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Comparing Joel Quenneville, Jeremy Colliton’s defensive zone strategy for Blackhawks

How did the first-year head coach remodel Chicago’s defensive zone system?

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Blackhawks were accustomed to a hybrid zone scheme under Joel Quenneville. In this strategy, all five skaters have a role to fill and ‘zone’ to cover depending on which side of the ice the opponent is controlling the puck.

Strong-side defenseman (LD) - Close the gap on the puck carrier and take away their space. Keep them on the outside of the ‘support’ and ‘net zone.’ If possible, finish a check on the puck carrier to lower their probability of escaping the ‘hit zone.’

Center (C) - Support the strong-side defenseman by staying in between the net and the puck carrier. Act as a second line of defense if the puck carrier manages to escape the strong-side defenseman and attack the net. If an additional opposing player comes toward the ‘hit zone’ to support the puck carrier, shadow that secondary opponent. Refrain from following them behind the net and don’t let them get to the crease.

Weak-side defenseman (RD) - Protect the crease and keep an eye out for an opposing player sneaking backdoor. Be prepared to receive a pass behind the net from the strong-side defenseman or center if they manage to steal the puck or knock it your way. If the opponent moves the puck to your side of the ice, then there’s a role reversal with the strong-side defenseman.

High-support winger (LW) - Take away the passing lane to the opposing defenseman. Be ready for an outlet pass on the wall from the strong-side defenseman or center if they force a turnover. If the puck carrier moves up the wall do not collapse on them unless they move into the ‘high-support’ zone. Collapsing too early will free up space for the defenseman to receive a pass and take a shot. This winger has an important role in chipping the puck out or hitting the center on a breakout if they receive a pass after a turnover.

Slot-support winger (RW) - Patrol the high slot and use your stick to take away passing lanes to opposing forwards looking for a one-timer opportunity from puck carriers. Be ready to skate to the boards to catch a rimmed puck or to take a breakout pass from the weak-side defenseman if they end up with the puck.

These roles and rules are not set in stone. A weird bounce, a late line change or a long shift can knock the defensive strategy out of whack. Under those circumstances, Quenneville allowed players to collapse toward the slot, find the closest opponent and cover them. He hoped the result would be a blocked shot, a hurried shot from distance that can be easily frozen for a whistle or a forced turnover.

The strategy was effective as the Blackhawks ranked in the top 12 in the league in goals against in eight of Quenneville’s 10 seasons with the team.

One of the major reasons it was successful was that the most optimal personnel were in place to utilize Q’s strategy. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were in their primes, Niklas Hjalmarsson blocked hundreds of shots every season, Johnny Oduya, Brian Campbell, Michael Rozsival added experience and reliability on the back end, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews dominated the defensive zone, Andrew Shaw took hits to chip the puck out and depth forwards that excelled in the defensive zone populated the bottom six.

There are only seven players left from the 2014-15 Stanley Cup championship team and the game has evolved. It’s a lot faster and there are more highly-skilled forwards and offensive-minded defensemen throughout NHL lineups. During the 2017-18 season, Quenneville experienced the most goals against during his tenure with Chicago. One of the reasons was Corey Crawford’s concussion that knocked him out for 47 games. Another was Quenneville’s system did not gel with a roster filled with inexperienced forwards and defensemen, as well as veterans who were unable to match the elevated speed throughout the league.

Jeremy Colliton remodeled the defensive zone strategy and implemented a man-to-man system when he was promoted as Quenneville’s replacement in November.

Once the puck moves into the defensive zone in Colliton’s system, defenders choose a man to cover. Usually, two wingers take the opposing defenseman, and the center and two defensemen cover the opposing forwards. The man-to-man system relies on defenders to communicate their assignments and for wingers to have a more active role in the defensive zone. In today’s NHL opposing defenseman will try to slide down the wall, move toward the high slot or interchange positions with forwards. In the man-to-man system, wingers are expected to collapse with mobile defensemen and shadow them instead of staying in their ‘zone’ of control. If there is a turnover, the weak side winger will force their assigned defenseman to move into the neutral zone as they look for a stretch pass and a quick transition the other way.

In Colliton’s first 34 games, defensive zone coverage was all over the place and the team went 10-18-6.

  • 3.7 goals against per game
  • 35.5 shots against per game
  • 45.8-percent of scoring chances in Chicago’s favor
  • 48.2 Corsi-For rating at even strength

Chicago consistently fell behind by two or more goals, usually because of a blown assignment that led to a converted high-danger scoring chance against (HDSCA). Colliton was implementing a new system on the fly with little practice time and players were used to Quenneville’s approach. Colliton also didn’t have one of his best defensive defenseman in Connor Murphy, who missed the first 15 games in that 34-game stretch.

In Colliton’s last 33 games, the Blackhawks were 20-10-3.

  • 3.3 goals against per game
  • 48.1-percent of scoring chances in Chicago’s favor
  • 49.6 percent Corsi-For

The man-to-man system created an aggressive approach that led to forced turnovers, quick regroups out of the defensive zone using stretch passes and less time chasing the puck around. As a result, possession metrics started improving, scoring chances for the Blackhawks went up 2.3-percent and goals-against went down.

One issue with man-to-man coverage is that a blown assignment often leads to a HDSCA. Here is an example from a game in early March against Dallas.

Brandon Saad left Tyler Seguin all alone in the high slot to chase the puck carrier even though Erik Gustafsson and Dylan Sikura were already attacking Roope Hintz. The puck bounced to Tyler Seguin, who had a 2-on-1 with Alexander Radulov against Duncan Keith. Keith was preparing to block a shot, but Seguin slid the puck down to Radulov for a goal. This HDSCA would have never occurred if Saad had stayed patient and covered Seguin in the high slot.

The Blackhawks averaged 12.0 HDSCA per game with Colliton, according to Natural Stat Trick. This led to the most converted HDSCA into goals against in the league. A full training camp under Colliton and continued development from younger players should help the team become more consistent defensively on a shift-to-shift basis and reduce blown assignments.