Systems Analysis: Different Looks at the Swarm

Kevin McCartney
October 01 2013 06:46AM

Game one between Winnipeg and Edmonton offers us an edu-taining systems battle. Without the puck, both teams use what is broadly called a 'swarm' system, but each team employs it very differently. Inside we'll talk about what a swarm is and why it's used, and then examine some practice video and still images to see if we can spot the differences in their systems play.

What is a Swarm?

To begin, let's be clear that we're talking about a system without the puck. You'll hear people call it a 'swarm defence' for that reason, but the defence/offence binary is less meaningful in hockey than in games with less flow to them. Personally, I think about the game through the lens of possession, and so a more useful binary for me is with/without the puck. Moreover, this system isn't necessarily limited to the defensive zone. No, in fact, the Oilers use it all over the ice as part of what new coach Dallas Eakins is calling "a quick and immediate plan to get [the puck] back."

We have a lot to cover in this post, so we'll focus on the defensive zone and come back to other areas of the ice in the future.

The basics

A swarm is an aggressive variation on the overload. Where the overload is designed to force players into a single, less desirable option, the swarm is designed to take away even that choice. Typically, a player attacks the puck carrier, while one or both vertical (or board) lanes are closed and a 3rd or 4th player (we'll see how aggressive it can get below) plays inside the puck carrier's nearest puck support. Did I just hear you say blerg? Here's a picture!

 

This picture is meant to show the principle of the swarm more than any nuance that the Oilers put on it. That will come later. For now, notice that the Oilers defenders play according to where the puck is (all 12 eyes are on that corner), and every player has positioned himself 'inside' the Rangers puck supporters (that is, between the puck and the bad guys). In this case, Arcobello (centre, 62) is going to support below the goal line to retrieve the puck that the Ranger is trying to reverse behind the net. In some systems, that would be Belov's (defence, 77) job. 

How it differs from a collapse-style system

Just to give a contrast, here is a picture of the Rangers defending a similar play in the same period:

The Rangers play a very conservative man-to-man collapsing system. We won't get into detail about the Rangers and our analysis of this photo will focus on better understanding the swarm.

The differences will at first seem like one of those picture puzzles on a cereal box, but they're important even if small.  The defenders play between their check and the net here, rather than between their check and puck as in the swarm above. The 'collapse' aspect actually means that the defenders work inside-out. So if Vigneault coached the Oilers, he would give hell to both Oiler wingers in the 1st picture for playing too close to the perimeter of the play. See how the Oilers' defender up the boards stands between the puck and the open player. The Rangers' defender stands between the net and the attacker. Staal (18) stands, again, between the net and his check, where as Perron (57) is between the puck and Girardi (5), leaving the lane to the net uncontested.

In this example, Moore (centre, 28) looks to be lost, but he's actually reading the Oilers' defenceman before circling to cover Eberle (14) as he floats down the seam. In fact, it's Dorsett's (15) check (Belov, 77) that Moore is looking at (out of screen at the right point). Belov is above his defence partner Schultz (19) who is on the sideboards supporting the puck. In other words, the Oilers have committed 5 guys to support this puck and are showing a very dense offensive grouping. The Oilers are exploiting a tension in playing man and collapse to create a man-advantage on the puck. The coach has to choose whether Dorsett (or Moore, or someone) goes over there to stay close to a guy, or whether they simply hold formation inside the attacker's perimeter. You see Vigneault's choice above and why it's not an overload system. 

Why use a Swarm?

For some reason, systems are often talked about as simply extensions of coaching personalities, or worse, as some eternal code of 'this then that.' Torts is mean so he makes people hit. If a team plays ‘through opponents’ then they win. The reality is that systems represent a theoretical approach to hockey grounded in ideas of which structures, areas, and plays are most critical in reaching the same stated goal.

For Eakins, we can hear him saying that he sees the swarm as part of a possession system. To take a step further back, Eakins believes the game is about the puck. Control where the puck goes, and you control the game. That might sound tautological until you consider the theory behind other systems. The collapse system, for example, is focused on opportunity through control over one particular area of the ice. Limit the number of opportunities at or near your net, and you might win the scoring chances battle.

