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Photo Credit: © Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Tape: Hughes vs Fiala, the blueprint for defending the Wild’s elite forecheck, and taking advantage of pinching defencemen

“If you know the enemy and yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” – Sun Tzu

Is it a cliche to start off by quoting The Art of War? Yes, yes it is but the great Chinese General’s words have been passed down for centuries with good reason. With the recently announced playoff format, you can bet that every NHL coach is taking this time to heed Sun Tzu’s wisdom. 24 teams will return to action this year and 16 of them already know who they will be facing in the play-in tournament to determine the Sweet-16 playoff format.

Travis Green and company are surely inspecting countless hours of video on the Minnesota Wild, strategizing ways to defend against their strengths while also looking for weaknesses to expose. This gave me the idea to do the same and relay my findings and thoughts to the readers of CanucksArmy.

The bar will be raised for the Canucks when they return to play and in the case of this writer, the content will have to match.

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In this first reboot of The Tape, we’ll be taking a look at how the Minnesota Wild manufactures their offence in three key areas and what Vancouver can do to shut them down.

The Wild’s Elite Forecheck

Unless you’re Niklas Lidstrom at the red-line against Dan Cloutier, in order to generate any sustainable offence one must establish offensive zone time with the puck. A 2013 study by Eric Tulsky found that carrying the puck in with control led to twice the amount of shots and goals compared to the dump and chase method.

However, this isn’t to discount the dump and chase strategy’s place in a team’s playbook. In fact, the Tulsky study even found that a couple of teams were using it to great effect.

This year, the Wild seem to be one of those teams.

Through micro-stats tracked by Corey Sznajder at a minimum sample size of 300 zone entries, the Minnesota Wild are the NHL’s best at recovering pucks after a dump-in with a success rate of 16.39%. The Canucks, for those wondering, are 5th at 11.88%. Fascinatingly, the Wild rank dead last in the NHL for carry-in % which leads me to believe that the dump and chase strategy is their preferred method of entry.

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My eye-test confirms this theory as from the games I’ve watched, their preference is to dump the puck in unless a clear carry-in is presented to them. They like to play it safe and only try to break-in with control when they have overwhelming odds to do so. The Wild are responsible with the puck and they make the high percentage plays. This is backed up when we look at team turnovers. The Minnesota Wild only gave away the puck 5.94 times per 60 minutes this season which was the lowest in the entire league.

Further data showing the Wild’s reliance on the dump-in can be seen when looking at how they enter the zone preceding a goal. I took the liberty of manually tracking their last 68 even-strength goals dating back to January 1st.

These results don’t mean that one entry method is better than the other. If I had tracked total zone entries to compare the conversion rate, I have a feeling that controlled entries would be far more efficient in terms of goals per entry. This pie chart’s purpose is to show how much of the Wild’s offence is built upon the different zone entry methods. As we can see, 40% of the Wild’s offence came from recovering the puck on a dump-in. If Vancouver can find a way to break the Wild’s forecheck and make it less effective, all else being equal, the Wild should see a decrease in goals.

Aggressive System

In order to strategize against the Wild’s forecheck, we must understand what makes it so effective by examining the strategic elements and individual skills. Let’s begin with the macro decisions.

The Wild run an aggressive 2-1-2 forechecking scheme in the form of a ‘stack’ or a ‘spread.’ The flow of the system is broken down in the gif below but the objective of this forecheck is to take away the time and space of the defender retrieving the puck and forcing them towards wherever the forechecking team has numbers.

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In a ‘stack’ forecheck, the first two forecheckers are pressuring the puck carrier from the strong side whereas in a ‘spread’ the first forward pressures the puck carrier and the second forechecker is taking away the d-to-d pass. The third forward in the zone is reading off of which version of the 2-1-2 is currently in action and anticipating where support is needed. Either shooting down to pressure the d-to-d pass or help on the strong side boards if the puck carrier has been forced in that direction. Or, if it looks like the puck will be turned over, finding a soft spot on the ice to receive a pass. The key to any successful forecheck comes from eliminating options and in turn, forcing the puck carrier to move into supporting forecheckers until there is nowhere to go. The 2-1-2 strategy does exactly that and with secondary and tertiary pressure layered on from the F3 and two defenders, it can feel suffocating.

So what does it look like in action? Below shows the Wild executing a 2-1-2 stack with Alex Galchenyuk as the F1 pressuring the Sharks defender towards the right side and Zach Parise bearing down as the F2, further adding pressure to the strong side. Kevin Fiala recognizes where the puck is moving and seals off the boards and the Wild gain possession of the puck.

I chose this clip to highlight an individual trait that effective forecheckers use. I mentioned earlier that the purpose of the forecheck is to take away options and dictate where the puck is moved to rather than deliver a bone-crunching body check. In this case, notice the line of attack that Galchenyuk takes as he closes in on the defender. He doesn’t attack head-on, he takes an inside out route and attacks the defender from the goal side.

