Setting Up The Play: What is a “Cycle”?




Although pretty much every person who’s ever played hockey eventually does it, not everyone knows how to do it especially well. It’s a pretty simple concept, really: the goal is to use puck movement and possession between players to tire other players out. 

As a young hockey player in novice, one of the most important theories the coaches tried to get us to grasp was that the puck always moved faster than the player. Therefore, your line would be more efficient on the ice if you could make tape-to-tape passes. As I progressed through higher and higher levels of hockey that statement might have gotten a couple layers of paint, but the foundation was always the same: good puck movement made the team better.

A couple of weeks ago I looked back at John Tavares’ highlight-reel goal over at Matchsticks & Gasoline. The whole episode started with a failed cycle-or, more accurately, a bad pass and miscommunication on the cycle. Now, I guess technically a cycle could occur anywhere on the ice, but generally it happens in the corners of the rink. There’s a couple of reasons for this-first, the farther you can draw an opposing defenseman (or centreman) away from the net, the more likely you’ll have a lane to shoot from in the slot.

In the first diagram, we see that a defenseman in his natural positioning in front of the net can cover quite a bit of ice. In the second diagram, we are shown that the defenseman’s coverage area has shrunk dramatically. 

Secondly, having a cycle occur along the boards affords opportunities in using said boards that a player might not have if he were towards the middle of the ice-passes off the boards, safer passes to the defenseman, being able to “eat” the puck on the boards to stall time, et cetera.

The cycle actually starts when two or more players start to pass the puck between one another in a circular pattern-hence the name. Ideally, the puck moves the opposite way the players are cycling, so they can skate into the puck-making it easier to control and allowing quicker reaction time (as you can see what trajectory the puck is taking). A player will also conserve energy this way, meaning that when a lane is open he’ll be quick enough to actually get there and not waste a glorious chance.  

The big thing here is that the movement of the players, combined with the movement of the puck, allows teams to keep possession in the opposition zone-something very difficult for teams to do. As we all know, more possession leads to more wins, so this can only be a good thing. At lower levels, the cycle will open up a shooting lane in the slot quite quickly because people love to chase the puck. Players will get tired and one of the cyclers will be able to break towards the front of the net.  At the NHL level, it’s a little more complex than that.

You hear talk all the time about “perimeter play”-it’s no secret pucks directed towards the net from outside of the scoring chance area are lower percentage shots than ones taken from inside the scoring chance area. If I’m a defenseman on the ice, my main job is to keep players out of the scoring chance area to give my goalie a better shot at stopping the puck. It’s not quite that simple though: on one hand, the defenseman can leave the players on the perimeter, allowing them to have time to set up a play and make a pass without a lot a of pressure, and on the other hand if he attacks he’s going to leave a shooting area open.

Check it: 

Seidenberg, the Bruins’ defenseman, does both things. After Simmons gets a shot off in close, he moves the rebound up to the skater on the half wall. Seidenberg tries to put some pressure on that skater, but in doing that he leaves a passing lane open and Hartnell slips right into the slot, where he takes a shot uncontested and scores. It’s not quite a perfect representation, but it’s hard to find clips with the cycle in it, OK?

So, in summary-the cycle is a circular passing pattern that allows a team to keep possession of a puck in the offensive zone for long (>10 seconds) periods of time. It tires opposing players trying to chase the puck and it opens up passing lanes for high percentage shots.