Sabres System Series: Part 2 - Defensive Zone Structure & Breakouts

July 17, 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 1 - Neutral Zone Defense


When I began working on this series my initial plan was to write separate posts on the Sabres D-zone structure and their breakout system, but after I started watching game tape and taking in more information, I came to the conclusion that that was a silly idea because the D-zone structure and breakout go hand in hand. 


One last thing, if you've played hockey at any sort of competitive level that implemented basic hockey systems, this post will probably be pretty boring for you because the Sabres used the most basic D-zone structure and breakout system that every hockey player has learned. That's not to say it was wrong for them to use it, it just wasn't unique in any way.

If someone were to ask what the primary goal of a team D-zone structure is, I think the common sense answer would be, to prevent goals. While that's technically true, I think a better answer is that the goal of a teams D-zone structure is to get the puck out of the defensive zone as cleanly and quickly as possible so they can get back on the attack. 


When teams set up in the defensive zone, they have a few goals in mind. 

  1. Pressure the puck carrier and try to force a turnover.

  2. Keep the puck out of the "house" (diagram below) where most goals are scored from.

  3. Be in a position to break out quickly when possession changes hands. 



Before we dive in to the set up, here is a quick jargon explainer if you aren't familiar. Strong Side refers to the side of the ice that the puck is on. So if the puck is on the left side of the ice, the strong side winger is the left winger. Same thing applies to defensemen.


So how do the Sabres set up in the defensive zone?


Much like the 1-2-2 neutral zone formation we discussed in our first post , the Sabres D-zone set up is relatively standard. The weak side defenseman hangs out near the crease area keeping opposing forwards covered around the net. The strong side defenseman challenges the puck carrier below the face-off dots. The weak side winger covers the slot area clogging up cross ice passing lanes and preventing easy entry into the slot for the puck carrier. The strong side winger challenges the puck carrier and/or the defenseman at the point. The Center provides puck support wherever the puck goes and acts as a third defenseman when the puck is below the face-off dots, either clearing out bodies in front or challenging the puck carrier head on. 


Here are 2 basic diagram of the set up, one with the puck at the point, the other with the puck in the corner. The red players are the attacking team. The blue players are the defending team.




Here is a video from a game against Montreal this year demonstrating where each player sets up following a D-zone face-off loss


As you can see, D-zone coverage tends to be relatively straight forward. Cover your area and prevent easy skating access, passes, and shots in and around the house. Given the nature of hockey there are times when you need to improvise and do something outside of the norm, but in general this is what most teams, including the Sabres, attempt to set up each time. 


Outside of the standard structure in the D-zone, one thing that is interesting to observe is the center position. The center's primary job is to be near the puck as much as possible. This is where the cliche of Hockey IQ can be applied accurately because the center has to be able to anticipate where the puck could be heading next while at the same time preventing easy access to the house. The center want's to pounce on the puck as soon as it comes loose or a teammate recovers it so they can quickly break the puck out of the zone.


Here is a video of Jack Eichel tracking the puck wherever it goes.


Here is another clip of Eichel tracking the puck against Tampa

Being a center is exhausting. 



What Happens When They Finally Retrieve the Puck

The Sabres breakout is very standard, I'm sure you're sensing a theme here. 


Once the defensive team recovers the puck everyone jumps into a puck support breakout structure. Let's say the LD recovers the puck below the circle, immediately the LW will try to get to open space near the boards to give the LD a passing option. At the same time the C will swing low to give the LD a another passing option in motion and then swing up through the circle to give the LW a passing option. While all of that is happening near the circle, the RW will cut across the ice toward the far boards. Theoretically the RW could be a long pass option but that's rarely the case. Usually what they are intending to do is give the C some puck support as they attempt to exit the zone. So the C can pass it directly to the RW who is streaking across, or they can bounce it off the boards around the opposing defender and have the RW retrieve it in the Neutral zone. 


Here is a Diagram of the basic breakout. 


It's all about puck support on the breakout. Give your teammates a passing option while at the same time putting your self in a  position to help if they are well covered by the opposing team. 


Here are a few examples of the Sabres accomplishing this breakout.

I'm pretty sure Nolan's pass here was done blindly, but nevertheless they accomplished the goal. An interesting piece of this sequence is that Larsson, the center, helped get the puck in the corner and send it up the boards to Nolan. If you watch the slot area you see Falk read that Larsson is deep in the corner and jump up into the play, where the center would be normally, to provide secondary puck support.


It's not the prettiest breakout but here's a pretty fluid example of it working.


In this last clip not involving the 4th line, Scandella ties up the Tampa forward, allowing O'Reilly to chip the puck up to Nylander leading to a quick breakout despite the weak pass from Nylander to Reinhart.


You can see that even in these three successful breakouts, the Sabres had serious issues executing properly. Weak and often blind passes were far more common this season than they should ever be for an NHL team. We'd be here all day If I decided to through in a bunch of failed breakout gifs. 

In general the Defensive Zone and Breakout structures were fine and, with proper NHL talent, should be much better going forward. There's an argument to be made the Housley could be more creative in his defensive systems (we'll see if that's also true offensively in the coming weeks), but the 17/18 team failed to execute these basic systems consistently, so I can understand why Housley may have avoided more advanced techniques. 

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