• Backchecking Hard Is For Suckers

    by  • February 1, 2013 • Uncategorized • 14 Comments

    During last year’s Stanley Cup Finals, one of CBC’s narratives was “Ilya Kovalchuk is a lazy Russian.” Jim Hughson kind of had a running thing going, like Banky in Mallrats with the kid on the escalator, about Kovalchuk’s apparent effort level. Now, this was kind of dumb because Kovalchuk was reportedly playing with a bad back but CBC was just whipping him. In Game 5, Kovalchuk came slowly up the ice as Justin Williams scored to tie the game for LA. Glenn Healy had this to say:

    “How about the effort level of Kovalchuk on the back check? Or, maybe redefine that as the lack of effort level of Kovalchuk. And that’s what opened up the speed, that’s what backed up the D and that’s allowed Williams to be smart enough to cut to the middle.”


    Never mind that the puck had come out of the side of the ice that Kovalchuk wasn’t on or that Travis Zajac hadn’t busted back either – Kovalchuk was the guy who Healy hammered.

    Later on in the period though, we saw that sometimes not busting back into the zone pays off. You can’t see Kovalchuk in this (admittedly sort of abstract) shot. He’s lollygagging back. It’s a 3 on 3 though in the Devils’ end.

    The Devils clear the puck up the boards and, because he hadn’t been engaged in a showy North American display of puritanism, Kovalchuk was in a nice place to pick it up with time to move it on.

    Kovalchuk makes the pass to Parise and gets hit, taking him out of the play. The Devils d-man (number 2) sees this and, in a display of Dutch-influenced Total Hockey, scoots up the ice and takes his spot on the rush.

    The Devils get a good scoring chance out of the play – note that there are three Devils in deep and none of them are Kovalchuk, who has covered for the pinching defenceman.

    Kovalchuk finally jumps into the offensive zone, as Marek Zidlicky resumes his defensive posture. What does Jim Hughson say about this? “Kovalchuk didn’t hustle enough to get to the puck!”

    I thought of this last night when the Oilers scored their first goal against San Jose. Nail Yakupov had the puck and crossed the blue line. Lots of Sharks were back in position.

    The five Sharks were back pretty quickly and took away the centre of the ice.

    Three Oilers and five Sharks converge on the front of the net. But WHERE is Nail going with the puck?



    There’s an English football manager, guy named Sam Allardyce, who’s famous for a couple of things, one of which is breaking down corner kicks obsessively, determining the area to which the ball is most likely to be cleared and stationing a guy there to take position. I assume that at least some coaches in the NHL have done this sort of analysis, although I doubt anywhere close to all of them or all teams have. To me, there’s an obvious trade off in having all three of your forwards come back as hard as they can on the rush, in that while they can add defensive value by putting pressure on the puck carrier or filling up space in the area around the net, you lose their presence between the opposing forwards and defencemen and the ability to turn a puck up ice quickly with numbers. Also, you open yourself up to trailers, as the Sharks did last night.

    To me, this is a tactical question, not a moral one and I’d be interested in a tactical answer. It’d be an easy enough thing for some team that was interested to come up with a solid answer – there’s no reason you couldn’t build a factory in some low wage jurisdiction and employ a hundred people for pennies an hour, breaking down hockey games and tracking the results when the wingers come back hard versus when they don’t. For all I know, the Sharks did the tactically correct thing there. The point is though, that I don’t know the answer. I doubt that Glenn Healy or Jim Hughson do either. Given that that’s the case, I don’t know why they persist in talking about this issue in moral terms, as a question of hard work versus lazy Europeans (and it’s a tag that gets applied to Ales Hemsky too, amongst others) rather than as a tactical unknown.

    Email Tyler Dellow at tyler@mc79hockey.com


    14 Responses to Backchecking Hard Is For Suckers

    1. February 1, 2013 at

      ‘I don’t know why they persist in talking about this issue in moral terms, as a question of hard work versus lazy Europeans (and it’s a tag that gets applied to Ales Hemsky too, amongst others) rather than as a tactical unknown.’

      Because they’re lazy and ignorant or their producers have told them to flog that storyline.

    2. Darren
      February 1, 2013 at

      Given that hockey is most often played in a North-South fashion, with very little pass-backs while in transition, it’s usually a safe bet to track back like the Sharks did here. If it were soccer, the last man is silly for coming so deep, because you know the support in space is the most dangerous spot on the ice, as shown by frame 3 (Oh).
      I suppose the question is, what are the odds of a player stopping and looking for the trailing like Yakupov did? Most times, it probably doesn’t happen, although I would speculate that the last Shark back into the zone did in fact make an error by not realizing that Yakupov was looking for the trailer, and went too deep.

