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Systems Update: Predicting Stars Tactics Under Ken Hitchcock

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The Stars played an aggressive system under Lindy Ruff that was the envy of the league two years ago. Will Ken Hitchcock take away all the fun?

2012 NHL Awards - Portraits Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Systems are a nebulous concept in hockey. We hear about them from coaches, and players. We grasp the meaning, but the execution can elude fans and analysts alike.

The Dallas Stars had a system under Lindy Ruff. They relied on strong support from the left for zone exits (call it the Jamie Benn effect), and their forecheck was a 2-1-2 formation; a formation that relied on putting pressure on blueliners to be mobile, and creative, eliminating old tactics for countering the forecheck.

But to paraphrase Roger Ebert, systems are not what they’re about, but how they’re about it.

Every team has an “aggressive forecheck” (unless you’re Guy Boucher). All teams ask their defensemen to “pinch” or activate (form Voltron as the kids say). And every coach preaches “support” until they’re blue in the face (or red depending on how much Boudreau is in your DNA).

Under Ruff, Dallas relied heavily on the 2-1-2. Hot take: it was successful. Dallas was a positive possession team every year under Ruff until the 2016-2017 season, when injuries, home sickness, and Ra’s Al Ghul’s weaponized hallucinogens took down their depth at wing. However, even at its best, the system wasn’t flawless.

Defensemen didn’t always look like they were on the same page with the high forward, which is critical on the 2-1-2 forecheck because that is who supports the pinching defenseman. Or the high forward wasn’t high enough. This was a constant problem with Cody Eakin (tactically, I mean). Or the defensemen tried to force the play, who either wasn’t equipped to carry the puck to make the most of it* or didn’t communicate to the forwards effectively.

Statistically, this showed up in the numbers as well. Ryan Stimson took a look at team forechecks, and one team stood out for the wrong reasons. In 2016 Dallas had the 3rd worst odd man shot assists against per hour, confirming what many fans already knew - the Stars were sometimes too aggressive for their own good and it allowed many odd man situations.

So everything’s gonna be different now, right? Not on paper. In St. Louis, Hitchcock used an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck, relied on strong support from his wingers for zone exits, and had his defensemen activate to maintain pressure.

But again, it’s not the what but the how.

St. Louis was in the bottom 7 on the Stimson’s odd man shot assists against chart. What did Hitchcock do differently? This Blues fan and blogger wrote a very informative, extensive breakdown of Hitchcock’s system. The entire post is well worth your time but the part that stuck out the most was this description of the Blues forecheck, in particular the job of the high forward (or F3):

Once this pressure is established, F3, who is always above the slot, can either cut off the winger on the strong side with speed on the backcheck, or the Blues defenseman can pinch in on the winger and be covered by F3. When he's cutting off the winger, F3 is looking to funnel the winger into his defender so that the defender will have an opportunity to step up in the neutral zone. The key here is that all the parts are moving and every player is moving with speed when they go to their positions.

I highly recommend the picture breakdown, or the quick video cuts of the Blues forecheck in action.

I’ve emphasized a few things in bold because these were always the things that seemed to hurt the Stars the most in the seasons Dallas struggled. The high forward would sometimes be too low, or the defender wasn’t in position to pressure the zone exit, and either couldn’t step up in the neutral zone because they were too aggressive, or weren’t properly supported themselves.

Does it mean Ruff was simply bad at his job? Ruff has been a successful coach for many years. Frankly, I doubt it. The more likely scenario is that when it comes to coaching, the difference between good and great coaching is that good coaching teaches players how to rise above bad habits. Great coaching teaches units how to rise above bad habits.

Whether or not this translates into full fledged success is a complete question mark. The current Stars are nothing like the Blues team Hitchcock had. St. Louis had Colton Parayko and Alex Pietrangelo. Dallas is one half a skinny but enthusiastic rag tag group of Nordics, and one half old man strength (wait, that sounds familiar). Will the Stars themselves be up to challenge? And will Hitchcock be prepared? Don’t keep looking like I do, but just Vojtech more days (as of this writing) until we find out.

*Patrik Nemeth is worth spotlighting here because this was never his game in the AHL, and he clearly struggled playing this style. Forwards tend to be better puck carriers, and Nemeth is not a puck carrier. This doesn’t mean I think Nemeth belongs on the roster over Methot, Hamhuis, or Lindell - but Nemeth’s game was a good example of Dallas’ style sometimes trying to fit a square peg in a round hole (ignoring for a second that Dutch settlers figured this out in the 1800’s).