Still, possession is not the only reason a team might employ a swarm. We know that Claude Noel evaluates players by scoring chances, and as we'll discuss below, when a swarm breaks down it gives up 5-alarm chances. In some cases, it's a theory of offence that brings a coach to the swarm system. The Jets under Noel believe in a vertical, transition attack, and it starts with having puck movers on the back-end. 

Non-swarm systems often rely on big, strong defenders to box out the front of the net, win one-on-one battles in the corner, and break up cycles by taking up a big patch of ice. Both the Jets and the Oilers employ more mobile defenders than trench-dwellers, and aside from Smid after a whistle, neither group has much malice or might.

The swarm can be used to support defenders in battles by avoiding one-on-one situations. Both teams want a fast transition game, and are using a system that gives guys like Tobias Enstrom and Justin Schultz a fighting chance against NHL sized forwards. 

For the Jets, Adam Pardy and Mark Stuart stand out as very poor puck movers in this system, but might look a little more steady in a system where they just chip it up the boards after some face washing in the corners. (Might.) The Oilers have a long history of Theo Peckams and Mark Fistrics, but it's their first year using the swarm to my knowledge, and I don't know much about the Marlies. It’s possible Eakins is adapting his system to his personnel, or that he convinced MacTavish of its promise in the interview that landed him a job before there was an opening. Maybe some Oiler people can help me out in the comments.

Different Types of Swarms

So far all we've done is differentiate the swarm from a man-collapse system. Next we'll look at the Oilers and Jets for two examples of different types of swarms. In particular, we'll see different roles for the centres and the Oilers using a double-pin in the corners to win puck battles and break the cycle. The result is also a different break out, and we'll touch on that very briefly. 

Winnipeg Jets

The Jets system in pre-season is more conservative than the one we saw used by the team last year, but it still qualifies as a swarm. On the Bruins first goal we saw Olli Jokinen play a really soft overload zone. It's a terrible play; it serves us well as a learning example.

The Jets' set here is a simple overload. It gives us a chance to see the difference. You see three Jets lined up like a picket fence between the puck carrier and his most dangerous passing options. Trouba (3) has inside position on his man in front and should win any race to the end-boards should Marchand (63) put it low, and the Bruin's best option is to go to the point. The Jets have chosen for him. Jokinen is the active player in this space for the Jets swarm. It's his job to force Marchand's hand here, and we'll see later an example from the second period where Cormier does that.

But not right now. What Marchand does with those four seconds between pictures is skate up the boards and then circle back down. Krug (47) goes all the way to the net through the same lane Bergeron (37) is in now, and then circles out to his position at the bottom of the image. Instead of pressuring the play on the way up the boards, Jokinen waits and then makes a soft approach on Marchand's way down the boards when he's on his forehand, and he waits long enough that there is a gap behind him. Bergeron fills that gap because he's smarter than Jokinen. Pavelec somehow reads the play going to Krug (47) and slides away from the shot and gets beat short side. Good gravy.

That's not a defensive structure we saw last year in Winnipeg, and it's something to keep an eye on through the season.

It doesn't answer how the Jets use the swarm. With the Swarm, we start in the corner.

 

One of the struggles with seeing the Jets' systems is that Dustin Byfuglien (33) is an absolute wild card. Here he's standing below the goal line but between his check and the net. His partner, Clitsome (24) is attempting a single pin in the corner, and the centre (28, Cormier) is attacking the puck. As we'll see below, this system can get a lot more aggressive, but for now, the Jets have four players more or less committed to this corner - roughly in an 'L' shape from Peluso (14) to Big Buff (33). 

It might not surprise you that the Jets were dominated on this play and in this period. The Bruins have two players with inside positioning, and the Jets are already chasing with the puck still in the corner. A better centre than Cormier might read that he should pin 32 white (or chase him away from the play) instead of making this leaning hack at the puck. 

Regardless, the team adjusts in the intermission, and we see the system tweaked toward being more aggressive. Below is the same line in another attempt to prevent the Bruin cycle, this time on the half-wall (like the Jokinen play above). The Jets have two players on the puck, and play man defence outside that scrum. That's much closer to what we saw last year. Again, Dustin Byfuglien is beginning a pivot to go... god knows where. Clitsome might cheat inside that Bruin forward, or Peluso might adjust his space toward the net except that Buff is in no-man's land without a check or an obvious decision here.

