Going back and re-listening to John Stevens’ Tuesday media scrum, there was one team focus that he mentioned that caught my ear during transcribing. It was shared in commenting and brought up an interesting debate, and like many users, I wanted to know a little bit more about a team preference that “the faster that you defend, the more you have the puck,” and how Stevens would like to see the Kings “really continue to get faster defending so we get the puck more and continue to push the pace with the puck offensively.”
Playing faster on the defensive side of the puck. Doesn’t that loosely depict the schematic aspect of why Vegas was so successful last season – that the Golden Knights hellaciously pursued the puck and did whatever was lawfully necessary to win pucks back through relentless back pressure? The Kings’ zeniths earlier this decade, and their possession advantages, were also built largely on fast defending and checking.
“I think Vegas is a great example,” Stevens said while noting the Golden Knights’ ability to create speed from their pressure. “…I think that’s something we’re all trying to do. The first thing we show every year is tracking and back pressure with our defense, and when you get the puck, you’re thinking fast the other way. Just because you’re not a fast player doesn’t mean you can’t play fast. Look at that game the other night against Vancouver – I thought Phaneuf and Fantenberg were two of our fastest players, just in terms of moving pucks quickly to speed. That’s what you want to see. The puck can make you look fast just by doing things fast, where if you don’t move the puck quickly to an open guy it shuts down and you end up standing around and not being very fast. But Vegas is a great example. They change direction faster than any team in the league.”
Vegas isn’t the only team to play this way, as Stevens would go on to point out. During their championship window, Chicago was a team that relied heavily on the excellent back pressure from players like Marian Hossa and others to force dump-ins and more winnable puck battles.
Led by the efforts of players like Alex Iafallo, the Kings have their own forwards-slash-puck hounds capable of defending fast through relentless pressure. “He’s a little waterbug out there,” Dustin Brown said. “Good stick, and he’s played really well, so that helps. … It’s not really about individuals. On the defensive side of the puck, you kind of want to not be able to tell the difference between one player and the next because we play the same way and play the right way.”
That thrust was effective against a slightly less experienced Vancouver lineup Monday night in Salt Lake City, a game after which Stevens praised the team’s checking, particularly from the fourth line. When forechecking effectively, they’re regularly able to move up and down the ice in five-man units with proper support.
“I think that’s probably one thing we’ve changed – having our D more connected,” Brown said. “As a forward, I like that because I think you keep more pucks alive. Forecheck’s hard work. If we can get our D more involved, even if it’s five, 10 more pucks alive in a game, it makes a big, big difference from staying in the O-zone and creating more.”
John Stevens, on whether NHL teams will emulate Vegas’ pursuit and back pressure:
Quite honest, you go back 10 years, I’ve always believed in playing that way. I’ll share the story – when my kids started playing hockey as young kids, I went to the rink and one of the parents asked me if my son played offense or defense, and I said, ‘when we don’t have the puck, he plays defense, and when we have it, he plays offense.’ He’s not a defenseman and a forward, it’s if you don’t have it, you get it back. When you have it, you attack. I’ve always believed in that. Vegas, the one thing that’s allowed them to do that is they’re a very deep team. They had five lines last year that could’ve dressed in the playoffs of guys that had experience, and they had four lines that can play regular that played with a lot of pace that hunted the puck, and then once they got the puck, there was a really quick decision to go the other way, and everyone was thinking that way. That’s no different than I think most teams want to play. I think the days of slowing it down and dragging it back and being methodical, moving the puck up the ice, I think everyone wants to take advantage of getting the puck moving forward, spending as little time in your own zone as you can. Everyone has different ideas on how you do that, but it’s not unique to Vegas. San Jose does a great job of playing that way, obviously Pittsburgh’s done a great job of playing that way. I think every team in the league is leaning that way where you want to play fast, but when you don’t have the puck, you’re not drifting behind the puck, you’re hunting it down to try and create a lack of time and space for your opponent. So, now, you’ve created an offensive gap to go the other way.
Dustin Brown, on whether teams will emulate Vegas’ pursuit and back pressure:
The league is probably moving towards that, but I think we’re going to be our own team. We’re not going to model ourselves after any other team. We have a select group of guys with some skill sets that aren’t on other teams. I think it’s up to those guys to lead the way in playing faster, but like I said, I think we have a few guys in here that have skill sets that are hard to find in this league, and playing faster will only help that.
-Lead photo via Juan Ocampo/NHLI