The Avalanche have had a remarkable start to the 2013 season. Just months removed from a first-overall selection at the NHL Draft, the Avs' current record of 10-1-0 and plus-19 goal differential are both good for second in the league. It leaves us with the question of just how it could be possible.
Matt Duchene commented this past week that there was a disconnect between the systems designed by former Head Coach Joe Sacco and the way the team has been built by GM Greg Sherman. As per Nick Cotsonkia of Yahoo! Sports:
“That’s one thing we’ve all talked about in our room the last four years,” Duchene said. “Not to knock anybody or anything, but I don’t feel like we’ve played the way that our team is built. I think we’ve played a little bit too stingy and slow, or tried to play that way, and it wasn’t in our makeup, and it backfired, I think. I think we need to play a style like Chicago. We’re built like a Chicago.”
Chicago is known for an up-tempo, aggressive style. But that sound bite covers up some very distinctive patterns in their tactics. Colorado has certainly added pace to their game this year and are arguably emulating some of Chicago's structures, especially in defensive transition.
Chicago's Defensive Transition
The Blackhawks' defensive transition has two pressure points after a two-man forecheck using backside pressure. Backside pressure is used to prevent a reverse play and encourage the opposition to flow either toward the first pressure point at the top of the circles or the second pressure point just before the red line.
The key is the third forward (F3) controlling the horizontal passing lanes so that the defensemen can be aggressive vertically. Though F3 comes low for puck support, he re-cycles high and attacks to the puck from the weak-side in defensive transition. You're not alone if that sounds like gibberish to you, so let's see what it looks like:
Bryan Bickell (29) is F1, and the second forechecker (Jeremy Morin, 11) brings pressure from behind. In this case, the defenseman Clayton Stoner (4) tries the reverse anyway. Immediately checked by Morin, Matt Dumba (55) dumps it up the boards, but Andrew Shaw (65) reads it and we see the next pressure point of the Blackhawks' forecheck.
Shaw has curled to come back through the lane between the puck-carrier (Stephane Veilleux, 19) on the boards and the middle lane. The strong-side defenseman, Michal Rozsival (32), comes down the boards to contest the puck, knowing the winger is isolated.
The 'Hawks make the turnover and continue to apply pressure.
If the opposition gains clean control of the puck in their breakout, F3 will attack to the puck along the boards, with that strong-side defenseman holding containment over-top and closing the lane at the red line.
The image above comes on the same shift as the other two, on a subsequent breakout attempt. In this case, Kyle Brodziak (21) realizes the pressure point is coming and tries a flip play before even entering the neutral zone.
A defenseman pinching down the boards on a contested puck is a play we see often from various teams who use this pressure point, but the Blackhawks include a wrinkle. If the opposition doesn't have a person in the layer above the puck-carrier (where Dany Heatley, 15, is in Image 2), that pressure play is made by the weak-side defenseman swinging across, not the strong-side defenseman pinching down.
Chicago has their defensemen switch often, in fact. That switch avoids the risk of being flat-footed when attacking toward the puck, and so they can be more aggressive in their decisions about when to apply pressure.
Colorado's Defensive Transition
As we turn to the Avalanche, you might notice some similarities.
Here is their two-man forecheck with backside pressure and F3 (Steve Downie, 17) curling to apply pressure from the weak-side (where the puck is not) toward the strong-side (where the puck is).
They also share both of the pressure points described above.
The image below, taken just a moment after the image above, shows Downie in that isolating lane between the puck-carrier (Justin Abdelkader, 8) and the center layer (Drew Miller, 20) while the strong-side defender (Jan Hejda, 8) makes a play down the boards.
A little later in the period we see the second pressure point:
Above is the same red-line pressure point used by Chicago. In this case, Gabriel Landeskog (92) has switched places with Ryan Wilson (44) in the preceding play, and it's Wilson who closes the lane horizontally on Pavel Datsyuk (13), while Landeskog has over-top containment.
One major difference is that the Avs don't use a swinging weak-side defenseman, and so rather than risk having the strong-side defenseman get trapped flat-footed, they rely more heavily on their forwards to isolate puck-carriers, apply back pressure, and control passing lanes in the neutral zone when the opposition gains control of the puck.
The Avs likely don't use that swinging weak-side defender because they simply can't. Their defense group is not mobile enough. Yet.
The Blackhawks are well known for their versatile, two-ways defenders. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya can all skate, pass and defend. The Blackhawks' system requires mobile defenders who won't abandon their responsibilities.
In Colorado, one-dimensional defenders have started to be replaced with multi-tool players. Slow, powerful, meat-and-potatoes defenders Greg Zanon, Shane O'Brien and Ryan O'Byrne were not brought back from last year's squad. Equally, specialist puck-mover Stefan Elliot was assigned to the AHL along with Matt Hunwick. All five of those defenders played regular minutes for the Avs a year ago.
In their place, smooth-skating new acquisition Andre Benoit plays in all three disciplines, Cory Sarich and Nate Guerin are more mobile stay-at-home types, and Jan Hejda is given the most minutes of all blue-liners. Erik Johnson and Ryan Wilson round out the top six in a significant step toward versatility.
Summing It Up
Going down the list of names on each roster, it's clear the Avalanche are not the Blackhawks just yet, particularly on defense.
Still, the Avalanche have created an aggressive puck-pressure system in defensive transition that looks a lot like the one Chicago uses, and it's clearly working for them. Watch for continued upgrades on the back end to complete their Blackhawk makeover.