Let's look at another line. During this game, Mike Johnson of TSN pronounced that Tangradi-Slater-Thorburn had played well enough to cement themselves as the Jets fourth line. Let's have a look at them.

In this play, Scheifele and Wright both went for the change on the back-check, so Thorburn (22) took over the centre job below the goal line. Slater (19) is playing RW in the switch. Here we see a very classic swarm formation, as we saw in the example above. Both boards (up to the blue line and down behind the net) are covered (or closed), there is pressure on the puck, and a 4th skater (Tangradi, 27) is between the puck and the next opposing player. Everyone is between the puck and their check, and focus is on the puck and its carrier.

A lot happened in that 20 seconds between slides, but here we are back in the same corner with Slater (19) playing his natural centre and Thorburn (22) back on the right wing. This picture is extremely important for our comparison to the Oiler system below. Postma is attacking from an angle to try to close off one board play, Thorburn is closing the other, Slater is at the goal line but not attacking the puck. Three players surround the puck, but the Jets' weak-side defender stays in front of the net even without an immediate threat and Tangradi stays in the middle slot. The Jets have isolated Thornton (22) so that Postma can attempt to pin him, but until that pin is made, his team mates keep their distance.  

Edmonton Oilers

I've already hinted at how aggressive the swarm can get, and the Oilers are the best example I've seen of it. Let's look at a couple still images that give us some insight into what Eakins is starting to implement, and re-visit a video from their training camp practices that was captured by Blacque Jacque and posted in the comments over at Lowetide's blog a few weeks ago.

I've cued the video below to what I want to show, but if you're a fan and haven't seen it yet, there are all sorts of interesting tidbits to muse over. From where it starts (4:18), you'll hear a whistle and the then see the defensive swarm with a double pin by two defencemen with the centre digging. I encourage you to pause again at 4:33. That's all the video I want to talk about for now.

In that brief 15 seconds, we just saw a TON of what the Oilers are doing this year. As you've noticed by now, lots of teams use the swarm. I don't know of another that uses both defenders in one corner, or allows both defenders pin on the cycle. As we see in the Jets swarm above, the centre supports below the goal line and is allowed to pin, but one defenceman stays near the net so a single-pin is used to limit options and the second play is generally a hit to separate the puck without sacrificing another man to the corner. Eakins is showing that he's willing to put three people in one corner. 

To compensate, look how low the weak-side winger comes - all the way to the crease. And the strong side winger stays on the strong sideboards. That's all five players below the hashmarks, committed to a single play. In the hockey world, this has a technical term: Big Brass Ones.

Okay, some game stills.

 

Look familiar? This actually came on a turn over by Larsen (36), who rounded the net and got caught by the Ranger F3 transitioning to F1. He got hit, smartly organized himself to make it a battle, and the Oilers re-grouped into this insanely tight formation.

And here we have the double-pin (look closely in the corner for two Oilers):

This is a good time to note that this system has its problems. Lowry (56) has come away with the puck, is about to beat Mike Brown (13) around the net, and there are three Jets available to fill the wide open spaces of the most dangerous part of the ice. (My favourite part is that Eager (55) is still looking at the corner. Could be a long year for that line.)

Here's another issue Oilers fans are going to see a few times this year:

 

It's a simple enough mistake. The Oiler defender lost containment on the cycle and the Ranger forward beat him to the puck. I've highlighted the puck so you can see what's about to happen. (A goal. A goal is about to happen). When the system requires three or even four players be on the boards, small mistakes have very noticeable consequences. The Rangers' skaters were seen using the reverse along the end-boards to try to beat the Oilers' swarm from the puck drop, but it wasn't until the 2nd period that the coach adjusted to have support for that reverse. The Rangers had 3 shots in the 1st and 24 the rest of the game (though still lost). They got the Oilers to start chasing back and forth, and if you're late in this system, you get beaten off the boards. This is why Eakins wants that weak-side winger so incredibly low.

One final problem this system has is the chance for over-pursuit. The shot below is actually a mistake by Evander Kane (9) on the defensive side of the puck, missing a check and then just floating away from the play. But it leads to a two-zone break away for the Jets' most dangerous skater. Such aggressive pursuit meant the Jets only had to slap the puck into the soft zone behind the Oiler attackers and watch Kane take off. It's high-risk hockey.

