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Roy MacGregor

What's in a system? Add to ...

It is the King of Clichés - and rarely on such parade as has been the case these early Stanley Cup playoffs.

"We'll be all right," the player smothered in a scrum of cameras and microphones will say, "so long as we stick to our system."

It has a heft unlike so many other meaningless hockey phrases - "Our best players have to be our best players"; "We can't get too high and can't get too low"; "We have to take it one game at a time"; "It is what it is" - in that the mere word "systems" has the air of a secret handshake, or else could conceivably be some plan so complicated that the pickled brain of the average hockey writer could not possibly comprehend its intricacies.

Montreal Canadiens are where they are because their system worked.

Vancouver Canucks are where they are because their system failed.



I confess that, from time to time, merely to see the reaction, I have followed up a player's commitment to his team's system by asking the obvious: "And what, exactly, is your system?"

They, of course, have no idea whatsoever, or perhaps a very small idea that makes up a very small part of whatever the coach believes is his system and at the daily news conferences touts as his team's true foundation - not the stars who are supposed to score the goals or the goaltender who is supposed to stop the pucks.

It is a buzzword that implies strategy, planning, inventiveness. It conjures up images of the dugout coach plucking his left ear, pinching his nose and tapping his cap brim to signal the hit-and-run, or the football coach sending in a play that would require two blackboards to work out.

If systems are, in fact, so complicated in hockey, how is it that no team has a playbook that a newly arrived player must study? In fact, hockey lore is filled with traded players who, the first night in their new jersey, perform far better than expected. (Perhaps they should never be allowed to know the great secrets of the team's system.)

The reality in hockey is that "stuff happens" - I would much prefer to use the actual word that also begins with 's' but this being a family newspaper I will refrain from doing so - and the various systems are so simple that they would cause widespread giggling if anyone spelled them out and claimed they were part of some elaborate design that must under threat of death be kept secret from the opposition.

There are, obviously, variations on how the game can be played, with the more-defensively minded coaches seeking to control as much as possible (though not as much is controllable as they might wish) and the increasingly rare offensive-minded coaches letting the best players determine the mode of attack.

A team might have some obvious set plays for faceoffs, power plays and penalty killing, but they are relatively the same throughout. Jacques Lemaire of the New Jersey Devils tweaked his team's penalty kill by having defenders rotate, keeping continuous puck pressure on and ensuring a player keep in front of the puck at all times. Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings adapted this variation for his own purposes. Given the playoff results of these two teams, however, the coaches might like to consider tweaking back.

On the fore-check, a team can send one player in deep or two, though some international teams - Germany, at times the Czech Republic - will send no one in, which has the effect at times of causing fans to pass out in their seats.

There are various ways of exiting one's own end, but for the most part this is left up to the creativity of the players so long as they follow certain hard-and-fast rules - such as avoiding cross-ice passes that can be picked off.

None of this is rocket science or even Grade 5 science: defencemen are allowed to pinch or discouraged from pinching; pucks are carried into the offensive zone or dumped and chased; pucks are chipped off the glass and out or passed out or, less likely, carried out.

Fashions change slowly in hockey but they do change. Just imagine how, say, former Toronto Maple Leafs Ron Ellis would deal with having all three forwards in the same corner cycling a puck. And while Don Cherry has preached for centuries that defenders need to get their sticks and legs out of the way on point shots, the entire hockey world now plays exactly the opposite, with some teams, such as the Canadiens, collapsing into a wall in front of their poor screened goaltender much as if they were blocking a soccer penalty kick.

The essential simplicity of the game, however, combined with broadcast's demands for analysis, has lead to the creation of "hockeybabble."

Coaches speak of "time and space" as if it were quantum physics not merely a goofy new phrase for checking. They speak of "gaps" as if they could be as finitely measured and set as those on spark plugs.

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma actually said last week that he wanted his team to be playing "north of the puck" - whatever that means.

The truth is that these so-called systems are about as complicated as going to the fridge for a beer between periods.

"Let's fact it," says Bob Hartley, who coached the Colorado Avalanche to a previous Stanley Cup, "there's not 25 ways to play hockey.

"It's really pretty simple.

"You show me a good system and I'll show you a good goaltender."

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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