Systems Analysis: What is tracking “above” the puck?

In the aftermath of the Jets crashing in Minnesota, Claude Noel’s comments remain the most pertinent data on the black box. We heard a lot about effort and chemistry and the phrase ‘just have to’ from on-lookers (including those wearing the Polar Night blues). Noel’s post-game had more interesting commentary, but focused on faceoffs and the role of defensive zone board battles in creating possession up the ice. We know from the zone-entry data that that wasn’t where things went off the rails for the Jets. They had more entries than the Wild did – they got the puck out and up the ice often. But a low percentage of entries came with control, and obviously very few shots were created from those entries. Somewhere in the neutral zone and offensive zone, the Jets’ possession play ran out of gas.

In his pre-game press scrum this morning, Noel talked about staying positive, about motivation and expectations. But he also made one brief comment with meaning about last night’s contest. 

"We never played with the puck much – weren’t able to create. I thought that they had a hand in that, the way they played. They played a ‘Western Conference playoff game’ type a game, and they were a playoff team last year and that’s how they played. They tracked back, re-load back, everything above the puck. Through the neutral zone, you’re always facing four people, and we weren’t able to generate much."

What does that look like? And if they’re doing it and winning, what on earth are the Jets doing?

Defensive Transition

What we’re about to look at gets called ‘back-checking’ often (especially when you need something to yell at your beer league teammate who’s entering the 3rd minute of his shift without crossing his own blue line). But it’s also a puck-pressure system, and an extension of the forecheck. It’s a way to organize your defensive in-zone play before you get there, as well. It’s the basis for a neutral zone trap, and a way to foreshadow your breakout. Transition is the most open play we have in hockey, but it’s also highly structured. 

What we’ll see below is what I’m going to call Defensive Transition. But the above pre-amble is meant to hint (okay, hammer) at the idea that this isn’t isolated, and it’s tied to a number of coaching choices. Yes, Minnesota destroyed the Jets with it in these 60 minutes, but it’s not as easy as saying ‘let’s do that, then.’ It’s possible a team backs into this choice by virtue of wanting a particular forecheck or defensive zone coverage. It’s possible they build the rest of their system from this transition game. There’s no handbook, as Claude Noel is fond of saying. To succeed at one thing, teams often have to give up succeeding at another. 

In the case of Minnesota, we were all surprised at their lack of scoring chances last night, and their lack of goals so far this season given their complete domination at puck possession and on the shot clock. We awarded the narrow margin of loss to Pavelec, but it has as much to do with the Wild organizing their defensive transition ‘above the puck’ as anything. The Jets’ system is designed to create sustained pressure in the offensive zone and generate dangerous opportunities through a high-pressure forecheck. They never made it that far in this game obviously, but when we do… 

The Wild do ‘track above the puck,’ (or ‘over’ the puck) and while it’s a descriptive phrase, it still hides what the other choice is. No team tracks ‘below the puck’ as a strategy so let’s start with what the Wild did last night and move into what the Jets do instead.

Tracking Above the Puck

I call it defensive transition, but it starts in the offensive zone, and that’s where it’s easiest to see. 

The point of tracking above the puck is not just to get four guys in front of the offence, it’s to make moving the puck forward the least appealing and even most challenging option. Let’s have a look.

Allow me to set the scene. A faceoff has just happened at the top of the image (hence the presence of the lineman). The puck is being pushed around the back of the net with Trouba (8) curling to begin a breakout to Halischuk’s (15) side. All three Wild forwards are trapped in the corner from which the puck has exited. Clayton Stoner (4) is at the right of the image, and he’s going to apply puck pressure to the opposite corner to allow his forwards to re-group.

It’s no telestrator, but I’ve given some motion lines to jazz it up. (Also, while the images upload, I’m doing jazz-hands for the same purpose).

The blue circle is the key to this image. The puck is below the goal line, so guess where every single Wild player is? You win if you guessed "above it." Granlund (64) has started to fill the back-side of the play to allow Stoner’s partner to cheat into the area he was just in. Pominville (29) is trying to get above the puck the fastest way he can, giving more space to the puck carrier, but not risking being behind the puck when Trouba moves it. The Heatley (who was on his hands and knees above) is taking the middle lane. The Wild have surrendered control of the puck for a more patient play in a later zone.

Now, this is actually a penalty on the play, and at this moment the neutral zone referee is blowing the whistle. But it still gives us a view of what the Wild have organized. Stoner (4) has retreated above Halischuk (15). Pominville is applying pressure, but through one of Trouba’s vertical lanes (to the centre). Heatley (15) really is that slow and cheats for offence, so he’s a stick length behind his man. Still, even he is ‘above’ the puck line.