Breakout

One of the most interesting parts of Eakins swarm is that it comes with a unique breakout. On the breakout in the video above, we saw the Oilers reverse to a winger who made the first vertical pass to the other winger swinging across the zone. My first thought when I saw that video a few weeks ago was that the system would fail if that were the intended breakout play. The carrier had no other options except to eat it and start another battle. A reverse is back toward opponents, and everyone else is occupied. We also saw one of the defencemen jump up on the side closest to the camera (see that?). It would be two games before a team played a weak-side lock on them and scored 8 goals.

Thankfully for Oilers fans, that part of the drill was more about where the weak-side winger goes than what he does with the puck. I suspect we won't see a lot of that single-option breakout from the Oilers this year. In pre-season, we saw the Oilers carry around the back of the net when they won that puck battle. It looked a little more like this:

Now, it looks a little different because the centre didn't start low. But otherwise it's the same. Joensuu (wing, 6) is swinging, Pitlick (weak-side wing, 68) swoops low through the corner, and options are developing for Larsen (36) with the puck.  

Still, I'm not sure what the Oilers plan is for a strong-side breakout, and if the Oilers have any success, we'll see teams start to use F3 or the defender on that side to cut off that breakout very early (instead of chasing the puck around the net as Thorburn (22) does). The best breakout has multiple options, and so far we're not seeing a lot of different looks coming out of that aggressive corner swarm.

What's your exit strategy?

Okay, it's been a long one. Pop-pop gets a treat. Most of our future articles will deal with just one team and one aspect of their system at a time. 

In this case, it's a useful case study to see both teams together, using the same system in different ways. The Oilers are going to be an exciting team to watch this year again. Jets hockey is high-event, and the Oilers' new system makes them look conservative. The Oilers went 5-2-1 while learning this new system and the Jets were a terrible 1-4-3 while running out some odd line combos. It all gets real tonight.

 

*** Have a systems question that's been bugging you? Please suggest it as a topic below or track me down on twitter @kevinmccart

38cf2c318f1f284f974b60f35021d346
Kevin is the Managing Editor of Jets Nation. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, The Sporting News, and around the Nations Network. An enthusiastic over-analyst, his background and interests are diverse, but you might notice he's obsessed with hockey. Track him down on twitter @kevinmccart or @nhljetsnation
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#1 Batfink
October 01 2013, 08:19AM
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Awesome article. I love your non-patronising prose. You set out and explain things very well about why and how the team should be implementing the coaches system. We used to have a guy called N.A.S. 1000 word posts about how all GMs would be stupid not to implement his own system, I 5hit you not. So thanks, that was a joy to read. You'll do fine on here, unless you criticise Jordan Leslie in any way shape or form. Then watch out for ninja Wanye.

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#2 Hayek
October 01 2013, 08:37AM
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Great article. It's nice to be more informed and know what systems mean, and not just the names of them. It really allows for us to evaluate the Oilers more clearly.

Oh, and great use of pictures for description. One of the best articles ever on Oilersnation.

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#3 The Towel Boy
October 01 2013, 08:13AM
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Mmmmm....shawarma defense. #Donairs #HashtagsOnTheNation

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#4 Velo
October 01 2013, 08:43AM
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Love these technical articles...I also like sitting up high on the ends of the arena to watch breakouts and adjustments made mid game. Please come back and analyze Oilers systems again, soon!

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#5 OilCanFan
October 01 2013, 08:47AM
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I really like the use of the images to help show the formation of the system coupled with your description - great job

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#6 G Money
October 01 2013, 09:04AM
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Fantastic article, Kevin. This high calibre of information is incredible. I will have to read this through a few times just to make sure I understand, but there is such little information out there on specific tactical systems that it makes this information all the more valuable.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it *sounds* like some of the justification for such an aggressive system is that it plays into the teams characteristics, namely mobility and speed (offset by a lack of size).

If nothing else, I'm relieved that the fundamental system we're using this year is actually used by a large number of other teams. There was an article on Krueger's pre-gapping system last year, which was interesting, but when I asked if anyone knew which other teams were using that system, the response was crickets.

Not sure if you've looked at such a thing, but how would the swarm defensive set contrast with Kruegers system?

