Saturday, 23 January 2016

Changing Strategy

This was supposed to be the home stand that made all the difference in the Winnipeg Jets' season. Nine of ten on MTS Centre ice was supposed to result in this team getting back into the wild card hunt and into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. Instead, the Jets have been lethargic, lazy, and lackluster in their home stand that has seen them fall not only out of the playoff race, but out of the conversation as well. Unless there's some magic win streak they've bought into for the last third of the season, it's time to start selling assets and activating the scouting staff.

This isn't a one- or two-player problem either. This is an entire unit - top to bottom, coaches included - that has done very little to prove that they'd be anything but a four-and-done unit like they were last year if they somehow make the playoffs. While there's effort for periods of time, this Jets team hasn't put together a complete 60-minute effort since sometime before Christmas. The result is a .500 team that looks like it doesn't want to be at the rink most nights.

I have no idea how special teams coach Pascal Vincent has survived this long with a power-play as brutal as the Jets have been. And the worst part is that the Jets are predictable: Byfuglien one-timers from the top of the umbrella or shots from the face-off circles by either Wheeler or Perreault. There's no creativity, no imagination, and no disruption of the penalty kill, and the result is that the Jets usually are heading back to pick up a puck from their own zone.

The penalty kill is worse. There are a number of teams that run the umbrella power-play setup, and the Jets consistently remain in the small box which has proven not to work time and again. Because there are passing lanes that open up in the current system when playing against an umbrella, it might be time for the Jets' penalty-killing units to adapt to their situations.

As you can see above, the umbrella can pull apart defensive coverage pretty easily depending where on the half-boards the two wings play. In doing so, this creates an easy 3-on-2 situation down low, and this forces the weak side defender to choose between two men in front of the net. If the high man on the weak side of the box doesn't drop down to cover the backdoor pass, it's an easy tap-in. Otherwise, it's a shot and a rebound. In other words, the small box doesn't work when a team employs the umbrella, especially for a team like the Jets who like to pressure the top of the umbrella. One good pass past a pressuring penalty killer, and the box breaks down entirely.

Watch the Nashville Predators use a modified umbrella where they position a player one of the low players in the high-slot for a one-timer. There's way too much space between the high penalty-killers and the low penalty-killers which allows the one-timer to work. Once the shot is off, there is absolute chaos as the box has been broken.

Instead, the Jets should immediately recognize that a diamond penalty-killing formation would be better for eliminating the one-timer and pressuring the half-board wingers. The diamond formation looks as follows:
Where the diamond breaks down is that it becomes a 2-on-1 down low with those two players in front of the net, but the weak side winger on the diamond can support the backdoor side much easier. It also would eliminate the high-slot area as the weak side winger would once again be able to support the feed into the middle of the slot. There would be pressure high on the top of the umbrella which coach Paul Maurice likes, and the cross-ice pass from face-off dot to face-off dot that so many players like - Stamkos, Ovechkin, etc. - is eliminated if everyone plays their position.

The other bonus to the diamond is that the responsibilities rotate depending on where the puck is. The high man at the point becomes a winger to eliminate the pass back to the high point of the umbrella after the puck goes to the half-boards. The wingers of the diamond can their pressure their half-board opponent the same way the point man should be pressured. The diamond works extremely well if players are talking and pressuring. The small box, however, just opens up passing lanes when players move and pressure.

The drawback to the diamond is that, again, there has to be excellent communication and good foot speed for the diamond to work. The diamond protects the slot area and the crease area when it collapses, and there needs to be a concerted effort to get back out to the point if there's a pass out to a guy with a bomb out there. That's where communication comes in because the diamond can be set up fairly quickly once again as long as players know where they're going and where the opposition is on the ice.

While there are some questions as to why Mark Stuart plays on the penalty kill, let's not kid ourselves that he's one of the few Jets who blocks shots with reckless abandon. I'm not saying he's the only defender to do so, but he could easily be replaced in the diamond with a more fleet-of-foot defenceman like Trouba or Myers who could play in front of the net. Players who have good sticks - Burmistrov, Armia, Lowry, Ladd - can be used on the wings while Little and Wheeler should be the men at the top to cover the point due to their leadership and wheels.

Look, I'm not an NHL coach by any means. There is staggering proof that this penalty-killing scheme that coach Vincent is using has not only failed the Jets in their pursuit of the Holy Grail, but will continue to plague the most-penalized team in the NHL with every two-minute span spent in the penalty box. It won't get any easier unless the entire psychology of the team changes, and it's clear that's not happening any time soon.

Until next time, keep your stick on the ice!

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