, you pinch with the expectation of occasional reward, and the Islanders blueline beyond Mark Streit is probably not equipped to make the reward match the risk. Which is probably why Gordon -- despite a steadfast belief in the power of pinching and rotating responsibility to cover -- made subtle in-season adjustments during last season's low point.
Back to Boudreau a couple more times:
Everything is about support. We can be as aggressive as we want offensively as long as five guys are working together. If you have three guys forechecking and a defenseman goes down low and they chip it by for a two-on-one, that’s stupid hockey. That’s not being aggressive; that’s being stupid.
In a sense, all of this is Hockey 101, at every level. Theoretically, you can have five rovers out there if everyone is fully attuned to teammates' movements and tendencies -- remember Scotty Bowman's Russian Five? -- and if everyone is committed and physically conditioned to provide the necessary support. But the general premise is similar to the philosophy Gordon has tried to instill, and hopefully with the changes in summer training and training camp approach, his troops will be better conditioned to implement it.
I still maintain this is a version of the high-pressure system Mike Keenan ran in the '80s -- in part by scaring the crap out of his Flyers players to do so or else, and in part by being blessed with players who possessed good hockey sense.
But you didn't see this during the dregs of the Devils-led, trapping '90s, because inadequate rule enforcement (i.e., The Reign of Obstruction) made heavy forechecking both difficult and ineffective: You can't pressure the defenseman getting the puck in his own zone if you have one or two bodies running interference and hooking you on your way. Worse, by the time he's moved the puck, you're out of position and your former obstructors are now open and on the attack.
Every time I think back to 2004, it still amazes me that John Tortorella was able to take that Lightning team to the Stanley Cup with his "Safe is Death" philosophy during the last season of the obstruction era. Tampa Bay was by far the most exciting and impressive team that season, but they still just barely got by, in what was stylistically a rather dreary, mud-slogging series for a seven-game Stanley Cup Final.
Finally, one more visit with Boudreau:
When players are learning the system, it might look like firewagon hockey. Because the concepts are fairly complicated, they take time to learn. But once the players learn the system and do it right, it’s great defensive hockey.
Sound like the learning curve for a certain last-place team from 2008-09 you know? The "once they learn ... it right, it's great defensive hockey" is yet to come, but with adequate goaltending and reasonable health I think we will eventually see that from a Gordon-coached Islanders team.
The biggest difference, of course, is talent. Without talent, you can't make it happen -- whether you're aggressive or not. But if you play passive, ugly, defensive hockey, you can at least make games close with limited talent, hovering somewhere between last place and legit playoff hope -- and lose your soul in the process.
Boudreau came in after Glen Hanlon carried the ball during Washington's awkward rebuilding years. So Boudreau is blessed from the get-go with Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green -- as well as a supporting cast of role players the Isles would envy. Gordon doesn't have that luxury -- he is the Glen Hanlon now. So he only has Mark Streit and a couple of kids who might some day belong in the vicinity of that group.
I'm a fan of Gordon. I think his approach is the right way forward -- with exciting results not now (though March was a nice preview), but in an ideal future. But we're not going to be able to make a full evaluation of what he can accomplish until he has more horses to help him get there.