Hockey analytics has long been about what happens in the front office. How are players evaluated? What trades should be made? What players should be drafted? The game itself proves more difficult to analyze due to a lack of data. While some strides have been made in the public sphere related to zone entries, exits, and passing, there is still the significant question of: “Should new data analysis mean teams should play a certain way?”
Recently, I completed the first substantial piece on what it might look like if a team applied analytics to how their team played on the ice. Specifically, with all the tactical insights we have available to us in the public, how would a team play if governed by them? This is a short summary of how I used data to craft an ideal approach to forechecking.
What the Data Says
Since forechecking data isn’t available, myself and a few others took it upon ourselves to collect it manually. The breakdown of the preliminary study is here, but briefly we measured how aggressive the forecheck was, the result (turnover, exit, dump out, etc.), the entry against, the breakout play that was used, and so on.
Coaches are always trying to balance the risk/reward nature of how aggressive they want their team to be. Pressure too much and you give up an odd man chance against, pressure too little and you never make life difficult for your opponent. The data suggests that being more aggressive is likely the better play. Again, this is from a preliminary study and an analyst would never speak in absolute certainty, but there’s a logical trend in the data.
Table 1 – Shot generation, suppression, and differential via increasing levels of forechecking pressure
The key principle of a successful, aggressive system is the positional-flexibility given to the players. At a conference at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in 2016, I presented on optimal ways teams should attack without the puck, which highlighted the need for players to temporarily fill the ice vacated by a teammate while in the act of pressuring the opponent.
Fig. 1 – A three forward-two back forecheck.
Here is a moderate-to-aggressive forecheck using a traditional formation of three forwards and two backs (for more on why I call them backs, refer to the longer piece linked above).
The first forward in angles and forces the puck-carrier to the boards. The second forward in moves into a position to take away the passing option behind the net. The third forward assesses the situation and either moves to cutoff the board side option or stays above the center. Most often this will be moving to the boards.
The backs support the forwards and one will move to take away the pass through the middle if the forecheck is beaten, with the other back dropping deeper and covering in a more central position.
It is easiest to maintain aggression through personnel exchange. If a back steps up on the center to break up a pass, this ensures no gaps open up. Imagine if only the three forwards handled the forecheck and the two backs waited at the blue line or in the neutral zone. That’s not a cohesive attacking unit, but rather two disparate parts trying to do too much on their own.
Fig. 2 – Forecheck Reacting to an Over Play
Here our opponents have switched the puck and now we must rotate over. Players have automatic pressure routes and we want to “route to rim,” leaving our opponent with only the option to rim the puck or play it off the boards and out, both of which are advantageous to us as the forechecking team.
Our previous F2 now becomes F1 and works to angle the opposition right back to the boards, denying the central passing lane. Our left back pinches to cover the winger. Our previous F1 now becomes F2 and works to do one of two things: 1) cut off the pass behind the net, or 2) reload to a high position above the opposition center in order to attack again.
F3 and our right back read the other players and fill accordingly. If F2 reloads then F3 drives to cutoff the backside passing option. If F2 handles that, F3 slides over to fill the slot in case F1 allows a pass through. If the right back activates and locks over the opposition center, then F3 moves back to mark the weak-side winger going for a stretch pass. These two players must read the play correctly in order to maintain fluidity and an element of surprise.
This is really how hockey should be played – five players acting in one, cohesive unit; however, this can only be successful if players understand that forechecking is really about pressuring space just as much as it is pressuring a the puck-carrier.
Counter-pressing in the Offensive Zone
While people often think of the forecheck solely as the open play situations from dump ins or controlled breakouts, there are a multitude of situations in which forechecking is the best way to generate offense. These come from situations in which we are in possession and then lose it (shot or turnover) and how we seek to recover it in a structured, aggressive way. The team must move aggressively together and finish their pressure routes, or else gaps open up. As I’ve said a few times, the entire team has to buy into this aggressive identity.
This tactic has become more well-known among soccer fans and analysts as a form of pressing called Gegenpressing, or literally “counter-pressing.” When a team loses possession in an advanced position, they immediately seek to press the opposition’s ability to quickly counter. One of the masters at it, Jurgen Klopp, sums it up as “Gegenpressing is the best playmaker in the world. Hunting football.”
I alluded to shot-generation from forechecking varied based on the event (rebound, turnover, or faceoff) and there’s a clear winner in terms of “when is the incentive greatest to be aggressive?”
Table 2. Shot Rates following forechecking in rebound, turnover, and faceoff situations.
From this preliminary, it’s likely that being aggressive on all loose puck situations is preferred to anything else. As mentioned above, this is a tactic in soccer where teams press the opposition after the ball is lost in order to regain possession high up the pitch. Quality chances can be created following a quick transition forcing a turnover closer to the opponent’s goal, so it is a viable strategy, but one that depends on teamwork and personnel exchange.
I go into this and other phases of the game in much greater detail in the piece linked at the outset of this one, but this is a quick summary of how we can approach aspects of the game, forechecking in this instance, from a data analysis perspective and how the on-ice product would look after applying it.
Many coaches likely have people on their staff collecting data already, but what it can tell you and how you can apply it are essential for extracting full value of collecting it in the first place.
If you have any questions, comments, or would like to discuss this further, please feel free to reach out to me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), twitter, or check out some of my other analytical work at Hockey-Graphs.
- Honigstein, Raphael. Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvested Itself and Conquered the World.