By the end of the 2014-15 season, when a playoff spot and the general manager’s future employment were in question, Bruins coach Claude Julien didn’t mind how his team operated in the offensive zone.
Defensemen pinched down the walls. Forwards rotated up in the zone. A third man was usually high.
Getting there was another story.
The Bruins missed the playoffs and GM Peter Chiarelli lost his job, partly because of how the Bruins tripped over their skates when exiting the defensive zone. By the time the defensemen retrieved the puck, forecheckers were smashing their noses through the glass. The Bruins regularly reversed the puck to reduce the heat, which forced the forwards into defensive-zone regroups and delayed their up-ice advance. Opponents intercepted outlet passes.
Even when they managed to escape the zone, the fumbles manifested in an up-ice standstill. They had played so much stop-and-start hockey that they couldn’t accelerate to highway speed. The Bruins once used the neutral zone as a launching pad for sorties over the offensive blue line. Center ice had turned into quicksand.
Julien thinks he and his assistants have a solution.
This season, the weak-side wing will be free to overload toward the strong side instead of staying wide. If a defenseman goes D-to-D to his partner, he will then advance to the net-front area rather than staying at home for a reverse.
Julien believes these adjustments will quicken the breakout’s tempo, provide more exiting options, force teams to retreat, and allow the Bruins to play at a higher tempo with numbers in transition. In theory, the teams applying the 2-1-2 forecheck against the Bruins last season will now be scrambling to catch up, perhaps at risk of being outnumbered up the ice.
In 2014-15, the Bruins finished with close to the same number of scoring chances they recorded the season before. In 2013-14, the Bruins won the Presidents’ Trophy and had the league’s third-best offense. But they tumbled to 22d last season because they couldn’t turn those chances into goals.
Julien’s objective, via the breakout changes, is to turn misses into goals by improving the pace through center ice, gaining cleaner entries into the offensive zone, and making opponents more anxious.
“If they see four men and they have to back off, that’s going to give us a great chance off the rush,” Julien said between drawing scribbles on his whiteboard in his Ristuccia Arena office. “We’ll have that fourth guy. We can have that middle drive, shoot at the net for a rebound, maybe hit that weak-side D coming on the other side if that lane’s open and the guy’s driving. Or we can hit a trailer with the fourth guy coming up on the attack. There’s a good chance it will be a centerman or the winger that originally did the breakout. He’s coming in late, so he may be that fourth guy coming in. We’re going to fill all three lanes with that fourth guy coming in. It just gives us better options.”
As recently as two years ago, most teams employed a 1-2-2 forecheck to gum up center ice. The Bruins liked playing against the 1-2-2.
On their breakouts, after the Bruins went D-to-D, the center curling underneath was in good position to take the outlet pass. If the first forechecker took away the center, the Bruins reversed the puck. By staying wide, the weak-side wing was stationed to receive the outlet pass following the reverse. The Bruins would then go on the attack with three lanes — weak- and strong-side wings on the flanks, center driving the middle — to spread out opposing defensemen.
But the game is changing. Teams recognize the principle of puck possession. They understand that the less time they spend chasing the puck, the better off they’ll be.
So last season, the Bruins didn’t see the 1-2-2 often. Opponents choked them off by deploying two forecheckers deep in the Boston zone. Because forechecker 1 immediately engaged in the puck battle, the defenseman going back didn’t have much time to retrieve and go D-to-D cleanly.
The second wave of pressure arrived when the opposing strong-side defenseman pinched down the wall to take away the outlet pass to the strong-side wing. Because of the forechecking heat, the Bruins had to do everything right to hit the center. If that exchange wasn’t clean, the resulting turnover was in a bad spot: in front of the net.
The Bruins didn’t have a defensive group that was good at retrieving and moving pucks swiftly. The weak-side wing was not as helpful because he was standing still posted up near the wall instead of supporting in motion in the middle of the ice.
