Calgary played New Jersey on Friday night. I was at the game and found myself noticing several things about Calgary’s team play in each zone. I took a few notes, talked to a few people, etc.
Bear in mind this is primarily based on observations thus far from games and practice, and isn’t necessarily the gospel.
Generally-speaking, the Flames are much more structured in their own zone than in years past. While this isn’t entirely new (Hartley implemented this system a bit last year), the full training camp has meant that execution of the system is much more consistent. Several weeks of practices before games start really helps with that.
The general scheme is surprisingly similar to a penalty kill. The defensemen stay down low, the wingers stay high on the blueline to pressure the offensive point-men, and the center operates effectively as a “rover.” The idea is seemingly to block passing and shooting lanes and force teams to the outside as much as possible. When teams try to carry the puck inside the coverage box, ideally they get hit or stick-checked. The rover also helps with providing puck support for battles on the boards.
Obviously this approach has some strengths and weaknesses. One of the weaknesses is that it can seem a bit passive, depending on the personnel involved. As seen against Washington, it can cause unintentional tips or screens of the Flames own goalie. That said, it can also be somewhat of a waiting game. If used properly, it keeps the offensive team on the outside and playing the perimeter. If the attacking team isn’t patient, they may either (a) try to force a pass through the coverage, creating a turnover or (b) try to carry the puck into the “box,” potentially creating another turnover. The “rover” assignment itself can be a great resource for creating turnovers and quick transitions.
The club is also quite structured in the offensive zone, although not quite as rigidly as in the defensive side of the ice.
The general “box” approach continues here, although the role of the “rover” appears to be two-fold. He cycles position with the two wingers to create breaks in the defensive coverage and open up shooting and passing lanes. He also cheats back towards the blueline when the defensemen pinch into the zone, another strategy designed to open up holes in coverage.
The rotation of the rover and wingers is also useful for creating tips and screens, as well as allowing for quick transitions back to the neutral zone in the event of a turnover.
On offensive side of the puck (e.g., Calgary has the puck), the approach appears to be using speed and movement (such as criss-crossing prior to entering the zone) to confuse defenders and delay the defensive team from solidifying their coverage.
On the defensive side (e.g., Calgary is chasing), the approach appears to merely be to stay in-between passing lanes to force the offensive player to the outside and prevent any criss-crossing and allow defensive coverage to solidify.
The general approach for line changes appears to be a carry-in apprach rather than a dump-in. Instead of giving up possession by just tossing the puck into the zone and heading to the bench for a change, the puck-carrier rushes into the zone while the other players change up, then attempts to pass the puck to a fresh player and go for a change himself. Like many of the other strategies employed, this relies on the player staying on longer not completely running out of gas on a long shift.
SUM IT UP
It’s pretty early and things may change, but it appears that the Flames are (a) much more structured than they were in 2012-13 or (b) simply better at sticking to the plan than they used to be. Either way, it’s paid some dividends thus far.