We’re only five games into the 2016-17 New Jersey Devils season and the team has been all over the place when it comes to moving the puck forward in transition. Some of these are breakout plays, where the team is able to settle the puck in their own end before passing or moving it up ice. Some are more or less on-the-fly plays after making a play on defense or a puck becoming loose from the opposition. However it may come about, the Devils have not been able to consistently and effectively move the puck forward. That is a core reason why they have struggled to generate offensive pressure and shooting attempts, which in turn results in their lack of goal scoring.
I will admit that I’m not really familiar with the tactical side of the game. Some people can pick it up right away from one or two views; it takes me a while to identify what a coach is instructing their players to perform. I know that the team struggles to move the puck forward by the results. Such as stretches of time without a shot on net or witnessing the Devils have issues getting the puck cleanly over the opposition’s blueline while the opposition can do so. Throw in the fact that the nature of hockey requires players to make decisions on the fly and so I’m still not sure what John Hynes and staff are instructing their players to transition the puck from defense to offense.
To that end, I decided to highlight some successful and not-so-successful plays from the recent games against Florida and Anaheim. (NHL.tv doesn’t allow access to games that are within 48 hours and I’m writing this on Saturday afternoon. So, no, I don’t have anything from the games against Boston or Minnesota) I’ve also attempted to make .GIFs (or .GIFVs, to be precise) of these plays. I’m still a total amateur when it comes to capturing .GIFs, so I apologize if the quality is not as good as expected. I have quite a few to show off and I’ll explain why I think the play worked or did not work as intended. Should this work out, I’d be happy to take a closer look at specific plays to look at more specific problems. For today, I want to share my understanding of what works or doesn’t work and why; and you can let me know whether that’s true or not.
One last note: As they’re .GIFV files hosted by GFYCat, you can mouse over the picture to pause it or click on it to bring up a full screen view where you can adjust the speed.
Example 1: A Long Pass That Works
The Devils fail to make a zone exit, but Denis Malgin can’t keep the puck onside. As the Panthers retreat, Andy Greene obtains the puck along the far sideboards. He sees Kyle Palmieri is open in the neutral zone and beats a Panther with a pass through the neutral zone. The pass is on target so Palmieri takes it into the Panthers’ end and takes a shot on net.
The Devils had the benefit of the Panthers being forced to touch back up due to the delayed offside. Palmieri was in the neutral zone at the time Malgin touched it back in; he turned and forward away from other Panthers as they came back. Greene read this and had the time to fire a pass that Palmieri was able to collect. Only one Panther had a stick out to potentially stop the puck, but Greene’s pass eluded it. That the pass was successful was key for the Devils to go from standing still on ‘D’ to going for a shot.
Example 2: A Long Pass That Doesn’t Work
In this .GIFV, the Devils win a neutral zone faceoff and Ben Lovejoy obtains the puck. As Lovejoy turns, Jared McCann on Florida forechecks. Lovejoy decides the pressure is enough to launch the puck forward off the boards towards a Devil. While the puck gets through, a Panther defender gets to the puck before Vernon Fiddler. The Panther chips it forward, forcing Fiddler to stop and Blake Speers to turn. As that happens, the forechecker takes the puck and passes it to a teammate facing New Jersey’s end to begin an attack of their own.
So this was an example of a long pass that didn’t work. Lovejoy was pressured and just flung it in the direction of a teammate in the hopes of receiving it. The other team not only got to the puck, but the defender was in a position to put the puck into a place that would put two Devils behind the play in the process. McCann - the forechecker - was able to quickly pass the puck to a teammate moving forward. The sad thing is that this was right after the Devils won a faceoff. In a matter of seconds, Florida goes back on offense despite losing the draw.
