CONTROL, CYCLE, CIRCULATE – THE LA KINGS’ SYSTEM AND ITS FLAWS
For the past few months, we have written at length about the LA Kings’ offensive system and its perimeter play. Today, I realized much of what we have written has skipped to the climax without the necessary foreplay. Hence, consider us here to flirt and break down an effective offensive system that relies on control (puck possession), cycle and circulation of the puck when compared to that of the Kings.
First, let’s review.
In hockey, unlike life, control is not an illusion. It is the very foundation for offense. You cannot score goals without possessing the puck and no team can possess the puck without controlling it. Whether the offensive zone entry follows a hard dump, soft dump, chase, skating with the puck over the blue line or any myriad of variations, the goal is to get the puck on your forward’s stick. This control is what we often call puck possession, the ability to hold the puck, skate with it, and force the defenders into either a passive box or other defensive system designed to take away passing lanes, shooting lanes and/or a collapse low to prevent rebounds and traffic around the goaltender.
So, you have control. Your center or wing has the puck on his stick, the defense has fallen into a box, your teammates are in position, have formed an attack triangle and each player reads and moves in a fluid motion within that triangle. Time to cycle.
You know this one, right?
See it all the time?
We sometimes watch our Kings cycle an opposing team to death?
Cycling is all about options. The puck possessor is looking for an opening. He can send (circulate) the puck lateral to hypothetically the far (weak) side for a one timer shot. If the weak side is covered and/or there is no passing lane thereto, the puck carrier can send the biscuit low to another forward (sometimes the left wing that couldn’t get open) who will then continue the cycle while looking for his own options to either forward along the boards, near the dot, or in front of the net, though the latter opportunity can present itself via a collapsing defenseman.
If the lateral and low options are covered, then the puck goes to the point where the defensemen await. Once the defenseman has the puck, he has a “shoot” option if there is a lane or he can open up time and space for the center or wing to receive the puck again. The more talented defenseman move laterally and open those shooting lanes or use deception of a fake shot to freeze the opponent (ideally, the goalie). He can then either shoot on net or pass the puck to the center or wing who now has more time and space and can therefore expose the defense by a shot or an ideal lateral pass for that deadly one timer.
If the defenseman sends the puck back to the forward and the forward doesn’t have the pass or shoot option, the cycle restarts.
The ultimate goal of all this is to find that opening, which generally occurs if the passes are quick, crisp and the circulation comes without hesitation. This creates a gap in the defensive coverage or a shooting lane.
How about our Kings?
We often see “control” come from the dump and chase. We have fairly criticized Terry Murray’s system as relying too much on this method of zone entry. While it is understandable when the defense will not give the Kings the blue line and the options are skate through the defense or dump it, we see the Kings fall back to the dump and chase even when they have the blue line to take. This “default” method of zone entry becomes predictable and allows defensemen to anticipate its execution, thus allowing them to get to the puck before the rushing forward(s).
Let’s assume though that the dump and chase was executed to perfection and the center or wing has the puck along the boards. Recall the forward has three main options. A lateral pass for a one time shot, sending the puck down low or, if those are taken, sending it up to a defenseman. For reasons I have not discovered and are left guessing, the lateral pass and one time shot is rarely if ever within the Kings’ repertoire even though it is the single most effective means to get the puck on and into the net. The one timer is a goalie’s nightmare. It is a hard and quick shot before the netminder is in position (square to the shooter) and while he is moving laterally. The goalie also has more difficulty picking up the shot’s release because he doesn’t always see it. Add to this what you hope to be some traffic in front of the net and you have a high percentage scoring opportunity, one the Kings predominantly choose to ignore.
But why? Is Murray’s crazy? Why not use the lateral pass and one timer? I am guessing here – first, it’s a higher risk play. If the pass does not connect, odds are you lose your cycle. An intercepted pass can cause a breakout. A deflected pass can disrupt the cycle and force the offensive players to regroup and regain control. Is that a good reason? No. It’s actually scared and passive hockey. It’s playing to keep the puck and not doing what the purpose of every offensive zone entry should be – a quality shot on net and goal.
And what of the other two options? There are flaws here as well. While the Kings circulate the puck low and high, more often than not the forward is looking to get the puck to the defenseman for a shot on net. In other words, the Kings’ offensive system is built on the premise that the cycle is not to possess and circulate the puck to the various options before you but to get the puck to one specific spot – the point – for a shot on net with traffic in front. This is part of the “shot mentality” we often hear about. The flaw with this may be obvious to you by this point. First, it limits options, second it forces a shot where there may not be a lane and third (perhaps most important), it becomes predictable. See that constantly intercepted puck along the half boards? That’s the defense anticipating the play to the point.
In an ideal world, on a line of hypothetically Jarret Stoll, Justin Williams and Ryan Smyth, Justin would handle the puck and look to find Stoll for a one timer. If that is not available, he would either send it low to Ryan Smyth who would look for Williams and Stoll for a one time shot, a lane for a quick wrist shot, a wrap around or a pass from behind the office to a collapsing defensemen. If that is not there, the puck can circulate to Stoll or Williams who would look for the other in the same manner or get the puck to the defenseman at the point for either a shot if there is a lane, creation of a lane by lateral movement and stick handling or a pass to either forward for a restart of the cycle. Options. Each player has several the moment the puck lands on his stick and the defense is left guessing.
Is this rocket science? Well…kind of. What I have detailed above is the ideal execution of an offensive system akin to that of the elite teams. Do the Kings have the talent to do this? Absolutely. With the exception of the top line left wing that has seen a constant rotation this season and last (I still have a gray hair over the Dwight King experiment), each one of our top 6 forwards has the skating ability, passing, shot and hockey sense to cycle effectively and set up the one timer or high percentage shot. At the point, we are blessed with Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, both offensive defensemen, and both with hard and accurate wrist and slap shots when given the opportunity to use them.
Will the Kings play this system to its maximum efficiency? That depends. Will Terry Murray let them? GO KINGS!