      • dawgbone
        February 1, 2013 at

        Not really. You always want to have your D stay with the guys going low and your F picking up the rest of the players as they join. Nothing wrong with having extra players in your D zone, but when they leave the entire top of the slop unprotected it causes problems.

        You don’t see this in the NHL too often because guys usually don’t have the kind of time that Yakupov did. He basically stopped and was uncontested for a couple of seconds.

        If you watch/play much beer league hockey, you’ll see this is a pretty common occurrence. Puck carrier enters the zone, the opposition over-commits low. Whether the puck carrier ever bothers to look back is another thing, but see how often it happens.

        • roddie
          July 12, 2013 at

          As a D, I see that it happens a lot, and the puck carrier looks back 0.0000001% of the time. :-)

    3. Triumph
      February 1, 2013 at

      I happened to be watching this Edmonton game – wasn’t it a 3 on 2 up the ice with Yakupov? I seem to remember it felt like the Oilers had numbers, but San Jose closed hard. I suspect assignments got confused at that point because I can’t imagine San Jose wants its forwards arrayed as they are in picture 3. Whatever defenseman pinched for the Oilers seems to have caused an awful lot of confusion for the forwards there. I would think ideally someone would be stationed higher to at least pressure the trailer to the outside – Clowe (the RW there) is covering uncontested ice.

      I’m no tactician, but yeah, seemed like overeagerness on the backcheck might’ve cost them there.

      • dawgbone
        February 1, 2013 at

        I believe it was a partial 2 on 1, with a hard back check by the sharks evening it up.

        The Sharks were in great position in the 2nd screen shot. Marleau had Hemsky, the D-man (Boyle I think) was in good position on Yakupov, Gomez was in good position on Whitney, Irwin was a bit out of the play on Gagner, but not too bad. Clowe is covering the high part of the zone.

        Clowe was also in good position as the late man. Overall they were in a pretty good spot. The only real mistake is that Clowe comes down way too low, not covering anyone which leaves Fistric wide open at the top.

    4. February 1, 2013 at

      And another thing, because I really can’t wait for CBC to lose this property. Hughson, in the last game’s dying moments, went after Kovalchuk again and THEN Healey says ‘oh JIm he’s playing hurt, he’s in pretty bad shape’ at which point Hughson retorts ‘Why is he playing then?’

      Astounding hypocrisy from a broadcaster that lionizes guys like Yzerman who played at less than 100%. Just beyond.

      Good article btw, interesting stuff – sorry, just had to get that off my chest.

      • Triumph
        February 1, 2013 at

        Pretty much all the American media acknowledged that Kovalchuk was not 100% (and it was blindingly obvious to anyone who had watched Kovalchuk play before, even though defensemen still hadn’t figured out that Kovalchuk was in no condition to challenge anyone 1 on 1), so hearing Canadian Devils fans talk about this last June was exceptionally weird.

    5. TMS71
      February 1, 2013 at

      Great post. When I’m playing I find the value in backchecking is mostly to not allow a good playmaking forward to weave and cut while the other 2 forwards cut to the net or open ice to get open for a pass. If you are chasing a guy from behind he can’t do that – he has to push the play forward, usually to the outside. I’m sure that having nobody above the top of the circles at least 15ft away from the point men is not desirable and probably wasn’t intentional. Sometimes, as a winger, I’ll feel a goal isn’t my fault because I had my point covered. But then, after thinking about it over time, I realized that the point is to win, which means doing what will prevent the most goals against, and very often that means dropping down lower to help out against the other teams best forwards, who are almost always more dangerous than the defensemen. I think this is true in the NHL too. Some forwards in the NHL are just too much to handle 1 on 1 for most defenseman and leaving the point open and helping down lower may be the better option. I’m not sure but there is an argument to be made for it.

    6. February 1, 2013 at

      I made this point in a round about way awhile ago, mostly in response to the popularity yet ineffectiveness of your Eric Nystrom types: guys who bust their ass all night dropping in front of shots, finishing their hits but never actually accomplishing much. I sat down and watched a Red Wings game one night, specifically with an eye on Datsyuk.

      By and large, he didn’t race around the ice. He was choosey about when he expended energy. He made sure to be in the right areas of the ice and he skated hard only in particular circumstances. He was, by some particular standards, a soft floater. Didn’t stop him from being the best player in the game, however.

      • woodguy
        February 4, 2013 at

        I made this point in a round about way awhile ago, mostly in response to the popularity yet ineffectiveness of your Eric Nystrom types: guys who bust their ass all night dropping in front of shots, finishing their hits but never actually accomplishing much.

        In Edmonton this is known as the Ryan Jones effect.

        If the player has long hair and refers to it as his “flow”, then double the effect.

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    9. February 8, 2013 at

      Pat’s comments are the best

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