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Coaches Room

Offense ahead of defense in transition off rush early in NHL season

Cookson says structure, communication vital in shutting down speed through neutral zone

by Rob Cookson / Special to

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. Paul MacLean, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight.

In this edition, Cookson, a former video coach with the Philadelphia Flyers and assistant with the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames, examines the early-season increase of offense off rush plays and teams' troubles defending against it.

Throughout the first month of the NHL regular season, a couple of trends stick out that I have noticed.

The first and obvious trend coming out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially with the St Louis Blues winning, has been the importance of strength plays with the puck. It is impressive to see players combine both the skill of puck control and the tenacity to force plays to the net. Skill combined with strength on puck battles along the boards and in front of the net has produced early success for many teams thus far.

The game today has a great deal to do with speed, but if you cannot finish at the net or be first to the puck and stay on the battle, then what does speed matter?

When you look at the forwards St. Louis has and had last season, they are focused on a harder game, stronger on puck possession and more persistent at forcing plays to the net. Most times, success amounts to the small-area space battles at the net and along the boards.

Conversely, the Blues always had defensemen who were very mobile but also had size, with players such as Colton Parayko (6-foot-6, 230 pounds), Alex Pietrangelo (6-3, 210) and Jay Bouwmeester (6-4, 206), and that made a big difference in their ability to defend around the net. It makes sense that a bigger, mobile defenseman has an advantage over a smaller, mobile defenseman because of reach primarily, even if their other attributes are equal.

Video: LAK@STL: Pietrangelo rips one-timer by Quick

The second trend has been the skill and speed teams have exhibited off the rush. I have always felt that coverage off the rush, the ability to transition from offense to defense, and the ability to read and sort at the blue line are among the most difficult decisions to make in the game.

I watched the Washington Capitals play against the Calgary Flames on Oct. 22 and the Florida Panthers against Calgary on Oct. 24 in person, and I found their skill and creativity off the rush to be very impressive.

Now more than ever, teams are stretching out of the zone on possession and playing a wide game. Teams have done that in the past, but now it appears most teams are making plays up and wide to create more space for plays through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone.

Transition has always been a huge factor in the success of teams off the rush. The adage that the puck moves faster than the players can retreat defensively has never been truer.

Defensemen also continue to push the limit with their involvement in the offense. Defensemen are moving pucks quicker, and they also have more and quicker support options to make plays.

In the last few years, there has been a group of defensemen coming into the League who are more confident with the ability to make plays and join the rush.

I read an article about the Buffalo Sabres' early season success in which Ralph Krueger talked about his team being connected as a group of five. They have built a team with wonderfully skilled players, but it requires commitment to play the game as a group of five on the ice with and without the puck.

Krueger has the Sabres playing a quicker transition game offensively and defensively, and as a result they have been one of the early-season success stories.

Video: ARI@BUF: Skinner nets one-timer off Johansson's feed

The ability to get to pucks and make the long transition pass to a stretching forward is impressive. The creativity off the rush and the puck movement is equally as entertaining.

With the amount of creativity and the options for success, defending requires commitment from forwards in transition and the establishment of gap by your defensemen starting at the offensive blue line. Work, structure and communication are keys to defending the rush game.

Until teams nail that down defensively, the offense will exploit the middle of the ice with speed and puck possession.

Defending the rush starts with defensemen playing strong with their gap -- the space between them and the opponent's forwards. Usually that starts inside the offensive blue line or with the highest offensive forward.

Defensemen use body and stick to protect the middle of the ice and skate backward to match and close down any space between them and the opposing puck-carrier. Defensemen must also be confident that their forwards are transitioning as quickly as the opponent to apply back pressure.

Ideally, with gap and back pressure, possession plays should be stalled through the neutral zone. Back pressure and gap on the puck-carrier are meant to create no-space decisions that force loss of possession through dump-in or turnovers.

The last factor important off the rush is communication and sorting. Sorting varies from team to team, but being able to reduce the time and space of the puck-carrier through the neutral zone and into the defensive zone usually is a good way to either stall or force no-space plays, which results in turnovers.

The transition component of the game thus far from a rush standpoint has been impressive offensively. Defensively, teams need commitment to catch up.

I read Paul MacLean's Coaches Room column on Oct. 9, and he is bang on with his comments about teams trying to sort through early-season structural issues defensively. I think they will tighten up eventually.

Coaching tightens it up by appealing to the players as far as where they are at the moment and where they have to be in the future. The game on offense is fun and entertaining, but in order to regain possession of the puck, teams must be committed off the puck to force turnovers, use their speed to get to loose pucks and win small-area battles to allow for the rush game in transition to take place.

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