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Understanding Dave Hakstol's System: The Basics

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The Flyers have now played a full month under new coach Dave Hakstol. What have we learned thus far about this preferred system?

Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Last May, the Philadelphia Flyers made the bold decision of looking outside the professional ranks for their newest head coach. Dave Hakstol, longtime coach of the University of North Dakota, was chosen by Flyers general manager Ron Hextall to replace Craig Berube, who had been let go at the end of the regular season.

The move certainly raised eyebrows. Hakstol was the first coach to jump straight from the collegiate ranks to an NHL head position since Bob Johnson did it back in 1982, making this a hire without recent precedent. In addition, the Flyers chose Hakstol rather than pursue bigger names like Mike Babcock (who ended up in Toronto) or Todd McLellan (now with Edmonton).

But there were reasons for optimism as well. Hakstol was regarded as one of the brightest minds in the college game, posting a 289-141-43 record and coaching his UND team to a whopping seven Frozen Four appearances. Also, he earned a reputation as an adaptable hockey tactician, but one who favored the kind of fast-paced, aggressive style of hockey that Ron Hextall wanted out of his team.

It's now been over a month since the regular season began, and Hakstol's preferred tactics are becoming clearer by the day. Over the next few weeks, I'll attempt to break down the X's and O's of the Flyers system under Hakstol, but to start, it helps to present a general idea of how Hakstol's team has attacked the opposition so far. In turn, it should make it easier to understand the thought processes behind the specifics of the Hakstol system.

Goals of the Hakstol system

Before the regular season even began, players and insiders alike noted that Hakstol was making drastic changes to the tactics and overall mentality of the Philadelphia Flyers.

From beat writer Jeff Neiburg of the Philadelphia Daily News:

It was only Day 1 of the Dave Hakstol era, but the first day of this year's training camp provided a good glimpse at what a Hakstol-coached team looks like. There was an abundance of the following: intensity, aggression, speed and competitiveness.

From Mark Streit, after a preseason game:

"I think every time there's a new coach, it's a process. It's kind of a new system, especially in the neutral zone. I thought there we had some problems."

As Neiburg notes, aggressiveness really is the key to understanding Dave Hakstol's system. From the start, the Flyers' coach has preached to his team a more attacking mentality, both in the offensive and neutral zones.

But while an adjustment in mindset is fine, it won't produce tangible results unless there is a reason for the switch. And so far, Hakstol's system seems designed to succeed in one key area - owning the neutral zone by generating more offensive zone entries than their opponents.

During the team's best even strength performances, the Flyers won the zone entries battle decisively. Against the Bruins on October 21st, they generated 53.49% of the total zone entries during the game. Three nights later against the Rangers, they did even better, posting a 54.68% Entry For percentage.

Their best period of the recent road trip - the third period against Calgary - highlights this further. The Flyers generated 33 entries to the Flames' 21 in that period, good for a whopping 61.11% Entry For percentage. When Philadelphia is at their best, they are dominating the zone entry battle.

But how does a team go about generating more entries than the opposition? This is where the focus on aggressiveness comes into play, both in the offensive and neutral zones.

Aggressiveness on the forecheck

The Flyers are regularly employing a two-man (and sometimes even three-man) forecheck when opponents are attempting to break out of their own zone. The goal here is twofold - force a turnover and go right back on the attack, or prevent the opposition from exiting the defensive zone with possession of the puck.

Hakstol's emphasis upon disrupting zone exits was predicted by Jess Schmidt of Pattison Avenue, who broke down tape of North Dakota's game against Boston University back in June.

UND really did an excellent job pressuring Boston University in their own zone and making it difficult for them to not only exit the zone, but maintain possession as well. BU only managed to successfully exit the zone with possession approximately 48% in this game. UND’s forecheck gave BU trouble all game, and this definitely wasn’t a case of score effects rearing its ugly head. They gave BU all they could handle throughout the game and were a bit fortunate on a couple opportunities.

An aggressive forecheck meant to prevent controlled zone exits appears to be a staple of a Hakstol-coached team. So far this season, the Flyers are using this strategy in tandem with a very aggressive line from the defensemen in the neutral zone. While the forwards are initiating the forecheck, Philadelphia blueliners have been positioning themselves between the opponent's blue line and the center ice redline, unusually aggressive placement for defensemen when their team does not even have possession of the puck.

