Just two seasons ago, Barry Trotz lifted the Stanley Cup above his head as head coach of the Washington Capitals. Since then, he’s joined a New York Islanders team with significantly less star power. Despite this, he’s just handily beat his old team proving once again how prepared he is when designing a system for his team.
What exactly did he do to systematically exploit Washington’s weaknesses?
Targeting specific areas
The way the Islanders build-up is very structured. The key principle being puck management, the goal is to enter the zone in areas with a strong probability of recovering the puck and continuing possession. This means that in order to prevent being caught by a counter-attack, preventing neutral zone turnovers by dumping the puck more than usual is encouraged.
Trotz wouldn’t appreciate me using the term dump and chase as in his words it’s far more of a place and chase. This is an important distinction as the placement of the puck is dependent on space and support, and never caused by panic.
The Islanders don’t only rely on recoveries though. They have the best skater in the league in Mat Barzal, who’s very encouraged to skate the puck in.
Their defensive core is also one of the most activated off the rush in the league as they jump up into the entry when space is available. Each pairing is equipped with an opportunistic skate in Toews, Leddy and Pelech.
Isolating certain defenders
This principle of placing the puck and recovering it when there is no easy entry while still encouraging skating was perfected by isolated the Capitals defenders to create odd-man rushes.
Barry Trotz more than anybody knows this Capitals team and John Carlson specifically was targetted as a player they could isolate. He is a phenomenal Norris candidate as an offensive player. He is perfect for building the attack and also does a good job defending the rush when 1v1. However, he struggles in defensive coverage and the Islanders made him pay badly. He was on for 70% of Washington’s goals against because the Islanders put him in situations where his coverage would let him down.
The Islanders used this weakness to lose him, effectively removing his rush defensing ability and creating 2 on 1.
The key to the Isles build-up is that there is an option for every situation. Barzal or Beauvillier can create 2 on 1s on the rush giving an option for the top 2 lines. Toews, Pelech or Leddy leads the rush on each of the three defensive pairings alongside a more responsible player and the forechecking talent to recover pucks is abundant.
Forechecking to create offence
As seen in the graphic above, I left out the forwards for the Capitals. This is because the Capitals do not use their forwards to defend at all and rely on the shutdown ability of their defensemen, which as mentioned, was effectively removed by isolating them into 2 on 1s.
Trotz knows this from the Capitals roster, which is why he also only had to commit two forwards to the forecheck rather than all three. This approach meant support was always there to minimize the risk of being caught on the counter by Washington’s quick forwards.
The Islanders have incredible forecheckers, that easily beat the Capitals defenders. Defensive zone turnovers are the most vulnerable area to be in as a defending team. This meant that the Islanders were often able to create offence directly off the forecheck while the Capitals were still disorganized.
If the offence doesn’t arrive immediately following recovery, the cycle was usually made to the point for a shot. The reason for this once again comes back to puck management. The point is a typically open low-risk pass to make to keep the probability of a counter-attack low.
This selective passing to keep the puck in safe possession is reflected in how they finished the series with only 47% of shot attempts but 57% of the expected goal share at 5v5. This indicates that the quality of the shot location per shot is much higher than average. This lack of wasteful shots has been a theme for the Islanders throughout the season.
After a point shot, rebounds cause chaos net-front, but the Islanders are ready, treating it like a forecheck and another opportunity to cause a defensive zone turnover.
This very systematic approach to offence is seen in Micah Blake McCurdy’s heat map. Shoot from the point, recover the puck and get net-front rebounds from the forecheck.
The Islanders system is set and the lines are made to play their way. Enter the zone with a high chance of establishing zone time, forecheck hard and create offence with point shots and rebounds. Everything they do minimizes the risk of a counter-attack the other way.
It’s a predictable approach with a low ceiling but it’s also low risk and guaranteed to work. Combine this with specific targeting on Washington’s defence and exploitation of their coverage weaknesses and they’re easily into the second round.