Breakdown: Does Man-to-Man Coverage Cost Islanders Goals?

As you may know, I normally focus more on the forwards, matchups and other stuff going on, but something struck me about some of the goals the Isles have conceded recently and that's why I've paid a bit more attention to what they're trying to do in their own zone. Some of us talked a little bit about it in the comments after the Washington game.

I'm still not an expert when it comes to the game in the defensive zone and would appreciate comments - I'm also definitely looking forward to watching some other teams a bit more closely during the playoffs. However, my feel is that the Isles play one of the most strict man-to-man coverage systems in their own zone around the league. And I'm wondering if that's playing to their strengths.

After the jump, I'll quickly add some general thoughts and then will break down some of the goals the Isles have conceded over the past few weeks, including both against Toronto last night.

So, from what I've seen and read over the past few weeks only Washington and Edmonton seem to play man-to-man similarly strictly in the own zone. Most other teams seem to use a more zone-oriented coverage. The Penguins tried to play man-to-man early in the season, but reverted back to their usual zone coverage quickly. I didn't notice that experiment back then and haven't followed them at all lately, so no idea what they're doing currently, but two good articles have been written about the Pens' ideas and they both help to explain the general thoughts behind the choice of D zone systems. Please go read those articles from BlackAndBlueAndGold and TheHockeyWriters for further details - I'll just cite some summarizing parts here.

BlackAndBlueAndGold about the advantages of man-to-man coverage in the own zone:

... Each of the three low defenders is assigned to a man. No defenseman is locked in to a specific location. This keeps the D from switching assignments. ... Since each blueliner is assigned to a man and not a zone, the coverage on each forward is tighter. Tighter coverage takes away space and forces turnovers. ... Ultimately, the man-to-man system generates so much pressure that the offense cannot string passes together. This results in a turnover. ...

and about the disadvantages:

... The main downfall of the system is that it isolates talent. Less skilled defensemen may find themselves facing the NHL’s most dazzling players. Guys like Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, and Matt Niskanen are obviously not equipped to handle players like Henrik and Daniel Sedin. ... Another way to avoid the one-on-one pressure is to set picks. Many NHL teams employ this strategy with minimal legal ramifications. In a zone system, defensemen are less effectively picked because they are only required to stay in their area—not with a specific forward. ...

So, there are some nice advantages there, but the man-to-man coverage seems to be very difficult to pick up because it requires very good chemistry and communication. And it's probably difficult to execute for particularly the weaker defenders on the team who easily might be overmatched by the size, speed or skill of some of the opposing forwards. Given the Isles' D hasn't played together for years and consists of a few defenders deficient in certain areas, man-to-man coverage doesn't seem to be a straight-forward choice with this team at all.

Now, goals against maybe wasn't their biggest downfall this season, tough then again, if you take into account just how conservatively they play sometimes, you would probably expect them to do a little better in that department. Anyway, clearly, I don't know what kind of success they'd had with a more zone-oriented coverage, maybe it would have been even worse, who knows. And I'm sure they've been able to exploit some of the advantages the man-to-man coverage offers. But for my liking, there really have been too many breakdowns caused by the weaknesses of the man-to-man lately. As said, I didn't focus on this early in the season - so, not sure if the plan or the execution was different early or if it's hurt them all season indeed. But here however are a few examples of the last few games.

Breaking Down the Kessel Goal

I have pictures below, but would of course recommend to watch Toronto's first goal last night on video again.

An important part at the beginning of the play isn't on the video, though. #42 Bozak is by himself - Hamonic is trying to pressure him in the corner, but falls down. He gets back up quickly, but Bozak escapes around the net.


Not a big problem, though, because the Isles have a huge man-advantage in this situation for now and Niederreiter takes on Bozak on the other side of the net.


Bozak turns back around the net again quickly - meanwhile Hamonic's recovered back to the front of the net. Bozak is now clearly Nino's man, but Hamonic skated over pretty aggressively and for a split second Nino seems to think Hamonic wants Bozak back. They need to communicate and Nino loses a step on Bozak.


Bozak has a little separation with Nino therefore and this opens up the opportunity for #81 Kessel to set a pick. He's coming down the right wing and skates behind the net just before Nino's eyes. More separation for Bozak, to first pass the puck up to the blue line, then get back in position to receive the puck and even have time to spot the open Kessel.


Here's Kessel's pick on Nino again. And given they're playing man-to-man and Nino is already down low, maybe Reasoner's collapsed too much here and the guy on the point is too open.


Kessel, skating past Nino, is now clearly MacDonald's man. Hamonic long recovered to the front of the net and had no business with Kessel in this shift at all. In their man-to-man coverage Hamonic isn't supposed to primarily cover the zone in front of the net, but needs to spot the next open man and cover that guy. That's #16 MacArthur and Hamonic rightly leaves the front of the net. Kessel as said would be MacDonald's man, but he lost him completely - he knows he's supposed to cover Kessel, but can't find him looking over his left shoulder.


