Systems Analysis: Jets Forecheck A Central Division Oddity

This is a systems post we’ve been working up to from the start of the season. The Jets have a complex problem this season, and the knives are out. As we look at the Jets forecheck, we’re going to see the root of a lot of the things people don’t like about this squad. Lack of control of the neutral zone, open space in the Jets’ end, odd-man rushes against, and even offence coming from areas outside that prized real estate in the slot. 

The point of these posts is not to show fault with a particular system choice. It’s hard to talk about systems in Winnipeg right now without incidentally raising the question of whether Noel should be fired. I wanted to wait for this post until we’d seen a game in which this forecheck was successful, becuase when it is successful, it creates a lot of second and third opportunities and forces defencemen to make difficult plays. We finally saw that against New Jersey. 

Still, the Jets use a forecheck that is unqiue in their high-powered division, and as with all systems choices, it has both positive and negative conseqences. We’ll look first at what the Jets are doing, and then compare them to the reigning Cup Champions and new Division rival Chicago Blackhawks. 

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2-1-2 Strong Side Pressure 

The Jets use an extremely aggressive forecheck, but it involves only three players. I call it a 2-1-2, but it could be called a 3-2 or a strong side stack. Whatever you choose to call it, it involves two players on the puck, F3 above the puck (but on the same side as the puck, or the ‘strong’ side), and both defencemen high and away from the play. The team employs variants, and has been experimenting with a ‘loose’ forecheck in which the three forwards form a sort of bubble around the puck carrier but don’t go straight to the puck and a 1-2-2 when the opposition gains control high in their own end. But the basic set looks like this:


I could have used a still image, but I wanted to show a few things in motion. One, Setoguchi (40) approaches through the lane the defender would use to reverse the puck, while Tangradi (27) pressures the puck carrier through his diagonal-vertical lane. The point of those two approach angles together is to force the defenceman (Harrold, 10) into a single option – up the boards. Notice that Jokinen (12, the guy who skates like a frog) is already standing on those boards. The third part of the Jets forecheck I want you to notice is Trouba (8) at the left of the image (top of the zone). That’s a much lower swing than we typically see from Jets defenders, which is one reason I chose this instance of the forecheck. You’ve probably noticed that the broadcast frame rarely captures a Jets’ defenceman once the opposition gains control of the puck. They exit the zone in a hurry and retreat to the defensive blueline. Finally we get to see someone do it! Notice that Trouba bails on the zone, turning left to get up ice rather than turning to his right to reduce space to the weak side where the puck is obviously going. His play is not on the puck and he can’t risk getting involved and beaten.

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Our first image is also not a successful forecheck, as there is a small error by Jokinen that ruins the whole thing. It gives us a chance to see two of the gaps that allow the Devils (and many Jets’ opponents) to get out of it. The space created in this forecheck is two-fold. One – there is a small gap between F1/F2 on the puck and F3 high. And two, as you might notice, there is 65 feet of open space on the weak side, as all the Jets’ forwards are stacked in that one little area. When you watch the gif a few times over, you might notice that Harrold is not simply dumping the puck into that quiet zone behind the puck-pressuring forwards (though many defenders do), but actually missing a back-hand pass to his first layer of puck support – Ryane Clowe (29). Zajac (19) beats Jokinen to the loose puck and moves it quickly to Brunner (12) at the bottom of the image (on the weak-side). With the Jets’ defencemen headed out, and the Jets’ forwards trapped, Brunner has a clear and east carry-out. 

Now you see the small error. Jokinen probably just misread where Zajac is or is going, because more often than not, the Jets’ F3 rests between layers 1 and 2 of puck support so that if that first play is missed, the Jets collect. Look at Tangradi (27) below:

Acton (41) is right on the puck, but Tangradi is between Acton and Brown (13) (vertically speaking) while still on that board. Very, very aggressive.

When does it go wrong?

We saw one instance by the Devils above in which it goes wrong for the Jets. We also saw one in the post on Minnesota, where James Wright gets caught on the wrong side of the puck-pressuring forwards. In both cases, the resulting play was harmless. Brunner gets decked by Trouba when the Devils simply fail to get him any support and he tries to cut into the middle 1-on-2 to buy time. In the Minnesota post, a slow break-out pass and a poor decision by a 4th liner gives James Wright a chance to get back into the play and force a dump from the red-line. But we know that isn’t typical for a Jets team with the 3rd worst possession numbers at even strength when the score is close. They are losing containment. 

Let’s look at the Canadiens’ second goal on October 15th for an example of how it looks from the neutral zone onward. The forecheck never gets established on this play due to some positional confusion straight out of a penalty kill. So it’s not a perfect example, and yet I think the visual patterns will be extremely familiar to all.  

