The Tampa Bay Forecheck and A Two-Step Approach To Slowing Down Miro Heiskanen

Last time, I went in-depth on the strengths, weaknesses and the role of Miro Heiskanen. This writeup will be heavily focused on what we learned from that so I highly recommend reading it here.

Today, I’m focusing specifically on what the Tampa Bay Lightning has been doing in the Finals in order to reduce his importance to the Dallas build-up. I narrow this down to two steps that effectively put Heiskanen in his most uncomfortable position while feeding into one of Tampa Bay’s strengths. Note that this approach has been working for Tampa on most of the Dallas team, I just narrow it down to Heiskanen as he is their most important piece.

Tampa’s New Forecheck

Last year, we saw Tampa’s dominance come to an abrupt end in a four-game sweep to the Blue Jackets. Many things went wrong in that series but one of the keys was their inability to establish their cycle. As seen in my article on these Finals here, Tampa Bay runs the passing department. Being kept out of the zone by a Tortorella defensive wall was a huge issue for their skaters, who often use their puck carrying skills to establish possession.

Tampa’s response? Add more forecheckers. This makes sense as while carrying the puck into the zone is statistically preferable to dumping it in – recovering a dump in and gaining possession is much better than a neutral zone turnover.

Using my style data available on the website to subscribers (method here for those interested with the forechecking category explained here), Tampa Bay has eight forwards in the top 70th percentile. They are:

  • Verhaeghe (98)
  • Gourde (97)
  • Coleman (93)
  • Maroon (92)
  • Paquette (85)
  • Goodrow (80)
  • Cirelli (71)
  • Killorn (71)

This is extremely impressive but more importantly, shows the active approach Tampa made to improve the forecheck. Coleman, Maroon and Goodrow are new additions this year, Verhaeghe has been newly promoted from the AHL and Gourde and Cirelli have been given bigger roles this year. Suddenly forechecking goes from a problem to a clear strength.

Applying it in the Finals

Here were the stats tracked by Corey Sznajder from game three of the Finals. Tampa Bay only carried in 29.1% of the entries they made. This does show a dump and chase approach from this insanely skilled team but more importantly, the number of carry-ins decreased from the previous series.

This has me thinking, Tampa Bay are doing something specific to the Stars.

The Two-Step Approach To Slow Down Miro Heiskanen

Again as I’ve already mentioned, this wasn’t exclusively done to Heiskanen – but I will focus on him as he is their key player. As we saw in the last post, Miro Heiskanen has two exploitable weaknesses – physicality and build-up passing. For the intelligent Lightning staff this also means two things – put him in positions where he has to be physical and force him to make stretch passes.

Step One: Putting Him Where He Is Uncomfortable – Forecheck

Tampa focusing on the forecheck to enter the zone makes sense as we’ve just discussed, but to Heiskanen, they take this a step further. Even once they’ve already entered the zone, if they are one on one with him, they will put the puck behind the net instead of taking him on. This means he has to recover the puck in the corner and face an intense battle with some of the top forecheckers in the league; a battle he often loses.

If we look at his pairing with Oleksiak, they have nearly identical roles with Oleksiak being a poor mans Heiskanen. This means that the ideal situation, where his partner would recover the puck for him doesn’t exist. An example of what would be better for the Stars happened in Heiskanen’s 1 minute of ice-time with Hanley where Hanley recovered the puck behind the net after the Bolts dumped it in off a Heiskanen defended rush.

Hanley recovering the puck after Heiskanen faces another dump in

Step Two: Force Him To Play Long

After a dump-in, the Lightning have usually been able to beat Heiskanen but in the case where they don’t, they go to plan two.

Heiskanen is essential to the build-up as he’s a good skater, not a passer. When the Lightning put him behind the net, they force him to skate the entire length of the ice and through all five players. The probability of success decreases significantly in this scenario.

The other thing the Lightning do is everyone defends when Heiskanen’s on the puck. They play man to man defence to prevent any easy outlet pass and focus entirely on him skating the puck up through all of them. If Heiskanen beats the first man, the next Lightning will step up and challenge him. Even for Heiskanen, this is a lot to handle.

Proof It’s Working

Who has the most giveaways so far this series?

  • Heiskanen – 13
  • Second most tied – 7

And the kicker is that 12 of the 13 giveaways have occurred in the defensive zone. The giveaways have also led to poor on-ice results culminating in a 27% share of the expected goals in game 3 with him on the ice. Dallas have to find a way to help him out, because without it, their chances at winning the Cup significantly decrease.

Access To The Data

Finally, all this data I use for the assessment including, the player profile cards and more for the entire league are all available on this website for just $5. So if you’re curious about a player or your favourite team, click here to join now.

I’m still looking into ways to add interactive charts and dashboards to make player evaluation and recruitment easier than ever to understand so stay tuned and bookmark this website for more writeups.

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