How the American Forecheck Backfired in the World Cup

When the Vancouver Canucks moved on from Alain Vigneault in advance of the 2013-14 season, the move was understandable if overdue. Even Vigneault’s most ardent supporters recognized that he’d passed his best before date. Less palatable was the Canucks decision to replace him with John Tortorella.

It wasn’t just that the two represented opposing philosophies and approaches. Frankly, it was that Tortorella’s style just hadn’t adapted to the rapidly evolving NHL. Certainly nothing from his time with the New York Rangers suggested as much. And you know what they say about a leopard changing their spots — they don’t.

You could point to his storied and colourful history as a motivator and not be wrong in that context. More concerning, though, was that his systems were easily exploitable and often were. Sure, it was refreshing to hear ‘safe is death’ after years of the Canucks’ conservative nature with leads, but it didn’t make practical sense over an 82 game season.

Watching the United States struggle mightily as they did invoked flashbacks of this most forgettable of Canucks seasons. In case you thought a year on the sideline might afford him the opportunity to change his approach, that hasn’t been the case. And with the implementation of new zonal tracking software, we can quantify the extent to which Tortorella’s human-wave forecheck hurt his team in the Round Robin portion of this tournament. 

The Setup

For historical context, here’s Justin Bourne’s take on Tortorella’s time with the Canucks, as part of his extensive and amazing “Unique Team Traits” series:

The Canucks sent at least two guys in almost every instance, and freed up F3 to jump if he thought he could make a play. Generally, they sent a guy at the puck and F2 to the other side of the net (to take away an option before it even exists), but even when play dictated that they’d be pursuing the puck in a more traditional forecheck, F2 was still aggressively involved.

When the forecheckers got beat, they allowed a defenseman to pinch on the wall, hoping that F3 would pull back to cover.

That’s a fine rotation … assuming F3 didn’t decide to jump down around the time the first two guys in got beat, while the D pinched and rotated.

If F3 isn’t able to get back because he’s too deep, you’re boned.

That’s the crux of the Tortorella forecheck. Dump the puck in and try to outnumber the opposition. If they advance the puck beyond your first wave, the defenceman is free to pinch. If you have an exceedingly fast team, this can work.

Think about the Los Angeles Kings, for one example. They run a neutral zone system that essentially opts for dump-in entries whenever the middle of the ice isn’t an option. They use size and numbers to beat the odds and create an environment for sustained offence regardless. You can run a dump and chase team successfully.

One of the problems that Tortorella coached teams run into, and the Americans especially, is that this can stretch your team far too thin. Best case scenario, this creates gap control issues in the neutral zone, allowing for a higher percentage of uncontested zone entries; worst case, it allows for odd-man rushes.

This problem manifests itself when the first wave misses. If the F3 (third forward on the forecheck) is caught flat-footed or otherwise unable to cover for a pinching defenceman as part of that second wave, that puts their teammates at a disadvantage defending the neutral zone. They don’t have the manpower to press and have to surrender space to give their teammates time on the backcheck. Here’s systems luminary and excellent follow Prashanth Iyer on just that — I seriously recommend this thread of tweets in general.

The Numbers

The Americans surrendered three more uncontested entries with control than their opposition in the Round Robin. That doesn’t sound like an overwhelmingly high number but consider for a second that this amounts to a -82 differential in uncontested entries with control over a full-season. That number expressed as shots would roughly represent the difference between the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks, for context.

Given what we know about controlled entries generating twice as many shot attempts as their uncontrolled counterparts, with the added caveat that rush shots convert at a higher rate, and even a difference that small could add up. In fact, I’m fairly certain it did for the United States.

Though the Americans shot their foot repeatedly in the roster construction process, they brought probably the third best roster to Toronto. That didn’t reflect in their performance. The way they approached systems play exacerbated problems further up the food chain and created new ones at ice level.

Screen Shot 2016-09-25 at 6.11.10 PM

This heat map represents where the Americans surrendered their highest concentration of uncontested carry-in entries. As we can see here, the opposition kept to the outside. That could suggest a number of things, but to me, it screams of the kind of odd-man rushes that put forwards on opposing sides of the offensive zone. For context, here are the uncontested carry-in entries the Americans visited upon their opposition.