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#7 justDOit
October 01 2013, 09:00AM
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The Towel Boy wrote:

Mmmmm....shawarma defense. #Donairs #HashtagsOnTheNation

I just hope that this shawarma doesn't end up making me falafel.

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#8 vetinari
October 01 2013, 09:52AM
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Kevin, you magnificent b@st@rd... thank you for these articles. They explain a lot and give it to the reader in an easy to follow format.

Can't wait to watch the game tonight and I look forward to picking out the "swarm" patterns.

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#9 CDean
October 01 2013, 08:41AM
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That was a great read Kevin. I look forward to more in the future. That cleared up some of the questions I had in my mind when talking about the swarm system and how the Oilers have been suing it, I will be able to look a lot more closely at it during their games. I do like this new system because it makes sense. I only hope that they will be able to implement it like you said and not have those mistakes. Each player has to know their part and commit to it.

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#10 Golden Moment
October 01 2013, 09:19AM
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Excellent article, keep them coming.

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#11 Klima's Mullet
October 01 2013, 08:32AM
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Kevin, are you NewAgeSys?

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#12 Benhur
October 01 2013, 09:03AM
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Very interesting...I've been wondering what the Swarm system meant. Good work keep it up. I spent some work tracking the Oilers and competitions Own Zone Turnovers last year and because of the really poor results the Oilers had, I am interested in how the team will do in their breakouts this year. Looking forward to your future posts. Thanks.

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#13 Bushed
October 01 2013, 09:40AM
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Cool article.

Flashed me back to the Howie Meeker tele-strator days.

Ask Wanye if you can get a tele-strator, too. It would make your articles even more awesome.

Keep up the good work.

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#14 the professor
October 01 2013, 03:09PM
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I don't often comment (just lurk) but this article was without a doubt the best that I have ever read here. I feel smarter already.

Well done, and thank you!

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#15 TeeVee
October 01 2013, 10:05AM
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Wow. That was a lot to ingest. Excellent write-up.

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#17 oilerjed
October 01 2013, 09:03AM
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Nice breakdown.. Whats with using words like "tautological". I had to pull out the dictionary and its barely past 8oclock.

Seems like it could work with the oilers speed but only if they have sharp passing on their breakouts, otherwise its gonna turn into a shooting fest for whoever they are playing. Dubnyk better be nice and limber for the first couple of weeks.

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#18 oilerjed
October 01 2013, 09:06AM
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justDOit wrote:

I just hope that this shawarma doesn't end up making me falafel.

groannnnn....................

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#19 justDOit
October 01 2013, 09:09AM
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oilerjed wrote:

groannnnn....................

I write for Princepe - hey, it's a living!

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#20 Alsker
October 01 2013, 09:18AM
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Great read, even for so early in the day, well explained and easily comprehended. Keep up the good work, and I look forward to more such articles(PP/PK breakdowns?).Oh maybe if NAS had used pics in his marathon comments it would have almost made them bearable....NOT.

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#21 esa tikkanen
October 01 2013, 10:40AM
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Kevin,

I find this a fascinating article. there has been much discussion in the Oilers world that Krueger last year had a system that was easily broken down by opponents, thus the Oilers had a difficult time getting out of their zone or maintaining time/opportunity in the opponents' zone. would you have time to write about what went wrong with the Oilers' system last year?

In particular, no matter who the coach has been, the Oilers seem to have a very hard time, with all their young, skilled players, of beating the trap. Witness their top team losing to Dallas' AHL team the other night. No flow, nowhere for the skill to shine, so they seem to get outpatient, turn the puck over and voila, goal against. I am wondering if them getting outshot so consistently last season was an issue of poor patience, low skill level, or bad systems, or a combination of them all.

thanks

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#22 The Towel Boy
October 01 2013, 11:07AM
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justDOit wrote:

I just hope that this shawarma doesn't end up making me falafel.

I almost falafel my chair when I read this.

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#23 Reach Advantage
October 01 2013, 11:53AM
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Awesome article! Thank you!

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#24 denis
October 01 2013, 12:13PM
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we need more articles like this...gold

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#25 Smokey
October 01 2013, 02:20PM
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Bushed wrote:

Cool article.

Flashed me back to the Howie Meeker tele-strator days.

Ask Wanye if you can get a tele-strator, too. It would make your articles even more awesome.

Keep up the good work.