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Wheeler lost a battle in the corner with Halischuk also down-low. Trouba (8) had jumped into the play was the third man on that side, but he had a tough decision to make about whether to play F3 or return to defence and he froze up. Montreal won the puck battle, was able to skate into the gap between F1 and F3 (because Trouba didn’t attack that gap), and Trouba bailed from the zone. That was a fair decision at that stage since Kane hadn’t covered for him. Now Kane is acting like F3 on the back-check. In sum – to get to this moment above was a mess, but at this stage, it’s a 4-on-3 that we’ve seen many times against the Jets, and Kane is in a better position than most Jets back-checkers are at this stage. 

Uncontested entry. Stuart (5) starts to close his gap in familiar territory  for Jets fans. With a back-door forward driving, Trouba has to back out of that middle space, and Stuart can clearly see the Canadien I-ed up (in line vertically) with the puck carrier, so can’t over-commit. 

Desharnais (51) goes to a quiet zone for a stop-up to buy time – putting Stuart in an awkward position and establishing possession. From here, Desharnais finds the 5th Canadien (Subban, 76), they get a shot on, and then re-set to this same formation. From the moment Desharnais entered the zone uncontested, it was just a couple passes to this:

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In my opinion, Peter, it’s because the Jets start defending by retreating all the way to their net. And they have to do that because there is so little pressure on opposing puck carriers through the neutral zone. Without that puck pressure from behind or beside, defencemen can’t close their lanes and have to keep backing down to stay between the puck and net. Give NHL forwards time and space, and it’s no wonder the Jets struggle to re-gain possession for clean breakouts. 

When does it go right?

Let’s look at some more Devils’ footage. This is footage of the "loose" variant I mentioned, but is still a strong-side, 3 player forecheck much the same as the one above. 

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Here Schneider (goalie) has just helped the puck around and beaten the Jets initial forecheck with a reverse. Intead of Little (18) attacking the carrier through that diagonal-vertical lane, he’ll now be static in it. Kane (9) still approaches from the reverse lane, and Wheeler (26) is still high on the strong-side in the vertical lane.

Salvador (24) chooses to reverse a second time, using his backhand to get it around the boards instead of through Kane (9). Zidlicky (2) is pivoting to go get it, Wheeler (26) has stopped at the boards and is coming back, and Little is circling as well. 

Notice the time stamp difference. Little was able to cut off Zidlicky’s chip up the boards, Henrique (14) followed his man into the corner, Jagr (68) is on his wing and we have a puck battle. But you’ll notice that the Jets are in that tight formation again and aren’t out-numbered on the puck. 

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The pressure is lasting for the Jets on this shift. The Jets initially dump the puck in with 19:56 on the clock. A slow reverse gives the Jets swarm a chance to approach the weak side, where a Devils’ defender chips it outside the zone to waiting Jets defencemen, and the puck re-enters at 19:46. Until Schneider covers at 19:13, the Jets have pressure and generate three shot attempts at the net. Those shots are each prototypical of this system as well. 

The first shot comes from this play above. The Jets win this battle, re-cycle to the point for Enstrom who dumps it back down, they forecheck again and this time it results in exactly the play the Jets want – Salvador throws a no-look pass right to F3 in a scoring area.

This is shot one of three on the shift. Wheeler (26) is reaching to collect the puck, and will miss the net on the far-side shortly. That’s when Byfuglien gathers up the miss wrapping up the boards. At the moment he collects, the play becomes indistinguishable from a re-cycle to the point from the sort of puck battle in the corner this forecheck generates. In this case he got the puck from a missed shot, but Enstrom had it a moment ago on a re-cycle. Buff shoots a wrister into traffic and off a Devils’ shin pad. After some more puck pressure, Kane finally gathers the puck behind the net and attacks from behind the goal line, when Schneider finally covers. 

That’s three opportunities at the net, and the Jets need that kind of constant barrage to score without an All-Star cast. But each shot also speaks to a complaint ScottOCanada brought up in the comments just the other day. None of these chances are high quality shots with bodies in front of the net. Wheeler has a clean shot from a dangerous area, but Schneider obviously sees it cleanly as well. Byfuglien’s shot is a weak wrister that is blocked, and Kane is attacking from behind the net. The Jets can generate better opportunities, but this forecheck is designed to create quantity over quality by building sustained pressure.

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Chicago Blackhawks

I choose the Blackhawks because they also employ an aggressive forecheck. We talked about Minnesota re-loading above the puck here, and in that post we saw a couple of their forecheck sets – a defensive re-group in the offensive zone, and a neutral zone pressure play. It’s a totally different schema. Chicago, on the other hand, is very aggressive in the offensive end with two forwards low in the zone, but is still able to control and pressurize the neutral zone.

Contrast what we’ve seen above to this:

What we see are two Chicago forecheckers deep and trapped, and the third forward is in the centre lane at the hashmarks and pointed up-ice. He’s playing a weak-side containment role, rather than stacking on the strong-side like the Jets do. To compensate for having a huge gap between the puck-pressuring forwards and the offensive blueline, the Chicago weak-side defenceman comes across to attack the play, filling that vertical diagonal lane while his partner (Seabrook, 7) is taking away the vertical lane.  Seabrook will actually switch to the other side over-top of that attacking defenceman, who will pivot to face the Capitals puck carrier, but within attacking distance. Meanwhile, the Chicago F3 goes from the hashmarks to the off-side face-off dot through the middle lane.