Screen Shot 2016-09-25 at 6.13.50 PM

The Americans produced a less static set of controlled entries. Usually, in hockey, patterns develop in reaction to the system. In this instance, I think we’re observing the Americans pock-mark entry set as being representative of the sparse opportunities they took to exploit an undefended blue line.

Of course, many of these theories need further testing. With heat map technology now integrated into our zonal analysis, that’s an element we can dive into further down the road. For now, though, it provides a descriptive data set to glean something from.

Entry Data:

Carry-Ins Uncontrolled Entries Miscellaneous Entries Passes Turnover Icing
Team United States 109 94 2 6 34 0
Opposition 114 82 3 8 30 0

It’s a matter of structure. The Americans dumped the puck in on seven percent more of their successful entries than the Europeans. That’s not by mistake. It’s equal parts their desire to bring bodies down low in the offensive zone and the opportunities they afford their opposition when that fails.

Conclusion

If Tortorella was right and safe is in fact death, then I’m not entirely sure what he thinks his ultra-aggressive forecheck offers as an alternative. From what I can tell, it’s assisted suicide. We know that carry-in entries generate twice as many shot attempts opposed to uncontrolled entries. He’s willingly running a system that encourages the latter and surrenders the former. And that cost the Americans dearly.

  • acg5151

    I remember when AV got fired and we brought in Torts how a huge portion of the fanbase thought he was what we needed. Not even a year later and he’s gone. It was weird how in the space of two seasons we went to dominating every game or most games, to winning our games 2-1 or 1-0 and always being in danger of getting outscored and beaten within the span of seconds it seemed like, I was never comfortable with a Canucks lead after the lockout and I was really uncomfortable with a Canucks lead after Torts.

    • chinook

      You’re right, the analogy is a leopard is unable to change its spots. JD Burke may know something about hockey (this article is an interesting analysis) but he knows dick about biology.

      • TheRealPB

        His problem is more that he knows dick about the correct use of English idioms. I sometimes think he does it on purpose, being that he usually misuses or misquotes more than one in every article.

  • Bob Long

    Having watched the Swedes play a couple of times, easy to recognize that the Sedin’s were pretty much slowest guys on ice. Are there any stats from World Cup showing they were not a hinderance on that team? And if so will they be a problem in new face paced NHL

  • Bob Long

    OK now this is a good example of data use. Why don’t you guys use more of this kind of analysis than that goofy pgps?

    The US would have made the semi’s had Sullivan been the head coach instead of Torts.

  • TheRealPB

    I don’t know why Tortorella has a job. In his 13 years as a head coach his teams have missed the playoffs 5 times, been bounced in the first round 4 times, and made it to the third round once — and of course won that championship on the strength of an exceptional top six (St. Louis, Stillman, Richards, Lecavalier, Modin and Anderychuk), a strong D, and good goaltending. He was able to play them in a high-paced game because they were young or in their prime. With veteran and declining groups in Vancouver, NYR, and the American team his 19th century British officer screaming routine doesn’t go as far. No idea what he will accomplish in CBJ but my guess would be not much.

  • TheRealPB

    Tort’s system is basically just two guys in on the forecheck. A variation of that worked for Pittsburgh this year in the playoffs. But in order for it to work, F2 and F3 need to be fast and smart. They have to understand the system, read the play correctly, and adjust accordingly.
    In a short tournament, it’s unlikely that players will be comfortable using it.
    Also, in the instance of players like the Sedins, it didn’t work in Vancouver because they were too slow.
    Pittsburgh didn’t use it all the time either.
    So, if a coach uses it occasionally with players who can handle it, it works, as Pittsburgh showed.
    I also question the idea of having an entire team play the same system. It would make more sense to have systems for each line that can change as the game dictates, and let the checkers usually play a more common one man in forecheck and the speedy players be more aggressive.
    The problem then is not so much the idea of using an aggressive two man forecheck, but in having the same system for all personnel at all times.

  • defenceman factory

    Torts has already accomplished 2 important things with cbj; an extra 2nd round pick and a reduction in the severance the canucks have to pay him. This is his last nhl job and when cbj finally cut their losses with this twit the hockey world is well rid of him.

  • Fred-65

    Man I’d love to get to the bottom of who hired Torts …. just gimme the facts. I suppose Gillis is tied to a confidentiality clause so we ain’t hearing it from him and Aquaman hard to know when he’s legit. But Linden insisting on the need for total hockey Ops control does suggest some thing 🙂