Avalanche Defense: Everyone Look at the Puck!


I know we are all still reeling from the devastating loss in the first game of the year. It was good to see the Avalanche offense produce after the preseason, but heartbreaking to see the Avalanche defense fall down per status quo. Today we’re going to take a look at a defensive change the Avalanche have made that jumped out at me right away, and that I absolutely hate: the “everyone facing the puck at all time” philosophy. We’ll end with some other notes I had from the game, and a period of meditation.

Defensive philosophies come and go like anything else in the word. When I played in high school, the new age idea was that everyone has their skates facing up ice at all times. In the pros you get shot blocking going in and out, man-to-man defense (which we saw), and now the everyone face the puck. If there’s any youth or high school coaches out there, you know that USA Hockey recently went this route for development — and it sucks.

Why it sucks

Let me start by saying that I thought this post would be tough because I can’t pull video of games nationally broadcasted until after 48 hours. So I went to watch the recap on Youtube thinking that I would have to pull some iffy examples to show my point. By the end of 2 minutes and 53 second video I had more picture then I could use.

The “face on the puck”, (now to be referred to as the FOTP), philosophy seems like it makes sense at the most basic level; you have to know where the puck is to defend against it and try to regain possession. However, at younger ages — and apparently also with the Avalanche — it leads to players getting fixated on the puck, not checking around them for open guys. Even worse, it leads to players who aren’t moving away from the play, but who mindlessly swivel in their zones without any idea who is in the vicinity.

Lets look at a couple examples, the first example will be from some 4 on 4 time. There will be more ice open and less structure as a result, but it also shows us how the Avalanche defense is coached at a basic level because the players have to rely on philosophy and instincts instead of on a prebuilt system. After that we’ll look at two even strength examples of horror.

Will’s defensive coloring book guide: 

Red-Sight lines

Blue-Giant holes in coverage

Yellow-Why are you not where my arrow says?!?!

You can click all pictures to enlarge

(All pictures from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4YRP3Kr4jI)

Angry Examples

So lets start with one that seems pretty ridiculous. We have all the players facing the puck (red lines), with Avalanche center Carl Soderberg standing facing the puck instead of, oh I don’t know, COVERING THE GIANT HOLE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ICE. Defenseman Nikita Zadorov is just gliding along at the puck carrier as well, not wanting to bother if Matt Dumba (24 on the Wild) is going to notice the huge gap with his teammate coming around the net. I have no guesses to what or where John Mitchell (7) is going, I really don’t want to know.

So, we can all privately say to ourselves, “The Avalanche defense just needs work in 4 on 4 scenarios.” Lets take a few breaths and take a look at another example, this time from even strength.

This example is obviously a broken play, so it has some advantages in showing us what the Avalanche have been taught. When things go haywire, coaches have different philosophies on what they want their players to do. One of the most common, which is the one I like, is you find the nearest opponent and tie him up for your life. Obviously the Avalanche defense isn’t coached this way.

So first, I love how Tyson Barrie’s stick isn’t even in a passing lane, it’s sitting useless in the middle of the net. Yet Barrie is guarding the post with goalie Semyon Varlamov out of the play, I can live with that. (See I’m not all negative!)

Next, we see that Ryan Suter (20) is wide open. Nathan MacKinnon is staring at the puck with such intensity he can’t notice that Suter has a wide open shot at a wide open net five feet to his left. Forward Alex Tanguay has sunk down low, understandably, but is also fixated on the puck, leaving Wild captain Mikko Koivu (9) wide open.

There are four Avalanche skaters below the circles already. All the Wild player with the puck would have to do is chip one in the middle and it’s an easy goal. I don’t mean to over state my point, but we have all five skaters staring at a guy who is behind the net, which is a very hard place to score from even on an open net, while there are two wide open guys just feet away. This is just mind boggling.

I should have made this a slide show because I never want to see that image again — and only half because of the bad drawings.

So we’re all recovering from nausea. And that’s good, because we only have one example left to prove my point, and then there’s no refuting it or arguing in the comments. Might as well make me coach.

Ego pumping aside, lets power through this last example so I can talk about other stuff at the bottom. So this was Zach Parise’s goal after getting destroyed by Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog. At this point I knew no matter how the game ended what my topic would be. It also shows us more affirmatively that the tendency of puck watching is something being taught, and not just a result of having bad defensive players.

So the Wild player on point is winding up for a clapper while Tyson Barrie is out blocking the shot. I will not question why Tyson Barrie is out there, I’m just glad he is trying to block it. MacKinnon is the player in the slot down on a knee and actually does block it, and then does a good job tying that man up. Good job Nathan!

And then we get to the ugliness. Here’s defenseman 101 for any new players — if there is a shot coming towards the net and you are not going to block it TIE SOMEONE UP FOR THE REBOUND. Instead we have Nate Guenin (he has the question mark over his head because he is obviously clueless) with TWO Wild players wide open in front of the net.

I hate this. I am seething mad. Meanwhile, Landeskog, (bottom right player for the Avs)  is looking over to see if Xfinity has a promo code on their advertisement instead of picking up his player standing three feet behind him. This is just mind numbingly basic stuff.

Tanguay is out high, presumably the Wild have a D changing. But everyone else is staring at the puck not doing a thing. Gabriel Landeskog and Guenin might as well be cones out there at this point. This is the final example of why I hate, hate, hate face the puck hockey.

Final Game Notes:

  • Will someone please tell Pierre he is not commentating Junior hockey? I have heard him talk about Drouin and MacKinnon on a line together for 3 years. Get some new material.
  • That being said Pierre was completely right, the Avalanche’s forwards were way too high last night and left the Avalanche defense out to dry many times on breakouts.
  • John Mitchell is one of my favorite players, I said it. Fight me.
  • Varlamov needs to have at least two of the goals that went in. He robbed the Wild on other occasions, but if Roy thinks this is the way to play hockey games, Varly needs to play out of his mind.
  • The Dubnyk regression begins!!!!!

Next: Colorado Avalanche: Give Me Hope

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