The Globe & Mail called it a “ludicrous spectacle”. The Philadelphia Flyers were hollering insults at the Tampa Bay bench, but as Harrison Mooney noted at the time, “the Lightning aren’t afraid of the puck; they’re clearly afraid of Guy Boucher.” Most importantly, the Flyers’ “stall tactics” verus Tampa Bay one fateful November night sealed the future of both Boucher and the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, as well as the 1-3-1.
For most hockey fans, the above image is the lasting reminder of the 1-3-1 systerm employed by Boucher in the 2010-2011 season. It’s easy to forget now, given how poorly Tampa has finished over the last two seasons, that back during the spring of 2011 the Bolts came within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final, losing 1-0 on a late Nathan Horton tally in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. They were a Cinderella team, but not a super unlikely Conference Final opponent. They won 46 games and were the 5th seed in the East, and were 23-12-6 after the acquisition of Dwayne Roloson, a goaltender who had a very strong half season with Tampa.
Tampa was 13th in the league in Corsi Tied at 51.2%. Not great, but a massive improvement from the previous season’s 45.7% performance. Unfortunately, in 2011-2012, the Lightning posted Corsi Tied rates of 47.6% and 45.3%. The 1-3-1 was a one-hit wonder, I guess. Tactics expert Tony Gallagher tried to shoe-horn a critique of systemic defensive hockey into a column which didn’t exactly endorse such candidates like Boucher:
Yes, he reached a conference final in 2011, the same year that Vigneault was behind the bench when the Canucks reached Game 7 of the Cup final, but he had the 1-3-1 going for him and that was about it.
When people figured it out the Lightning weren’t able to get much done five-on-five and it was downhill from there.
Not get anything done five-on-five? Are you mental? The Lightning were 9th in the NHL in goals per 60 at five-on-five in 2011. If they had an issue, it was in net, and most of that hanging in the first half of the season. Once Roloson came around and posted his .925 save rate, the Lightning were a veritable force. They had offensive talent in Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier, and a huge host of supporting players that bought into a specific defensive system that had a large amount of success.
Then, that damn Philly game.
The nosedive in possession metrics the past two seasons makes a lot of sense when you understand that Tampa Bay had a handcuffed coach trying to play his system without the core element of his system.
Wait, what happened to the coach? Well, according to Jeff Marek, Steve Yzerman was so angry that the Lightning’s system was embarrassed on national television and went to the Flyers management group to apologize. The room began to tune out Boucher.
But how defensive was the 1-3-1? The player it most suited was Sean Bergenheim, a possession superstar that had a good offensive run in the 2011 playoffs, which guaranteed that Dale Tallon would throw a lot of money at him.
(Side note for those of you that worry about results and not process: I listened to a radio interview in the summer of 2011 with Tallon and he suggested that he picked up some of the free agents in his spending spree of 2011 because they’d had playoff success and Bergenheim’s name came up. He wanted a team full of playoff veterans so that, in the off chance he made the playoffs because his group had 18 overtime losses, they wouldn’t bow out in the first round.
Of course, live by the overtime loss, die by the overtime loss. All the previous success that Tallon bought for millions and millions of dollars in the summer didn’t matter squat when the team lost games 6 and 7 in the extra session. While Mike Gillis’ more patient approach can seem frustrating at times, the other extreme, the Tallon approach, is much worse.)
Here are a couple of Bergenheim goals from the 2011 postseason:
Both come as a result of forechecking and aggressive play. The 1-3-1 wasn’t a boring, Jacques Lemaire-esque defensive system. The 1-3-1 was a counter attack formation, the middle guy not there to shadow the puck carrier but to prevent East-West movement. If you made a mistake carrying the puck, the high forward was quick on the puck to create a rush. Skaters were allowed to skate. The point of the system was to minimize the amount of times the opponent got through the neutral zone with control.
Sure, it’s not free-wheeling hockey, but if you don’t want a coach and want to leave everything up to the talent on the ice, you’re probably going to lose hockey games. Every good coach has some defining tactical quality. In Tony Gallagher’s mind, perhaps coaches walk into a room and say “play offence” or “sit back on the lead” and give a motivational speech. I wouldn’t suggest that’s really what happens.
What happened to Boucher, well, he stuck around Tampa and was fired midway through this season, and the Bolts are again a lottery team. They will probably select Jonathan Drouin, who will promptly become one of the better possession players on the team and have offensive skill to boot. The team will turn around because they have some real good prospects in the system and, behind Stamkos and Drouin, make it back to the playoffs and everybody will hail Yzerman as a genius. That’s so long as their goaltending holds up…
No sale, though. The Lightning had a good thing during a transitional period when they were rebuilding the farm system to surround their young stud with talent. Boucher went to the Conference Final with Teddy Purcell as his No. 1 centre, and a checking line that had Nate Thompson and Adam Hall. His player deployment was creative and ensured contributions out of every skater. His system was beatable, but provided opportunity.
Thank goodness Yzerman put his foot down and swept that opportunity out of the rug after a thoroughly embarrassing performance on national TV by Chris Pronger. And thank goodness Jon Cooper came in midseason to lead the Lightning to a 66-point pace in the final 16 games of the regular season…
I like Boucher not necessarily because he had a good counter-attacking system, but mostly because he was able to get his players to stick to that system. If he ends up with an NHL team again, I don’t think we’ll see as extreme of a 1-3-1 or a repeat of the ‘stall tactic’ on national TV again, but Boucher has the right idea trying to corner puck carriers to the boards. The 1-3-1 is a means to an end.
Will Boucher be available? Le Soleil, a Quebec City newspaper, indicated that perhaps Boucher is with a list of candidates that could be going to Colorado to coach with Patrick Roy. It appears that the Avs have hired Andre Tourigny from those names, but perhaps there’s still another vacancy to fill.
In any event, I don’t see Boucher coming to Vancouver. He’s stained with the perception as a “defensive coach” (as if there’s any other type of coach) and what’s the point of firing a good coach with a funny accent that the media hates if you’re going to turn around and hire a good coach with a funny accent that the media will hate? Boucher’s tenure in Tampa will probably be remembered more by the losing than the one playoff run that resulted from his system. As a former coach, he doesn’t represent “new blood” which is where I think the team will be looking to lean.
I do hope the team hires a French coach again, if only to frustrate audio-gathering media members forced to say “même question, en Français” before getting a 30-second soundbyte for RDS for another seven years.