Example 3: A Clearance that Ends Up Working
In this situation, Andy Greene makes a play on defense and knocks it to P.A. Parenteau. Parenteau has a Panther nearby, so he just launches the puck diagonally across the zone. As that was happening, Adam Henrique was on the far side. Henrique would give chance with Aaron Ekblad. While Ekblad was ahead of Henrique, he went to slash the puck away and Henrique was able to knock it forward. So Parenteau effectively cleared the puck and put it in a spot for Henrique to win it. I’d like to think moving it away across the rink was intentional. It wasn’t a great decision because, again, Henrique had rush to try to win it. While he does - his effort just puts the puck into the corner - it could have easily been recovered by Florida, who could have started a new attack once everyone became on-side.
Example 4: Two Long Passes that Don’t Quite Work
Yohann Auvitu has been a bright spot in this early part of the season. Just read Mike’s post for more on that. And Damon Severson has been able to make some good plays too. So it’s a bummer I have to show both here here. Auvitu calmly collected the puck and passed it to Damon Severson, who looked to make a pass forward. Notice that no Devil is really nearby to take a pass. Beau Bennett is nearby but he’s turning, so he can’t really retrive a puck. Auvitu is skating up the near-boards while Devante Smith Pelly and Adam Henrique are right at the Anaheim blueline. Where’s the short option? There isn’t one. So Severson fires it up to Henrique. This pass hits Henrique in the skate blades. So instead of Henrique collecting it and carrying it over the blue, the puck is loose.
The good news is that Bennett is nearby to collect it. He passes it back to Auvitu to start this transition over. Auvitu dishes it to Severson along the far boards. Severson correctly attempts a pass as two Ducks converge on him. It eludes Bennett buty Smith-Pelly is able to take it. Unfortunately, Smith-Pelly - who’s been in the same spot the whole time - can’t really turn and go forward as there is a Duck in front of him. So he just dumps it in. That’s technically an entry but not the one the team should be looking for. A dump-in doesn’t really do much good (and it didn’t, if I recall correctly) Severson’s first pass didn’t hit its target, but it’s questionable why Henrique and Smith-Pelly were so far up. And it looked like Bennett was to join them. Good on him to keep the breakout alive, as it were, but this wasn’t all that successful of a play. It feels like a lost opportunity in retrospect.
Example 5: A Long Pass That Didn’t Work but was Salvaged
Under pressure, an east-west pass is made across the neutral zone. While the pressure certainly didn’t help, the pass wasn’t a good one. Keith Yandle is able to chip the puck away from Devante Smith-Pelly, who was second to the spot. Fortunately for the Devils, Henrique was skating up the middle of the ice during the whole play. The puck was chipped essentially to him, so he collects it and skates with it to his right to get into the zone and around Yandle.
Henrique saved this breakout from being another lost puck in the neutral zone. He was skating up from the middle and he happened to be in the right place and at the right time to turn a potential negative into a potential positive on offense. That’s good. But, again, this is another example of a good result coming from a not-so-good process. The pressure on the passer was a factor but given that Smith-Pelly had to skate up to get to a pass and that defender was there first, it wasn’t a good pass. If the chipped puck didn’t go right to Henrique or if Henrique wasn’t in the middle, then Florida could have recovered and went right back on offense just after the Devils made an exit. Again: a good result from a broken play.
Example 6: A Give and Go That Works...to a Point
Not all plays in transition are set plays. This is an example of something that was available in the run of play: a give and go. Kyle Palmieri gets the puck in his own zone and makes a short outlet pass to Michael Cammalleri. Palmieri continues to skate forward and Cammalleri hits him in stride. Palmieri then carries the puck into Anaheim’s end. In fact, with Henrique joining the rush, it’s a 3-on-2 although Palmeri has some back pressure. Unfortunately, any potential offense gets snuffed out when Palmieri’s pass to Henrique hits him the skates. That allows Anaheim to knock it away.
I know a first pass typically refers to a pass out of the defensive zone. Is there a term for a first pass in the offensive zone? Because that’s where this play broke down. The actual transition part was great. Cammalleri read what was going on very well and both passes from and to Palmieri were good ones. The zone entry was there. What failed was right at the end. Palmieri didn’t have a shot, dumping it would have put him no where, and the pass across was there. But the execution wasn’t, so what could have been an offensive play never fully materialized despite the good exit and move through the neutral zone.