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This takes away the option to send the puck behind the net and instead forces the defender to move in the opposite direction towards the rest of the Wild forecheck. This is a common theme in Wild forecheckers. They are extremely responsible in this regard as they almost always attack from an angle to take away options by turning sideways and leading with their hips to seal one direction while simultaneously using the reach of their stick to limit remaining options. The clip below shows Marcus Foligno and Jordan Greenway exemplifying these traits.

With the first forechecking wave out of the way, the next sequence of information defenders have to consider are the secondary and tertiary layers of pressure. The following clip is a fantastic example showing how an F3 should read and react to a 2-1-2 spread and the benefits of an active blueline in a forecheck. Here, Jordan Greenway and Eric Staal are attacking from both sides of the net. With Greenway in first, Dante Fabbro is forced to reverse and skate into Staal. Pay close attention to Kevin Fiala acting as the F3 and the second layer of pressure.

He immediately recognizes that he has to come across and assist Staal on the strong-side boards. Staal does a fantastic job at keeping the puck below the hash marks and now the play is reversed again. Fiala makes a b-line to the far post and forces the Predators to reverse course for the third time. Now the third layer of forechecking pressure initiates as Jared Spurgeon pinches down from the point and keeps the puck in while Fiala knows that he has to take the space of Spurgeon at the point. This frees Spurgeon to become the F3 and continue the forecheck down low where he ultimately regains possession of the puck for the Wild. This is a clinical forecheck with every gear turning in harmony.

The final ingredient to the Wild’s successful forecheck is the actual execution of the dump-in itself. The player dumping the puck in must decide which corner he wants to dump the puck in and how to transport it there. The key read to make is where his forecheckers are positioned in relation to the defence. If there are two forecheckers skating down the weak-side, tight against the defender, a flip to the opposite corner would return the best results as it would create a 2-on-1 in the corner. If his two forecheckers are lagging behind the weak-side defender, a hard ring-around may be the best option as the puck would move along the boards and head in the direction of the forecheckers to make up for the distance.

Alleviate the Pressure

Now that we understand the objective of the 2-1-2 forecheck, we are also equipped with the information to defend against it. If the primary objective of the scheme is to mount pressure in one area of the ice, the obvious counter would be to identify the area and quickly move the puck to the unpressured area.

The first step in countering the 2-1-2 is a staple in any defenceman’s book. The pre-scan is crucial anytime a defender is heading back into his own end to retrieve a puck and by quickly looking over their shoulder and taking a mental snapshot of the players behind them, they can make a calculated decision on what to do next. When a defender doesn’t check over their shoulder, they have an insufficient amount of information to operate on. This is especially dangerous when multiple forecheckers are closing in.

Take for example this play by Quinn Hughes who is going through a routine play in his own end. Hughes is working his way down below the circle while being pressured by Mats Zuccarello from the left and Mikko Koivu from behind. However, watch his head as he is tracking towards his goal line. He recognizes Zuccarello pressing and attempts to fake the d-to-d pass in order to throw him off. However, Hughes fails to identify Koivu creeping in from behind because he hasn’t checked over his shoulder. Zuccarello takes away the d-to-d option and Hughes turns right into Koivu pressing down on him. Hughes has to quickly shovel the puck off the glass and the clearing attempt is held in at the blueline. Had Hughes checked over his shoulder earlier on, he would have recognized the threat of Koivu and prioritized moving the puck to his partner sooner. In the playoffs, take the high completion, low-risk opportunities in the defensive zone when they are given.

Having identified where the pressure is, we now have the intel to properly inform our next move. In most cases, it’s a binary decision. If it is a 2-1-2 stack, then the puck should be moved to the weak-side going from d-to-d. If it’s a spread, then the puck should be moved up the strong-side. The defender wants to go against the grain as depicted in the highlighted green areas below.

From this understanding, advanced players then layer deception into their movements in order to manipulate forecheckers and open opportunities to transport the puck to the unpressured area.

The Calgary Flames are the 7th best team in the NHL according to Corey Sznajder’s micro-stats when it comes to exiting the defensive zone with control. The Canucks, ranked 19th in this regard, can take a page out of the Flames’ book when it comes to breaking out against the Wild’s aggressive forecheck. In the clip below, Rasmus Andersson is skating back to retrieve the puck with Marcus Foligno hot on his tail. Notice that Andersson takes a peek behind him not once, but twice before coming into contact with the puck. He has recognized the forecheck pressure early on. He also sees that he is well supported by his defence partner and F1 and can use this knowledge to dictate play rather than react to it.

