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Zone defense under study as NHL offense continues to fade

Carey Price, the game’s best goalie, submitted a historic season, in part because of Michel Therrien’s zone defense.Chris O’Meara/AP

You would think that 6,375 square feet of ice is enough office space for the planet’s most skilled hockey players to enjoy as an offensive playground. Coaches, systems, goalies, and equipment, however, have turned the attacking zone into a pit of quicksand.

This season, NHL teams averaged 2.73 goals per game. In 2005-06, the first season after the lockout, the league average was 3.08 goals per game. Scoring chances don’t just die on the vine. Not enough of them happen in the first place.

Defense rules, to the point where the game’s stewards are studying the rules themselves.

During their formal meetings and in casual conversations, general managers have chatted about outlawing zone defense. The idea has not progressed to a degree where the GMs are considering how to implement such a change. It would be a radical departure. But that GMs are discussing the concept at all indicates their concern over scoring’s waning rate.

In the regular season, the Canadiens allowed a league-low 2.24 goals per game. Two words partially explain this result: Carey Price.


The game’s best goalie submitted a historic season. Price went 44-16-6 with a 1.96 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. According to War On Ice, Price saved 36.5 goals above a replacement-level puck-stopper, the 10th-best mark in the post-lockout era.

Price’s statistics, however, would not have been as starry without his coach’s defensive system.

Michel Therrien emphasizes a collapsing zone defense. The concept demands seamless defending in the middle of Montreal’s zone. Defending the points is not as important as protecting the house.

The outcome: multiple perimeters of protection in front of the net. A shot from the point, for example, has to pass through the first up-high layer, progress through the traffic jam in front, then somehow find its way past Price. Unless the puck bounces off something, it’s an almost impossible trajectory to hit the back of the net.


Imagine trying to storm a castle through a wall, a moat, and a shower of hot oil. Good luck.

One solution would be to blow the whistle on zone defense. Teams would have to play man-to-man. In theory, this would reduce congestion in front of the net. The attacking team could spread out its formation in the offensive zone. Defenders would have to follow their assignments instead of staying at home.

Don Sweeney, the NHL’s newest GM, isn’t so sure about the idea.

“I just don’t know how you could outlaw it other than tethering somebody together,” said the Bruins GM. “How can you outlaw it, other than drawing lines on the ice, then say, ‘You can only go to this quadrant. You can’t leave that quadrant unless somebody comes into it.’ That, I think, gets a little hokey.”

Sweeney has a congruent thinker in his coach. Claude Julien is just as demanding in his insistence on fortifying the house.

It drives Julien cuckoo when opponents secure scoring chances from the slot. Julien’s defensemen play tight within the dots and leave everything to the outside for Tuukka Rask to turn aside. Centers support down low. Wingers retreat to the middle as an additional layer. Switching to man-to-man is not in the Bruins’ future.

“When you’re playing man-on-man, you end up with your D up at the blue line from the defensive team, because he’s following his guy way up there,” Julien said. “You end up with your forward in front. I don’t think that’s an ideal thing. From my perspective, I don’t like seeing that. Our guys feel comfortable playing their position. That’s still going to work, no matter what teams do. With a lot of movement that’s going on, it creates a lot of confusion for teams that play man-on-man. I just like the way our system is. So far, that part of the game hasn’t failed us.”


Man-to-man wouldn’t work for the Bruins. But it has put the Lightning within reach of the Stanley Cup. Coach Jon Cooper hasn’t been afraid to let his players get in the Blackhawks’ faces instead of ordering them to sag back.

The Lightning have a roster full of strong, active skaters. They’re in motion in their end. When they force a turnover, it puts them in better position to launch their five-man transition and go on the attack.

“They have a strong D corps, some great puck movers, great skaters,” said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. “I don’t think it’s as much the focus on their D men as it is their five-man units — the way they come out of their zone, all of them supporting each other, the way they have D men jumping in the rush.”

Man-to-man is good for Tampa, especially against Chicago. Patrick Kane, for example, likes to scoot around the outer rim of the offensive zone. Kane builds up his speed on the outside, then slashes into the danger areas.


By playing man-to-man, the Lightning can put the brakes on Kane’s acceleration. If Tampa played zone defense, the Blackhawks would make plays on the outside, execute flurries of attacks, and hunt for tips and rebounds in tight.

“The way the Blackhawks play, they really like to spread you out,” said Tampa assistant coach Rick Bowness. “There’s times where you just can’t outnumber them. You can’t contain them. You just have to go with them. If you watch Kane, and I’ve watched him a lot, he’s always moving, right? He’s just hoping you forget about him. That’s the way they play. Then he darts and they find him. They force you to do that. We’re not trying to play man-to-man. We’re only playing man-to-man because of the way they play and the way the scenario develops in our zone. We want to get on them as quick as we can.”

