"Low-to-high, get pucks through, that's how we score." - Barry Trotz to his team at the first intermission of their January 1 game against Chicago, via EPIX' Road to the NHL Winter Classic, Episode 4
Nearly six years ago (how can it be that long?), Brooks Laich dropped the most memorable of his folksy hockey quotes on the local hockey media as he noted the importance of establishing a net-front presence: "If you want money, go to the bank," Laich quipped. "If you want bread, go to the bakery. If you want goals, go to the net."
That's all well and good, but it's really only half of the equation - plenty of people have gone to the bank, bakery and net only to find the money gone, the danishes sold out, and the puck, well, nowhere to be found. A team's traffic in front of the opposing goalie is only going to be as good as that team's ability to get shots or passes to the net, and that's the point Trotz is hitting on above.
Conceptually, what Trotz is asking his team to do is cycle the pucks down low to pull the defending forwards below the face-off circles, and then to kick the puck high to the points where the Caps defensemen should have the room to get a shot to the net. As all the opposing forwards turn to look at the points and provide pressure, forwards crash the net and look for rebounds, hopefully catching the opposing defenders watching the puck and sleeping on their assignments.
It's pretty old school thinking (probably the ideal follow-up to a good ol' dump-in), and for more detail, we can refer back to our old friend Hockey Plays and Strategies:
For an example of what it looks like in action, here's Joel Ward's game-winner against Chicago earlier in the season (not to be confused with Troy Brouwer's game-winner against Chicago earlier in the season):
Or, more recently, Nicklas Backstrom's goal from the other night:
It's not a big surprise to see Trotz favoring an old-school approach to offense, but ultimately what matters isn't whether the approach is old school or avant-garde - what matters is whether or not it's working. Taking a look at the numbers on the season, there appears to be room for optimism. First, the five-on-five shot-generation (individual Corsi-For rate, via Hockey Analysis, through Saturday's game) from the point:
|Defenseman||2013-14 iCorsi/60||2014-15 iCorsi/60||Delta||% Delta|
The defensemen are taking more shots this year compared to last year, and the result is more pronounced when you look beyond Mike Green (who has never been afraid to shoot the puck or contribute on offense). Green's individual Corsi per 60 is up slightly from last year, but John Carlson, Nate Schmidt, and Jack Hillen (in the tiniest of samples for both seasons) have all seen their individual Corsi jump by more than one attempt per 60. Karl Alzner is the only incumbent to see his individual Corsi rate decline from last year, but he's never been an offense-first guy and he's playing with Matt Niskanen, who has the second most raw Corsi attempts among defensemen (though only due to injuries to Green and Schmidt - Niskanen is fourth in terms of iCorsi/60).
Further, when you take a look at where the Caps' shots are coming from, they've seen a boost in their point shots, relative to league average:
The shot attempts by the defense tells part of the story, but the production is even more telling. In 2013-14, the Capitals defensive corps averaged .28 points per game. This year, the defensive corps is averaging .37 points per game. That's an increase in production by about 1/3, nothing to sneeze at. The incumbent defensemen have also been much more involved in the offense, generally speaking. Last season, Green's individual points percentage (IPP, the percentage of goals scored while he was on the ice on which he was credited with a point) was 48.8 last year. This year it's 62.5 (which is the highest mark for any defenseman in the league, min. 400 minutes). Carlson has gone from 22.2 last season to 58.3 this season. Alzner has gone from 36.6 to 42.3. Only Schmidt has seen some decline in his IPP, going from 21.7 to 17.6.
So, whether looking at defensive shot rates, shot locations, or defensive production it would seem that Trotz's low-to-high strategy is "working." As in, the team is playing the way Trotz wants them to play in the offensive zone. Unfortunately, point shots are generally very low percentage shots. Unless a team gets a deflection or a rebound, point shots are usually going to be routine saves for an NHL goalie.
"Well that's why the forwards crash the net - to screen the goalie and gobble up rebounds."
Of course that's true, but deflections and rebounds are far less frequent than generally assumed in the common discourse. Relying on a high volume of low-percentage shots hoping for the infrequent high-percentage deflection or rebound doesn't seem like a tenable approach. The percentages are not in your favor by running your offense through the points, but it's damn near axiomatic in the annals of NHL coaching. Is low-to-high just a vestige of old-time hockey?
Not necessarily. The highest percentage shots generally come on the rush, but every NHL coach knows this and coaches their team to prevent shots against on the rush - that's pretty much how the last version of the Caps scored goals and everyone knew it... and was more or less able to stop it. Even when teams breakdown and you're given a rush opportunity, the goalie is still more likely than not going to make the save. What then? A team still needs a strategy to attack when they aren't given a rush opportunity, or when a rush opportunity has been saved.
Teams could try to set up back door passes or one-timers from the slot, but those are turnovers waiting to happen against an organized defense (and almost all NHL defenses are very well organized). By process of elimination, that leaves cycling as the alternative to scoring on the rush. And, back to whether it's "working," it sure looks like there's some improvement in the even strength offense. Last year the Caps scored just under 1.7 goals per game at even strength. This year it's just under two goals per game (1.9). Those numbers don't look like a huge difference, but that would equate to 18-20 even strength goals on the season - enough for roughly three wins on the season.
Sure, it's not as sexy as scoring on a rush, it's not as high percentage, but it protects your team defensively while you work to breakdown the opposing defense. It takes a lot of work and effort to effectively cycle, but not as much work and effort as it takes to effectively defend a cycle.
And that may be the key point to all of this. When you're cycling on offense, you aren't playing defense. That fact alone should go a long way to getting certain forwards to buy in.