After six examples, I get the sense that these plays should be seen with three components: the actual means of exiting the zone, the transition through the neutral zone, and then the initial move in the offensive zone. If any one of these three falter, then the Devils falter.
Let’s end this with something more exciting. Want to be happy the Devils have Taylor Hall?
Example 7: Sometimes Taylor Hall Can Do It Himself
Carrying the puck out on defense and all the way into the offensive zone is a challenge. A defender just has to knock the puck away or hit the carrier to knock it loose. For these plays to happen and actually work, the puck carrier needs to make the right reads to recognize where he needs to go, be fast enough to move around defending players, and have enough control of the puck so they don’t lose it in process. Taylor Hall can do this.
Poor Michael Matheson. He decided to step up at the red line but Hall evaded his stick-check with seeming ease. Derek McKenzie tried to do so from behind. But Hall kept ahead of that too. The whole play is just good stuff from #9. Hall took a pass from the defense and he just went off to take a shot on net. The problem is that these situations aren’t common and not everyone is Taylor Hall. So they don’t (and shouldn’t) happen every time Hall is on defense and gets the puck. That he can do so adds a dimension to the Devils’ transition game; it’s something opposing teams need to watch for. What it also means is that the Devils coaches really do need design and implement strategies that take advantage of this skillset. Not so much for Hall to go from one zone to another on his own, but to have him carry the puck in and do so in stride.
As John Hynes mixes up the lines, he and his staff should really look at his preferences and tactics for transition plays. I only highlighted a collection of examples from two games. I’m not entirely sure what the coaches want the Devils to do as a general play. I’ve noticed in games and in making these .GIFVs that longer passes - be it through or across the neutral zone - are more common than not. Those can work if there’s a passing lane and that the pass connects to the receiver’s stick. A pass to their skates or into a spot where an opposing player can get to it first or win the puck just leads to a turnover that the other team can, will, and has capitalized on. Those longer passes also tend to have more than one Devil up ice, so a turnover can put more than one player behind the play and force them to hustle to backcheck. That also does not help the Devils. While the same passing issues can happen with even shorter passes or right after gaining the zone; longer passes carry more risk.
I’ve also noticed that even the sight of pressure from a forechecker is enough to turn what could be a good breakout play into a not-so-good one. Like in Example #5. Having a pass forced or rushed can lead to more execution errors. The Lovejoy long pass (Example #2) is a good example. It wasn’t so much that McCann was right on him; his giving chance forced a long pass. If another Devil was back with Lovejoy, perhaps that pass doesn’t happen. No, they’d still be far away from where they want to be on the ice, but they could still get there as they would have the puck. Combined with what I saw from Severson (Example #4), I question whether the coaches are committing too much forward and therefore expecting these longer passes to hit when the players may be better off with a shorter pass. Having forwards wait by the opposing blueline as seen in Example #4 happened often enough against Minnesota only strengthens my thinking. Given that even a short give-and-go can create something, as seen in Example #6, the options are there. But when it comes to intentionally setting something up, that’s what they tend to do. Should I do something like this again, I’ll want to focus on those plays where Devils are waiting at the blueline for the puck, forcing a longer pass to be made.
When the plays work, there is a successful offensive zone entry that gives the Devils a chance at a shot or to make an offensive play. When they don’t, there’s not often only no offense created, but the Devils are oft forced back on defense. I’d like to look into this deeper in a situation by situation basis because, again, I think this area of the game is a big reason why the Devils’ offense has been less prolific than other teams - even in this young season. I think there’s two components: the actual passing itself and where players are expected to go on these players. How the second component is set up affects the first component and that can be coached to a degree. That’s how I see it now.
In any case, I hope this has been instructional. And that my .GIFVs aren’t too bad; it’s the first time I’ve ever made them. Let me know in the comments what you think about the Devils’ breakouts, what these examples shown you, what plays you’d like to see given a closer a look, and whether .GIFVs are the best way to look these sorts of plays. Given that I continue to notice a lot of w Thank you for reading.