Neilson is smiling down from heaven after reading that. Don Cherry was out at the first mention of systems, and is grumbling in the corner about the instigator and visors. I thought the same thing, very Howie Meekerish.

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#26 matsthomassen
October 01 2013, 05:04PM
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My head hurts and it took my about half an hour to get through it, but just fantastic piece. Learning!!

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#27 Lloyd B.
October 01 2013, 10:57AM
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Rama you just beat me to it. We used to catch it big time for playing like this and now it is in vougue. Who knew. The only thing that scares me is that you had better get the puck playing this way because if you don't the number of five alarm chances against are going to be incredible. Douby detractors get ready.

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#28 hoil
October 01 2013, 12:31PM
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Outstanding hockey clinic on defensive systems you have put together there Kevin; very nicely done. It was obviously a lot of work to produce and we thank you for it.

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#29 Smokey
October 01 2013, 02:25PM
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Bushed wrote:

Cool article.

Flashed me back to the Howie Meeker tele-strator days.

Ask Wanye if you can get a tele-strator, too. It would make your articles even more awesome.

Keep up the good work.

The Nation probably limits Wayne's budget, so a telestrator is not in the cards. All we would see is a lot of telestrations of boobs in the defensive zone, and lots of squeeeeee's from the crowd.

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#30 The Soup Fascist
October 01 2013, 03:20PM
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Bushed wrote:

Cool article.

Flashed me back to the Howie Meeker tele-strator days.

Ask Wanye if you can get a tele-strator, too. It would make your articles even more awesome.

Keep up the good work.

You kids at home .... Jiminy Crickets! .... You Just Can't do that!

Look at the Jets goalie .... on his knees lookin' for nickles. Golly Gee Whiz! He's gonna get beat like a rented mule.

Loved Howie!

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#31 Bigfan
October 01 2013, 03:45PM
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Great article! That kind of material is what i was looking for when i first wandered into these hockeyblog sites. I was hoping for more than the usual "Hall is a beast" or "Yak should hold out for more than six million per". You are meeting a need, sir.

A better understanding of the systems being used and the variations being employed will make the games more interesting and fun to watch. I jope i can see some of this in the game tonight - great fun.

Please contribute more. Point out modifications that the oil may put in place if there are problems. Let us know who is (apparently?) not on board or unable to do the job. Help us readers see what the coaches are seeing or should be seeing and maybe we can start to see more and develop more understanding of what certain players bring or dont bring.

Hopfully you will be a regular here. But if you get to the point where you wonder how many of the readers here cannot tell the difference between your stuff and NewAgeSys' drivel ... then tell us where you are going!

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#32 Smokey
October 01 2013, 04:41PM
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@the professor

Top 5 all time easy...AMEN

Why only 35 comments though...Its an article worth 300 minimum, even if people just say its awesome.

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#33 Rama Lama
October 01 2013, 10:06AM
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Great read, how is this different than what pee-wee hockey players do?

I'm sure we have all seen a game where all the players follow the puck around??

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#35 G Money
October 01 2013, 04:34PM
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Kevin McCartney wrote:

For the record, I am not NewAgeSys. The evidence is in the paragraph breaks.

I'm happy everyone liked it. I'll re-visit Krueger's system from last year and do some sort of comparison article in the future. I heard him talk about 'pre-gapping' once, and it's not a term I'd ever heard. Does anyone have the link for the article G Money mentions?

Kevin, there might have been another article on the topic as well (faint stirrings in memory), but this is the primary article I was referring to:

http://oilersnation.com/2013/2/14/oilers-new-attacking-system

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#36 AussieOil
October 01 2013, 05:14PM
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Great Article - like to see the various articles. Would be nice to see some overheads with X and O's as well

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#37 Beaverdam
October 01 2013, 08:18PM
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A knowledgeable and articulate blogger who understands hockey. Have you read this Gregor?

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#38 Mike B
October 02 2013, 06:19PM
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No team in the NHL has ever used Krueger's krappy defensive system. Wingers not pinching in to help left a huge gap in the slot. Opponents that figured it out exploited it big time, hence why the Oilers were one of the worst teams five on five.

Using the swarm alone will improve our defense over last year, coupled with better players, I predict a 40% improvement on defense IF the players can adjust and commit to this type of aggressive system.

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