Andersson elects to tie up Foligno’s stick behind the net and leave the puck for his partner. Andersson has effectively taken the pressure away from the area of the ice that the Flames will try to break out from by controlling the first forecheckers stick and crucially, not playing the puck into the Wild’s F2 coming down from the right circle. Now, the Flames have to deal with the second layer of Wild pressure as Jordan Greenway arrives as the F3 and challenges the Flames forward on the half-wall. Strong support from the Flames F1 allows Calgary to breakout with control and begin the attack.

Even if the defender retrieving the puck recognizes where the unpressured area of the ice is, it’s no good if they don’t have the support in the defensive zone to make the play. The Flames forwards are responsible in the clip above and curl low for their defenders and exit the zone together with good spacing for outlet passes.

In summary, in order for Vancouver to defend against the Wild’s pressing 2-1-2 forecheck that has them ranked 1st in the NHL, Canucks retrieving the puck from a dump in must: identify where the pressure is coming from by checking over their shoulder; move the puck against the grain to the unpressured area by using deception; have strong support from their partner and forwards to ensure a safe breakout.

Active Blue Line

As seen from their forecheck, the Wild’s defence is very active in the offensive zone when it comes to pinching to keep the puck in the zone. They have also been given the green light to join the rush as the third or fourth player and as such, the Wild generates a bunch of their offence from the back end. In fact, just under 20% of their goals this season came from a blueliner which is 4th in the NHL.

Teams Most Reliant on Goals from Defencemen

TEAM % OF GOALS FROM DMEN GOALS FROM DMEN
CBJ 21.70% 39
STL 20.20% 45 
MTL 20.20% 42
MIN 19.7% 43
PHI 19.4% 44

This is an interesting insight into how Minnesota has assembled their squad. Last year’s Stanley Cup Champions are actually second on this list which is interesting since it would presumably be wiser to build offence from forwards that can put the puck in the net. They are often in more advantageous spots in the offensive zone and have been found to be the higher-skilled shooters than defenceman but that’s a tangent for another day. The point being, if the Wild rely on their defencemen to produce, this is another area for the Canucks to look at mitigating.

I want to single out Minnesota’s active blueline because I think it’s a threat Vancouver’s forwards must keep in the back of their minds. This means constantly checking over their shoulder when the puck is below the goal line to ensure that they aren’t leaving a man unchecked behind them. This strength of the Wild could also be manipulated in Vancouver’s favour. The Canucks could actually look at taking advantage of pinching defencemen by positioning a forward high in the zone with the threat of launching a breakaway pass like they have done numerous times this season. Even if a Wild forward is covering for the pinching defender, that is still a player in an unnatural situation having to defend a rush and could be caught out by the unfamiliarity.

An example of what I am talking about comes from the most recent matchup between the Wild and Canucks. In this play below, Ryan Suter pinches down from the point to challenge for a puck and Luke Kunin covers in Suter’s place. The puck is won by Tyler Toffoli and sent behind the goal line to Alex Edler. J.T. Miller sees an opportunity to stretch the ice and exits the zone early in the hopes of a breakaway pass. An experienced defender would have seen Miller leaving the zone and sagged back in order to negate a breakaway attempt. However, because it’s Kunin, a forward covering the point, he is a step late at recognizing the stretch pass as a threat. Edler threads a beautiful stretch pass and Miller is away, leaving Kunin in the dust.

Defending Kevin Fiala

The last point I want to touch on today is the threat of Kevin Fiala. He is the Wild’s most offensively dangerous player by far.

An entire article could be dedicated to strategizing how to best shut down the Swiss forward but there is a specific matchup that I will be extremely curious to see play out over this series.

Fiala is extremely dangerous when he is attacking from his off-wing. Below are a series of clips that showcase his elite skills when attacking after a carry-in from his right side. He can fake driving outside and put on the breaks use to his vision and find a cross-seam play. Or he can fake cutting towards the centre and attack from the outside.

His edges and balance allow him to always be in a position to attack no matter if the puck is behind, in front, or to his side. If only the Canucks had a player equally — if not more — talented on his edges that played on the left side and could keep up with Fiala’s shiftiness…

I’ve talked a lot about Hughes’ ability to shutdown play at the defensive blueline due to his well-positioned stick and his top tier skating ability that allows him to close and maintain gaps. Out of Vancouver’s six most common defenders, Hughes allowed the second least amount of controlled zone entries against. The player that allowed the fewest was his partner, Chris Tanev.

Canucks Defencemen Carry Against %

PLAYER CARRY AGAINST%
Chris Tanev 54.5%
Quinn Hughes 55.2%
Alex Edler 62.9%
Jordie Benn 68.4%
Troy Stecher 69.4%
Tyler Myers 73.4%

Data from: Corey Sznajder

I expect Hughes to continue this strength into the post-season and the Fiala-Hughes matchup is one Green should actively seek out whenever he can.