Through four games of the Cup Final, Tampa had held Chicago to nine goals. In the first period of Game 4, the Blackhawks put only two pucks on emergency starter Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Collapsing zone doesn’t need to be the preferred defensive template. The Lightning have found a way to make man-to-man work.


Sharp and Lucic would bring suitors

Milan Lucic carries a $6 million annual cap hit.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

If the Bruins consider putting Milan Lucic on the trade market, they will have competition from the Blackhawks, who are facing their own cap crunch. Patrick Sharp, Chicago’s versatile left wing, is on the books for two more seasons. Rival GMs believe that Stan Bowman has no choice but to unload Sharp to accommodate, among other things, the $10.5 million due annually to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane next season, and Brandon Saad’s expected raise.


If so, Sharp and Lucic could be the left wings with the highest value.

Sharp had a down season. In 68 games, he scored 16 goals and 27 assists while averaging 16:48 of ice time. In 2013-14, Sharp scored 34 goals and 44 assists for a career-high 78 points.

Sharp is in a different situation than Lucic. The former University of Vermont Catamount is 33 years old. Lucic turned 27 last Sunday. Sharp is under contract for two more seasons. Lucic will be unrestricted after 2015-16.

Sharp is also nothing like Lucic as a player. He is a fast, quick, and clever left wing. He can move up and down the lineup. Coach Joel Quenneville likes Sharp’s vision and smarts up high on the power play. His one-timer is excellent. He does not need much time to rip it off.

But Sharp’s game is not as bruising as Lucic’s. He uses his skating and hockey sense to slalom through defenders, not run them over. Sharp’s skating does not project to fall off any time soon.

Lucic carries a $6 million annual cap hit. Sharp is at $5.9 million, according to NHL Numbers.

Winging it
Though they own different playing styles, a look at Lucic and Sharp this season.
Player Team GP G A PTS S ATOI
Milan Lucic BOS 81 18 26 44 141 16:21
Patrick Sharp CHI 68 16 27 43 230 16:49
Source: hockey-reference.com

Just as their average annual values are similar, the return for both players would be close. They would both command good young players. Or, if their teams preferred, they could ask for a bundle of futures.

If both players become available, it would increase the options for teams searching for help at left wing. It would also lower the cost of what the Bruins and Blackhawks demand.


Silfverberg may be a steal in Ryan deal

Jakob Silfverberg (33) averaged 0.53 goals per 60 minutes this season.Kelvin Kuo/USA Today Sports

In 2014-15, one right wing averaged 0.7 goals, 1.23 assists, and 1.94 points per 60 minutes of play. A second right wing averaged 0.53 goals, 1.17 assists, and 1.7 points per 60 minutes.

The difference was that Bobby Ryan, the first wing, arrived in Ottawa at a price that included Jakob Silfverberg, the second wing, along with prospect Stefan Noesen and a 2014 first-round pick (Nick Ritchie).

Ryan faded at the end, scoring one goal in the opening round of the playoffs against Montreal. Playing on the second line with Mika Zibanejad and Mike Hoffman, he turned into more of a disher than finisher. Ryan lost confidence in his shot. In contrast, Silfverberg was dynamic in the playoffs. In 16 games for Anaheim, he had four goals and 14 assists, second on the team in points behind Ryan Getzlaf (2-18—20). Silfverberg, Ottawa’s 2009 second-round pick, turned into a go-to offensive presence on the Ducks’ No. 2 line with Ryan Kesler. Winnipeg, Calgary, and Chicago had trouble with Anaheim’s 1-2 punch of Corey Perry and Silfverberg on the right side.

Next year will be the first season of Ryan’s seven-year, $50.75 million blockbuster. Silfverberg, who is making $850,000 annually, will also be due for a raise, although not as significant as Ryan’s. The 24-year-old will reach restricted status on July 1. Silfverberg could look to Ondrej Palat as a starting comparable. On June 9, 2014, Palat signed a three-year, $10 million extension with Tampa Bay upon expiration of his entry-level contract. Palat has 25 goals and 38 assists in 95 games of NHL service. Silfverberg has 33 goals and 48 assists after 181 NHL games.

Ryan was the centerpiece of the Ottawa-Anaheim trade. Ryan was the second overall pick after Sidney Crosby in 2005. But Silfverberg is developing into a consistent producer. Ritchie projects to be a top-six power forward. Long term, Anaheim might have nabbed the better return.