When no safe plays were available, the strong-side defenseman had to eat the puck or rim it out of danger. The latter, however, was inviting a turnover.
“That’s like, ‘Here, I’m going to get rid of my problem and give it to you.’ The D’s pinching on him, too,” Julien said. “Sometimes that happens. So our centerman below has to come in, stop in that battle along the wall, and hopefully the puck comes out and he can take off from there. But if you have to stop and wait for the puck, it’s not a clean breakout.”
The changes will still require the retrieving defenseman to act quickly, either with a D-to-D pass or by carrying the puck and wheeling around the net. The strong-side defenseman won’t have the safety-valve option of reversing because his partner will have moved to the net-front house.
But the overloading weak-side wing should force teams to ease off their forechecking pressure. They’ll have to respect the wing’s speed through the middle and into the pocket as a receiving option off the wall from his strong-side linemate. If the Bruins chip the puck to the overloading wing, he’ll have generated enough momentum — before, the weak-side wing was flat-footed — to contend in a one-on-one race. Even if the Bruins turn over the puck, the overloading wing will be in good position to initiate the forecheck, most likely against the opposing weak-side defenseman.
The Bruins aren’t planning big changes defensively. Aside from playing a little tighter at their blue line, the defensemen will remain inside the dots and protect the front of the net. The center will support down low and pop out to play the third man high. The wings will backcheck hard.
In comparison, the adjustments on the breakout are not minor. The defensemen will be involved in critical decision-making: staying in front to defend, or taking off to fill a lane.
The former is routine for stay-at-homers such as Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid, and Kevan Miller. The latter is second nature only for Torey Krug. Dougie Hamilton, built to rush up the ice, is gone. This is not a group for which offensive-minded thinking comes easy.
But status quo isn’t going to work. Rivals such as Ottawa, Buffalo, and Detroit are getting faster and more skilled. Applying something that succeeded in the past but failed last season would not have been acceptable.
“As a coach, if you think you’ve got it figured out, you’ve got to retire, because you’re going to fall behind,” Julien said. “This game keeps changing all the time. It’s like anything else, right? It’s one team trying to counter another team’s strategy. That’s where we’re at. We used to kill teams that would forecheck 1-2-2. Now they’ve countered us. We’ve got to figure out another way to get past them.”
Reinforcements are always needed
Around the league, the big boys do not report to main camp for several more days. The Bruins open camp on Thursday with fitness testing and hit the ice on Friday for the first time.
In some ways, the most critical stuff of the preseason is already taking place.
For the good clubs, the preseason is a formality. One or two jobs are in play. In-place systems do not require amending. But prospects leaguewide are in the thick of trying to catch their bosses’ attention.
The Bruins’ rookies are in Buffalo, participating in a three-team tournament with the Sabres and Devils. Newbies from eight organizations are playing in the Traverse City Tournament, hosted each season by the Red Wings. Toronto is the site of a four-team tournament, including the Canadiens, Senators, and Penguins. Connor McDavid is doing his thing in Penticton, British Columbia, alongside rookies from Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg.
This is all taking place with developing young players in mind.
Development is the NHL’s hottest buzzword. The spike in hiring reflects the trend. The Rangers named former Boston University standout Chris Drury as their director of player development on Sept. 4. On the same day, ex-Bruin Rich Peverley was named Dallas’s player development coordinator. Corey Schwab (Arizona) and Brady Robinson (Philadelphia) are two of the goalie coaches hired this summer to work with prospects, not NHL puck-stoppers.
Trades are hard to make because of the cap. Free agency isn’t what it was because teams extend their best players before they reach the market. Developing homegrown players, therefore, is more important than ever.
“It’s almost essential that you constantly have an infusion of youth on entry-level contracts who can push for jobs at the NHL level, especially teams with star power,” said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Mike Sullivan, a player development coach for the Blackhawks last season. “They’re allocating a huge percentage of the salary cap to a few players. It almost requires a certain amount of players on entry-level contracts to fill out the roster. Teams are figuring out the strategy of if we can make sure we draft well, then get our hands on the players as quickly as we can to expedite the development process, it’s going to help us as an organization to sustain a competitive advantage.”
