Sabres System Series: Part 1 - Neutral Zone Defense

July 10, 2018

(Writers Note: Throughout the summer I will be diving into the systems Phil Housley and his coaching staff attempted implement with the Buffalo Sabres. A common narrative is that Housley attempted a system designed for a team with more skill than the 17/18 Buffalo Sabres had. Let's dive in to see what those systems actually were and try to figure out what, if anything, needs to be improved upon from a systemic stand point.)

 

Part 2 - Defensive Zone Structure & Breakouts

 

The general purpose of neutral zone defense is to force turnovers on the rush and prevent the opposing team from making a clean entry into your defensive zone. In the Sabres case, they set up in a traditional 1-2-2 formation as seen in the diagram below. 

With the 1-2-2 formation, the forward at the top is attempting to direct the puck carrying defenseman toward another forward near the boards in order to force the defenseman into a pressurized decision making situation. The goal is to get them to make a poor pass and turn the puck over. If the opposing team manages to break through the first line of defense, the same thing is attempted with the defensemen at the blue line stepping up and forcing the opposing forward to make a play with the puck. At the blue line there is an added dimension of difficulty for the puck carrier because not only do they need to make a good pass or move around the defense, they also need to stay onside in the process. 

 

Here are a few examples of the 1-2-2 being executed properly by the Sabres

After Okposo sticks with the defensive puck carrier, Nelson steps up up on the Toronto forward at the red line just as the pass reaches him, preventing a clean retrieval and lost control of the puck.

 

In this example Pouliot goes too deep before curling back. Once Baptise activated as the attacker, Pouliot should have pivoted back to the slot area to prevent an outlet pass. Luckily for Benoit, Baptiste did a good job of directing the Toronto player toward the boards where the remaining Sabres were in good position and led to Scandella stepping up on the Toronto forward at the blue line, forcing a turnover.  

 

In this clip the Leafs make a nice reversal pass to bypass the high forward in the 1-2-2 but the Sabres read the play well. Rodrigues lines up the TOR forward and cuts him off at the boards and directs him right into Ristolainen who is able to lay a solid body check and force a turnover. 

 

Unsurprisingly, the last place Sabres had a knack for failing to execute properly in all facets of the game, including their neutral zone defense. 

 

A common flaw in the Sabres execution of the 1-2-2 was when their wingers misread the flow of the play and got caught flat footed around the red line, giving the opposing team an easy outlet out of the trap. Here is an example from their game in Nashville this past season. 

Mittelstadt directs the puck carrier toward the boards and forces a pass, but Okposo is caught back too far and flatfooted, giving Kyle Turris time and space to easily retrieve and pass the puck across the ice to the open man. If Okposo had read the play properly he would've stepped up on Turris just as he received the puck and almost certainly would've caused a turnover to Mittelstadt, who had curled toward the direction of the pass, or Rodrigues, who had already begun his approach to the far side boards to support Okposo. 

 

Another common mistake is the defense failing to step up at the blue line and pressure the puck carrier. Instead, the defensemen tend to allow opposing forwards easy access into the offensive zone when they should be making their zone entry incredibly difficult in a high pressure area of the ice at the blue line. 

Besides the fact that Wilson just circles aimlessly in the slot, the rest of the Sabres players are in pretty good position to take away time and space from the Preds forwards in the neutral zone. However, instead of stepping up at the blue line, Guhle backs off and just "plays it safe" (even though it's actually less effective), allowing Smith to carry the puck in untouched. Guhle's teammates had the remaining Preds forwards covered well, so if Guhle steps up, Smith would've needed to make an incredible move with the puck to get around Guhle or just dump it in since there were no passing options. 

I suspect that a common theme in this series will be that the systems Phil Housley has implemented are perfectly reasonable and effective, but the 17/18 Sabres just didn't have the talent to execute consistently. When the Sabres struggled with the neutral zone defense it was often due to their inclination toward playing conservatively in what should otherwise be an attacking situation. It's possible that the team's lack of foot speed contributed to their defensive attacking aversion, but even still, they had plenty of opportunities to attack and force turnovers in spite of their lack of speed, but they often opted to take the easy route instead.

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