Krepelka in the business of leaving

Boston-based Paul Krepelka is leaving the agent business. Krepelka has sold his holdings in the Orr Hockey Group, which represents Connor McDavid. While Krepelka has not determined his next move, he’s expressed interest in joining an NHL team’s front office. He has 20 years of experience in negotiating player contracts. Krepelka’s former clients include the Staal brothers, Taylor Hall, Nathan Horton, John Carlson, Trevor Daley, Brian Boyle, and Adam McQuaid.

Hated rivals love this cause

The inaugural Comm. Ave. Charity Classic will take place July 10 at Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena between alums of BU and Boston College. Current NHLers expected to play include Charlie Coyle, Johnny Gaudreau, Stephen Gionta, Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, and Cory Schneider. Former NHLer scheduled to participate include Brian Leetch, Shawn McEachern, Mike Mottau, Jay Pandolfo, and Scott Young. Proceeds will benefit Compassionate Care ALS in honor of Ron Perryman, Dick Kelley, and Pete Frates. More information can be found here.

A case of bad puck luck

It’s unclear where Craig Ramsay will land next. The Edmonton assistant was fired June 4, which was no surprise. New head coach Todd McLellan will have the opportunity to participate in the hiring process for his assistants. Ramsay had been hired to serve as a mentor to Dallas Eakins. But Eakins was fired and replaced by interim coach Todd Nelson. Ramsay’s firing continues a run of bad luck for the 64-year-old. One year after he left his assistant job in Boston, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. After serving as Atlanta’s head coach in 2010-11, Ramsay did not accompany the franchise’s move to Winnipeg, where former Manitoba Moose coach Claude Noel took over the main job. Ramsay resurfaced in Florida as an assistant to Kevin Dineen in 2011-12. But Ramsay was shuffled out in 2013-14 when Peter Horachek replaced Dineen.

There’s no quit in Hossa

Marian Hossa appeared in 193 postseasons games in the last eight seasons.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Marian Hossa appeared in his 22d game of the playoffs on Saturday. Since 2007-08, Hossa has played in 193 postseason games, most of any player in that time. This is his fifth Cup Final over the last eight seasons: three with Chicago, and one each with Detroit and Pittsburgh. Despite the workload, the 36-year-old continues to perform at an elite level. He’s been a positive possession player in all six of his seasons in Chicago. His coaches depend on Hossa to play in all situations. On July 1, 2009, Hossa signed a pre-lockout back-diving contract: 12 years at $63.3 million. The deal includes four dummy years at the end for $1 million in annual salary. The Blackhawks didn’t think Hossa would play in those years from 2017-21. At this rate, he just might. “I’ve loved watching him his whole career,” said Tampa Bay assistant coach Rick Bowness. “He’s one of my favorite all-time players. Hossa backchecks hard, works hard without the puck.”

Lightning have gotten creative

Through 24 postseason games, the Lightning had posted a 20.5 percent success rate on the power play. They are good at carrying the puck through the neutral zone, then leaving a drop pass for one of the trail players. This forces penalty killers to sag back to defend the initial rush. If the drop pass works, the puck carrier can take advantage of a slack gap to enter the offensive zone. Once they gain the zone, the Lightning like to spread out in an umbrella formation instead of overloading on one side. Anton Stralman doesn’t have a hammer of a shot. But the point man is excellent at distributing the puck and finding shooting lanes. Stralman was arguably the best free agent signing in the league.

Loose pucks

Claude Julien has 351 wins in Boston, second most in team history behind Art Ross (387). Things will have gone very wrong if Julien doesn’t pass Ross in 2015-16. “It would be an honor,” Julien said. “But I certainly wouldn’t compare myself to him, because he worked in a different era. He still deserves the accolades he’s had all along.” . . . Opponents in the Western Conference are scared of the Ducks and Kings in 2015-16. Anaheim returns just about everybody, although Matt Beleskey and Francois Beauchemin will be unrestricted on July 1. Anaheim’s window, however, could be closing after 2015-16. They are facing the scary scenario of Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, and Simon Despres, three of their sharp young defensemen, all becoming RFAs on July 1, 2016. They will all be asking for big-time raises. It’s why teams try to stagger their contracts to avoid expiration at the same time . . . Former NHL referee Paul Stewart will hold an officiating camp on June 20 at Walpole’s Rodman Arena. Cost is $50. For more information, contact Stewart at 617-429-4842 or pstewcat22@aol.com

First isn’t always best

Finishing with the NHL’s best record was an honorable accomplishment for the Rangers, but they’d gladly trade in their Presidents’ Trophy for a crack at winning the Stanley Cup. Of the 29 teams to win the Presidents’ Trophy (first awarded in the 1985-86 season), fewer than half reached the Cup Final in that season and fewer than one-third won the championship.

Compiled by Sean Smith

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.