Being above the puck is a constant, and here’s another example of how Minnesota attacks the puck in the offensive zone:

In this play, a draw at the circle at the bottom of the image leads to possession for Minnesota behind the net by Niederreiter (22). Koivu is F2, and supports the puck vertically above Niederreiter all the way over to the far post. The Jets double Niederreiter, win the puck and reverse. For many teams, F3 would be the player to attack that puck, while F2 and F1 hustled back through the middle lane. That would mean F3 is headed toward the puck and is behind it the moment it’s moved. So for the Wild, Koivu tracks across the zone and attacks into the vertical lane. The result is that all the forwards are headed in the same direction, and even though Niederreiter is behind or below the puck right now, no forward is being sacrificed or trapped to make a play.

What about on a clean break-out? In this case, there was a dump-in and forward change. The Wild sent one forechecker to gently encourage the use of a vertical lane and take away that long diagonal pass that beats a trap. Meanwhile, the other two Wild forwards make a passive play toward the puck carrier to close their gaps, but again, don’t track all the way to the puck while headed away from their own zone. They want to remain above it, and making a more aggressive play toward the puck could trap someone.

Tracking To the Puck

The Jets see things a little differently, and are a known to be a lot less patient. What they do looks a little more like this:


Four images to track this play. Let’s see if we can sort it out as a dynamic play.

This is the Jets preferred forecheck, though Wright (17) is on the wrong side (no pun intended) of it after a dump-in to the left corner has rolled around the back of the net. Typically, Jets might have that third forward above the goal line and up the boards, instead of ‘down’ (I realize it’s horizontal at that point). Wright makes a lot of mental mistakes like this, but on this play shows off all the squats he did this summer and gets back in the play (mostly thanks to a slow pass from Spurgeon (46) to Veilleux (19)).

We begin with Wright just coming back through the middle, but when he realized that pass was slow and he’s equal to the puck as of image 2, he tracks to the puck. That means he moves into the horizontal passing lane to prevent the puck carrier from escaping puck pressure to the open side, and applies pressure through that lane. In this case, the very slow and not particularly talented Stephan Veilleux settles for a dump play from the red line.

To go back in time to image 2, Veilleux should have made the second pass to Torrey Mitchell (17), which would have resulted in the Jets having no pressure play available.

Wrap It Up

For the Jets, we see a few of their existing problems in this series already. We see Trouba (8) having to simply give up the offensive blue line. But with no support from the forwards, he also has to give up the neutral zone. And giving up the neutral zone means the opposition typically arrives at the defensive blue line with a lot of speed – though not in this case.

You’ve likely noticed that the Jets defenders give up their own blue line a lot, and that the TV broadcast camera rarely has a Jets defender in view when other teams are exiting their own zone. The Jets’ extremely aggressive forecheck (a 2-1-2 with strong side support) means that when they give up the offensive blue line, they also have to give up the defensive blue line, and they make their play on the puck either in the space above the circles if there is back pressure, or even lower if they don’t. We’ll cover that in more detail soon, but it’s a part of the answer for why teams seem to have so much space in the Jets’ zone.

For now, we’ve covered what it means to track the play above the puck rather than to the puck.

Please leave any questions in the comments section.

  • Travis Hrubeniuk

    As usual, fantastic work Kevin.

    It’s interesting to see everything we do come together and show how the team plays.

    My question is this. Do you think this forecheck is something that a team preaching smarter, more effective defensive play should be doing? It seems to me that it’s a much risker system that could open up some trouble.

  • Kevin McCartney

    They are changing their forecheck right now, actually. But the results aren’t better (so far). The first Wild goal where Scheifele makes a weak attempt to force the Wild into a lane, and instead the Wild go in 4 on 2 is an example. Kane throws a heavy hit while pressuring the first Wild puck carrier, and his support is hanging back in the neutral zone rather than all being close to the play.

    The problem is that the Jets still practice a system in which every Jets defender is alone until it reaches the boards, where they swarm. So first Kane gets beat with a simple pass, and then Scheifele gets beat with a simple pass, and then the Jets defence gets beat on a simple pass to Cooke, and then can’t possibly box out four guys with two of them and so chose their checks and watch as the puck bounces in.

    No other NHL team is spreading out so much, whether it’s the gap between the three forwards and two defence, or the gap between the first forechecker and four defence. If the other team controls the neutral zone, then you’re defending in your own zone, and they’re making entries with speed and control. The trap was invented because everyone knows that’s a recipe for a goal against.