The reason? The defensemen are trusting that the forwards can force the opponent to blindly dump the puck out of the zone by cutting off obvious passing lanes. By positioning themselves close to the blue line, the defense has the ability to retrieve these uncontrolled exits quickly, and then immediately get the puck back into the offensive zone, whether it be via a controlled entry or just a quick dump-in.

If the tactic is executed perfectly, the Flyers are able to keep up continuous pressure, and generate multiple zone entries for themselves in succession. It nullifies an opponent's offensive firepower, and protects a relatively slow defense from facing forwards coming through the neutral zone with speed.

For this aggressive strategy to succeed, Hakstol demands high-end execution from all players on the ice. The forwards need to create pressure quickly and efficiently, and the deepest forecheckers need to backcheck furiously if the opponent does succeed in getting the puck out of the zone to help out their defense. The defensemen need to read the play and collect those loose pucks in the neutral zone, through speed, instincts, and winning puck battles along the boards.

When all five players on the ice do their jobs correctly, the tactic can be suffocating.

When it doesn't work: the risks

In recent weeks, the Flyers have struggled to beat even mediocre teams, despite the systematic changes implemented by Hakstol.  In fact, subpar opponents have carried the play for long stretches of time, with no visible advantage from these aggressive tactics.

Hakstol's preferred strategy does not come without risks.

The first risk is that the Flyers' forecheck will be ineffective in pressuring the other team. If opposing forwards and defensemen are able to generate clean defensive zone exits on a regular basis, they can move up the ice with speed, and with Philadelphia forwards caught too deep to slow them down in the neutral zone.

As a result, Flyers defensemen must retreat quickly, with little help from the forwards in the way of back pressure. When this happens, opponents are able to easily enter the Flyers' zone with possession of the puck.

This has been the team's biggest problem statistically. Philadelphia is actually winning the neutral zone battle so far this season in terms of raw volume. But their opponents are generating significantly more controlled entries - far more productive offensive zone possessions than those produced via dump-and-chase.

Category Philadelphia Flyers Flyers Opponents
Total Offensive Zone Entries 847 828
Controlled Zone Entry Percentage 42.98% 49.88%

Note: Statistics accurate as of 11/7.

The second risk of employing such aggressive tactics is that it places a great deal of responsibility on the defense. Blueliners must successfully read the plays as they develop, and take control of loose pucks in the neutral zone. An aggressive forecheck may force an uncontrolled zone exit, but if the Flyers defenseman loses the race to the puck or fails to come out on top in a puck battle, the exit might as well have been controlled.

In addition, the Flyers defensemen must hold that high line in the neutral zone for the tactics to function properly. If they hang too far back, closer to their own blue line, it creates a gigantic gap between the forechecking forwards and the retreating defensemen. When this happens, opponents can retrieve more loose pucks in the neutral zone and generate speed without being obstructed before hitting the Flyers' end.

Finally, even if the Philadelphia blueliners do read the play properly and are positioned correctly, they still need to make smart decisions with the puck. Staying high in the neutral zone does not leave the defense with a high margin for error. One mistake, whether it be a whiff on a loose puck or a flubbed pass, will have the other team blasting into the Flyers end on an odd-man rush.

Aggressiveness is exciting to watch, but the risks of this type of forecheck and neutral zone play become apparent quickly. Hakstol's system demands high-level execution at all times in order to mitigate those risks.

Conclusion

From the start of Dave Hakstol's tenure in Philadelphia, he has emphasized a shift in thinking - namely, a move towards a more aggressive style of play.

This aggressiveness manifests itself in a push towards winning the offensive zone entries battle on a nightly basis. The Flyers under Hakstol use a combination of an aggressive forecheck and high placement of defensemen in the neutral zone to achieve this goal.

Unfortunately, the strategy does not come without risks. Philadelphia forecheckers must succeed in disrupting the opponent's breakout, and if they cannot do so, forwards must backcheck furiously to help their now-vulnerable defensemen. The defensemen, for their part, need to be experts at reading the play as it develops and pouncing on loose pucks in the neutral zone. In addition, they must handle the puck effectively and avoid neutral zone turnovers as they try to send the puck back into the offensive zone.

It's still early in the Dave Hakstol era, and these tactics are surely not set in stone. And moving forward, breakdowns of the X's and O's of the Philadelphia forecheck, the team's neutral zone structure, and their defensive zone breakouts should help us to fully understand the adjustments that Hakstol has made.

But for now, it's helpful to get a handle on the overarching goals of the system, a system that has produced mixed results thus far.