Consider Sullivan’s job last season. The Marshfield native’s primary task was to monitor the development of 11 forwards drafted by the Blackhawks. Per NCAA rules, Sullivan could not work with them on the ice. He didn’t want to act as another coach.
So Sullivan watched their games. He talked with the players and their coaches. Sullivan showed them clips of comparable NHL players. He served as a confidant, liaison, shrink, and teacher — all to players who could be five years from pulling on an NHL jersey.
“It’s knowing what type of information to offer — how much or how little to help the player along,” Sullivan said. “I was always very conscious of the information pathway from me to the players to their coaches. Some players respond better when you give them one or two points, then let them go play.”
There was a time when some teams declined to invest in strength and conditioning. It has become a foundational piece of every franchise. Development is headed in the same direction.
Kessel put in position of power
For the last several years, the Capitals have been the gold standard on the power play. Since 2009, Washington has paced the NHL four times in man-up scoring. It’s nice when you have Alex Ovechkin ripping away from the left circle.
Phil Kessel could have the same effect in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins’ No. 1 power-play unit is out of a video game. Kris Letang will work the point. Evgeni Malkin will rotate between the right half-wall to the blue line, where he’ll be free to fire (ask Gregory Campbell what that’s like). Sidney Crosby also will man the right half-boards and the goal line. Grinder Patric Hornqvist should be the net-front presence.
This leaves Kessel to strut his stuff from the left half-wall. With penalty killers forced to respect the talent spread out across the zone, Kessel should have more time and space to do his thing, which is to score.
Ovechkin likes to stand on the left side and load up for one-timers. In contrast, Kessel stations himself closer to the boards. Once he walks the puck off the wall, Kessel wastes little time firing it on net.
Last season, Kessel scored eight times on 75 power-play shots. In comparison, Ovechkin buried 25 of his 134 shots. Kessel and Malkin will be the PP triggermen, with Letang and Crosby tasked for dishing duty. Kessel’s shot quantity may not rise. But the quality of his looks is sure to get better.
They didn’t turn over this Leaf
Hanifin off to a rough start
Norwood’s Noah Hanifin is not participating in the Traverse City Tournament because of an undisclosed injury, suffered during last month’s US Junior National Evaluation Camp. The injury will be a setback in the 18-year-old’s push to make Carolina’s varsity out of camp. Hanifin is eligible to play for Charlotte, Carolina’s AHL affiliate. If he becomes an NHL regular this season, Carolina would be unlikely to release him for World Junior Championship play, which makes his evaluation camp injury ironic.
Blood clot sidelines Vasilevskiy
In 82 games last season, Carl Hagelin saw only 7:14 of total ice time on the power play. Of his 58 career goals, only two have been on the man advantage. The Rangers used Hagelin as a five-on-five and penalty-killing wing. The Ducks should make use of Hagelin’s breakaway speed on the power play . . . Ex-Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli will be in charge of Team North America, the 23-and-under group for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Tyler Seguin will turn 24 on Jan. 31, 2016, just nine months before the Oct. 1 cutoff. It would have been exciting to see the two ex-Bruins reunited . . . Former Bruin Brad Boyes will be in Toronto’s camp on a tryout basis. This is the second time since 2013 that Boyes has attended camp without a deal. In 2013, the Panthers invited Boyes to camp, then signed him to a one-year contract. Boyes, who scored 35 goals over the last two seasons, should make Toronto’s roster . . . If Roger Goodell ever wants to visit Gillette Stadium, Gary Bettman is available for consultation. The NHL’s commissioner, who must be wearing invisible noise-blocking headphones, has turned booing into as much a part of the annual Cup handoff as polish and white gloves.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.