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Offensive-zone pressure leading to more turnovers

MacLean says aggressive defensive system working for Penguins, Lightning, Kings

by Paul MacLean / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a weekly column 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. Jim Corsi, David Marcoux, Paul MacLean and Joe Mullen will take turns providing insight. 

In this edition, MacLean, former coach of the Ottawa Senators, explains how an aggressive defense in the offensive zone has played a significant role in the early season success of teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Los Angeles Kings and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

During the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, the Pittsburgh Penguins unleashed a blueprint against the San Jose Sharks that helped them win the first of their back-to-back championships.

 

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Penguins coach Mike Sullivan got his players to buy into a defensive system in which they pressure teams with the puck in the offensive end instead of just dropping back immediately to clog the neutral zone. And it's a system in which defensemen play a vital role.

One month into the 2017-18 NHL season it's a tactic that I've noticed teams like the Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Los Angeles Kings using. And it's no coincidence that they are off to promising starts, especially the Lightning and Kings.

Video: LAK@MTL: Toffoli capitalizes on turnover late in 1st

You see it when these teams don't have the puck.

It's on their initial forecheck in the offensive zone where their defensemen don't just back off and accept the opponent's rush to the top of the face-off circles. They're playing defense inside the blue line by having a tight gap on the other team's forwards. 

Meanwhile, the two forecheckers are putting tremendous pressure on the backside, creating turnovers before the opposition can get to their blue line. That leads to transition and gap and space and speed.

Speed on the back end is such an advantage. With tight gaps like that, it leads to turnovers. And speed is such a key to the transition game. Defensively, it also allows them to play defense at the red line instead of behind their blue line. 

It takes a lot of discipline to play that way. When one of your defensemen is moving up to embark on a controlled pinch when the other team has the puck, one of the defending forwards needs to drop back to join his defense partner.

Two seasons ago in the Final, all San Jose could do was make line changes because Pittsburgh had the puck all the time. The Penguins always seemed to have the puck in the offensive zone and rarely in the defensive zone. When the Sharks tried to play offense, all they could do was change lines because the Penguins controlled the pace of play. Teams can't play this way the whole game, but when they start playing like that they are very hard to play against. They really control the pace and tempo.

Video: PIT@FLA: Rowney sneaks in and buries the loose puck

These situations lead to better shift lengths. The pace seems to be much quicker, much faster. The good, hard defensive play creates more offense.

This is the first time I've seen John Stevens as Kings coach. He was a longtime assistant there. But for the Penguins and Lightning, Sullivan and Jon Cooper have used this style for a while and have been successful. 

The Lightning had injuries last season that severely crippled their chances of making the playoffs. In the previous two seasons, however, they made the Final and the Eastern Conference Final by following Cooper's game plan. 

As for the Penguins, they won their second consecutive Cup in June, this time without defenseman Kris Letang, who was injured. We saw that they had some other quality players on the back end. Maybe they weren't the level of Letang, but Trevor Daley and Brian Dumoulin could skate and had pretty good hockey instincts.

A lot of credit goes to the forwards. In order for the system to work, the forwards work for the defense and the defense works for the forwards. When they are working together it creates speed and transition. 

The Penguins, Kings and Lightning use a pressure defense system starting with their defensemen. Through the first month of the season, so far, so good. 

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