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The weak-side defender attacking the side lane has stunted their clean breakout and forced them to move toward the middle – where the back pressure is coming from. It’s also prevented the Capitals from gaining speed, allowing the forward who was in front of the net to get involved. Moreover, both Chicago defencemen are inside the red line even after one Capital forward has exited the zone. The play is designed to force the Capitals at the red line and make the dump it.

We can’t see the red line in any of the Jets image above, but we see in the first .gif Trouba surrendering the first segment of the neutral zone before New Jersey has even established control inside their zone. The Jets’ first pressure point after the forecheck is inside their own zone. Chicago has one at the offensive blue line, and another at the red line.

On this play, no matter where the puck goes, Chicago has back pressure on it and containment over-top. Plus, there is support through the middle, making it hard on Washington to move the puck out of danger. Somehow the offence has to find a way to get past the red line. Against the Jets, the challenge is to get it to the weak side with enough speed that the Jets’ swarm can’t catch up. If you can do that, the neutral zone is given away and teams are able to build speed to enter the Jets’ zone. 

Why Use Strong Side Pressure?

My point is not that the Jets use inferior systems. I could have chosen different shifts for each club to show only success for the Jets and only failure for the Blackhawks. The point is to look past the moments shown here to what they represent at a larger scale. 

At a basic level, it’s important to know that unlike their Central Division rivals, the Jets prefer to skip the neutral zone all-together. They use vertical offence, and they retreat to their own blueline against on-coming forwards. They have limited (almost no) back pressure on defensive transition, and put all their eggs into the turnover basket. 

As we discuss each time – there is no ‘best’ system inherently, and every team has to make choices. This aggressive system is designed to make what would typically be the ‘safe’ play for a defenceman into a turnover by taking away other options and limiting the time and space of opposition puck handlers. It’s designed to create sustained pressure. It requires big forwards who can push and wrestle but who also have speed and enough hands to make turnovers out of the play instead of just punitive hits. It fits with the type of players the Jets employ (we can talk about the quality of those players another time). It’s also a system that uses defencemen as the offensive ‘minds’ of the unit, which also fits with their personnel. When the puck is turned over, it’s turned over in traffic areas. Often the Jets put the puck back to the point where decisions are made about shot vs cycle, and even reversing field (such as passing across the blue line or dumping to the opposite corner). It even gives the Jets defenders a chance to carry off the point in circumstances when the Jets’ strong-side stack has drawn the opposition into a cluster. We know Byfuglien creates a lot that way, and we’ve started to see Trouba jump into those lanes as well. This system fits who the Jets employ. Is it the only system that would? Of course not.

Ultimately, I believe that what Claude Noel measures at an analytical level influences his choice toward this aggressive system. We don’t know how he measures scoring chances exactly, and it may differ from the online analytics community. But we do know that scoring chance +/- is his primary quantitative measure of success. And we know that this system should create scoring chances. While not better than the Wild at preventing scoring chances, it also isn’t as risky as the Chicago model (in theory, again quality has a lot of influence), which can spring a leak if a fast forward or a poor read leads to a break in the trap. The Jets very often have two defencemen containing the play, and in theory, F3 is supplying back pressure.

What we see in reality are a lot of 3-on-2s. A lot of them. Like, one more time – A LOT. The Devils were slow enough that the Jets didn’t give up many of those, and F3 (and others) were back in time to make a play. The Jets haven’t been so fortunate against other teams. 3-on-2’s are not one-and-done scenarios. They often lead to sustained pressure themselves, as the defenders have to back down off the line and allow entry, the first puck battle is easy to win, and there is no one to pressure the puck carrier should he stop up and wait (as we saw against the Canadiens). We’re seeing this forecheck backfire because most teams in the NHL are too good to make slow transitions that let the Jets back into it. They’re too good to play run-and-gun with a single shot off those odd-man rushes. 

Oh my gawd this is so long

There is a lot of the Jets game that is derived from this play, and I personally believe it to be the primary and driving design of Claude Noel’s system. In fact, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what this forecheck does and what it means for the rest of their system construction.

Still, we’ve already seen many of its weaknesses exposed in just seven games. Easy zone exits and entries against the Jets, odd-man rushes, arriving at the Jets’ blueline with speed, time and space in the defensive zone, and low-percentage offence generated. There is a reason for it, and Claude Noel is not a stupid man or someone who can’t see what’s happening. 

We talked about the variants going on, and there are dramatic overhauls. Already we’ve seen the defensive swarm almost disappear and be replaced by a passive expanding zone (we’ll cover it soon enough). We’re seeing more plays where the Jets’ defenceman makes a play on the puck at the red line or defensive blue line. That’s made possible by this loosening of the forecheck, as well as some new looks in the system. Noel is making changes toward a more patient game. But his poor starts in games is also true of seasons. We’ll just have to wait and see if he can make enough adjustments (and quickly enough) to pull this season out of the fire.