Hamonic's fall at the beginning is unfortunate, but they of course have enough men back to deal with that. And there are individual mistakes in there, but for me it comes down to the weaknesses of their man-to-man coverage being exposed in this play indeed. We see that their communication or chemistry isn't good enough or just too difficult to establish and we see the vulnerability of their coverage to picks.

The Lombardi Goal

On the Leafs' 2nd goal we can see similar struggles and maybe Streit and even Reese can't really be blamed.

The play started a little earlier with the Leafs cycling and shooting the puck once already, but after minor confusion the Isles have recovered and are set nicely with Martin on #15 Lombardi, Reese on #38 Rosehill and Streit on #9 Armstrong (out of the picture, behind the net).


The Leafs then cycle the puck, #38 Rosehill sends the puck back along the boards, #15 Lombardi skates past Martin and #9 Armstrong picks up the puck behind the net ultimately.


#9 Armstrong on the puck here - both Reese and Martin are caught a little high up the ice and #15 Lombardi however gets in behind them.


Armstrong, chased by Streit, skates all the way up the boards and feeds the blue liner. Meanwhile Reese and Martin struggled to communicate and end up both in the high slot on Rosehill, while no one's picked up Lombardi in front of the net.


Lombardi eventually receives the puck behind the net and has all the time to make a play and score indeed. Reese is on Rosehill in front of the net and Martin is watching.


Rosehill was indeed Reese's man all shift. So, in their man-to-man coverage he's probably right to not cover the front of the net primarily or even Lombardi, but to just stay with Rosehill indeed. Martin lost Lombardi totally and never really seemed to realize Lombardi was his man and that he's supposed to be with him in front of (or behind) the net there. Martin could surely make the point that it would have been wise to switch assignments after Lombardi got away from him and Reese was closer to Lombardi indeed. However, that would require communication and, though much of the blame can be put on Martin here I guess - and certainly none on Streit - for me it again comes down to the weakeness of the man-to-man coverage. To communicate there when Reese and Martin got together is just very difficult and maybe it would have been easier if they'd played a zone-oriented D here and Streit would have stayed in front of the net all shift, or Reese would have reverted back to the front of the net quickly. Or maybe it would have gone just as bad...

Anyway, there are of course breakdowns in every D zone coverage in this league. So, I'm not exactly saying this or that coverage would definitely work best for them, I need to watch it more closely around the league. I just mainly want to illustrate here what they're trying to do in their own zone and I think these two goals show some of the potential downfalls quite well. I've noticed similar breakdowns a few times every game lately and will just add some of them below with a short description and the link to the video for further illustration. If you watch, watch it multiple times mabye and/or just pause every second or so and try to focus on who's covering whom, their communication and potential mismatches.

Other examples

On the Flyers' 2nd goal last week we can again see the effectiveness of a pick, this time set by Hartnell on Streit who loses contact with Jagr slightly. This allows Jagr to spot Giroux and make the pass indeed - maybe Streit would have been able to prevent the pass if Hartnell hadn't set the pick on him. Also, for split seconds there is confusion twice about who to cover Jagr and Giroux respectively. Streit's on Jagr first, but then Ullstrom comes in, ultimately still leaves Jagr alone, though. Reese follows Giroux well to the high slot initially, but for a second there seems to think a winger will pick up Giroux up high or his instincts tell him to cover the front of the net a little better. He's too late then to pick up Giroux again and prevent the shot. The Flyers by the way ran the same play again in the 3rd period, but that time Reese was much closer to Giroux and took the puck away in the high slot.

One of Kovalchuk's goals in the series against the Devils shows the communication problems and how less skilled defensemen can be exposed by great forwards. Already when Kovalchuk skates in along the boards and behind the net they’re unsure what to do. Eaton seems to expect Jurcina to follow Kovy around, then notices that isn’t happening and goes back himself. Jurcina meanwhile is picking up Parise and Cizikas is on Henrique in front of the net. Looks good there for a sec, but then Jurcina doesn’t pick up Parise again on the other side of the net, Eaton loses Kovy. Jurcina would prefer to swap it seems, but Eaton doesn’t pick up Parise, either, and instead also tries to get back to Kovy, who’s way out in the high slot in the meantime. Jurcina tries to do the same, Parise is completely open and no one’s close enough to Kovy.

On this play Zubrus is suddenly completely open in front of the net and Nilsson needs to make a good save. The Devils' forwards are just cycling the puck very well on this one and Streit, who's on Zubrus initially, somehow goes back to the front of the net and just leaves Zubrus alone. Reese could pick him up, but given they're playing strict man-to-man here he of course thinks that's Streit's man and they're just standing around not knowing what to do until it's too late.

Another Zubrus scoring chance here. Moulson is in front of the net with MacDonald. You'd expect MacDonald to pick up Zubrus there, but he somehow doesn't, Moulson's just standing around not knowing who to follow. MacDonald then directs Moulson behind the net. But Moulson's too late then of course and instead of protecting the front of the net MacDonald just goes looking for the next open man and picks up #15 Sykora there.

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