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The Wilke Weekly | Coaching and the zen of NHL defense

Ottawa Senators head coach Guy Boucher stands behind his bench during the third period of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final in the NHL Stanley Cup hockey playoffs in Pittsburgh, Sunday, May 21, 2017. The Pittsburgh Penguins won 7-0. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

If you’ll indulge me for a minute, I want to get a bit esoteric in today’s column. Not too out there, but I’m going to stretch some metaphors in ways they probably shouldn’t be.

For all the excellent work that has been done with NHL advanced stats, there are still some extremely difficult problems to solve. One of the most frustrating is that it’s still hard to find a stat that would be classified as repeatable with a high degree of confidence quantifying a player’s defensive talents.

You see (and this is where the metaphors happen), in hockey, offense is like a liquid. It flows, it looks for open spaces. It requires quick thinking, quick feet and quick hands. While a line does play as a unit, players are encouraged to be independent to confuse the defense.

Defense, on the other hand, is a solid.

The best way to stop a liquid from going everywhere? Put it in a container.

Defense requires that every member knows their role, and can anticipate where their teammates are playing. If one player is trying to force the turnover, the other four can’t be caught out of position. Playing defense requires a plan, a framework, a structure.

There’s no better illustration of this than on the penalty kill. The most successful penalty kills have a distinct structure to them. While a power play unit will pass the puck around, the penalty killers remain calm and composed, each knowing their role. Bad penalty kills look like chaos on ice.

This, in my opinion, is why we’ve had so much more success separating out true offensive “talent” with advanced stats. You can’t teach chaos. It’s part of why scouts look for things like “vision” and “hockey IQ” in addition to size and speed. And because you can’t teach it, it’s far less likely to be influenced by which coach a player has, at least from a tactics standpoint.

Corey Sznajder is a well-known analyst who has tracked NHL games for years, recording the kind of data that the NHL doesn’t offer, such as passes and zone entries. He admits that very few NHL coaches use actual structures for their attack.

This is why the emphasis from a coaching perspective usually falls on defensive play. Coaches are more likely to have success coaxing better defense out of a team than they will improving the offense.

There’s probably no better example of this than the success Guy Boucher and his infamous “system” had with the Ottawa Senators this past season. Ottawa’s captain and generational defenseman Erik Karlsson was famously snubbed for the 2016 Norris Trophy despite putting up a historic season in points because he wasn’t considered defensively sound.

The argument, while ultimately incorrect, did have evidence in its favor. The 2015-16 Senators bled shots against at an alarming rate, even when Karlsson was on the ice. But digging deeper, it was obvious that Karlsson was being dragged down by his teammates — without him, the shots against were even worse.

All the evidence pointed to a complete lack of defensive structure throughout the Senators’ game. And that is exactly what Boucher aimed to fix with his “boring” trap scheme. While Ottawa still has some major weaknesses, its new head coach has majorly moved the needle on its ability to provide solid defense.

The Dallas Stars are certainly hoping that new (old?) head coach Ken Hitchcock will bring the structure that their defense so sorely lacked last season. Phil Housley, the Buffalo Sabres new bench boss, will be looking to do the same for a team that seemed to lack direction.

There are, however, a few teams that didn’t change coaches, but could probably benefit from a hiring that places more emphasis on defensive structure.

For one, the Winnipeg Jets are a team full of skill, both when considering their dangerous scoring lines and when looking at some of the names on the blue line. Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers are all players most teams would love to have. Yet the Jets’ shots against tend to hover from average to below average.

Here is where coaching can make a difference. Talent alone isn’t enough to make a team defensively sound. Winnipeg has plenty of talent. But it doesn’t have a structure in the vein of successful defenses like the Nashville Predators or Anaheim Ducks.

Instead of being a solid, the defense is a block of lime jello, wiggling this way and that, desperate to melt back into water after encountering the slightest drop of liquid.

Of course, there are a hundred different components that go into successful coaching, but as you watch games this season, ask yourself — has your coach provided the defensive structure the team needs? If the answer is no, it might be time for a change.

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