In part 2 of this series I looked at the Kraken’s approach in the neutral zone when the opponent has possession and is attempting entry into the Kraken’s defensive zone. In part 3 I looked at how the Kraken defend against opposing possession in Seattle’s end.
In this part I look at how the Kraken attempt to clear their defensive zone after gaining possession, whether by winning it by face-off, rebound, puck battle, or turnover, or by recovering an opposing team’s dump in from the neutral zone.
Hakstol’s philosophy: prioritize the puck
As discussed in part 2, Hakstol’s system preaches defense first in all phases of play. When the opponent has the puck, the team looks to deter opposing shot quantity and quality.
When the puck is on a Kraken stick, Hakstol appears to emphasize puck possession as the cardinal rule. The approach is relatively conservative, emphasizing a disciplined, low-event style of play. Hakstol is disinclined to see his team take risks and trade scoring opportunities with the opponent. And given the finishing talent on this version of the Kraken, it is hard to fault that approach in a vacuum.
The Kraken are above average in both avoiding giveaways and suppressing opponent takeaways, one of only nine teams in the league that land in both categories. And Seattle is fourth in the league in the percentage of total takeaways in its games, logging approximately 54 percent of the total takeaways.
As will be discussed, Hakstol’s Kraken need to excel in these statistics. The offensive system is designed to avoid dangerous possession and high-risk passes in the neutral and offensive zones. In contrast, more aggressive, higher-scoring systems like those of Florida and Toronto are predicated on high-danger possession or passing plays but overcome the giveaways with superior scoring opportunities and talent.
To make a conservative offensive system work, the team must avoid gaffes with the puck. This work starts 200 feet from the destination. No mistakes are more costly than failed attempts to clear the defensive zone. So, how do the Kraken scheme breakouts?
Hakstol’s scheme #1: the goaltender breakout pass
When the opponent dumps the puck deep into the zone without immediately applying pressure, the Kraken goaltender will retrieve it in the trapezoid behind the goal if he deems it safe to do so. The goaltender is ideally supported on either side at the goal line by his defensemen, allowing him to outlet the puck to an open side.
In clip 1, the schemed play stays on schedule. The Ducks dump the puck in from the red line, and Chris Driedger reads the pressure correctly and retrieves. He is supported on either side by defensemen, with Adam Larsson on the right wing boards and Mark Giordano on the left wing. Driedger correctly perceives more pressure on Larsson and filters the puck to Giordano. Giordano moves the puck up the boards for Yanni Gourde, who clears the zone.
Some teams teach their goaltenders to stay away from puck possession and passing from behind the net except in exigent circumstances and instead instruct the goaltenders to stop the puck and await retrieval by a defenseman. While this alternative approach may slow the zone exit, there are studies indicating that goalie passes are significantly more likely to result in turnovers than comparable passes from defensemen in these breakout situations. Certainly we can all recall a scenario where a goalie attempts to clear the zone around the boards but instead hits a forechecking opponent right on the tape. That is the risk.
In clip 2 above, we see an example of the goalie pass gone awry. The puck skips and pressure is on Driedger faster than he expects. The forechecking Ducks skater blocks Driedger’s pass, causing a turnover, and a dangerous sequence ensues.
Hakstol’s scheme #2: strong-side wall breakout
When the Kraken win possession in a puck battle along the wall or end boards (or off a draw), the Kraken move onto a core concept: the strong-side wall play. The puck is controlled by a defenseman (D1) below the circles or in the corner. If a forward has won the puck in this position, players will rotate to assume other roles. Close support toward the center of the ice is provided by F1. F2 positions himself farther up the strong-side boards to receive a pass along the boards and either advance it by skating or by chipping it past any pressure and out of the zone.
F3 is high in the zone, near the middle of the ice, and ready to fly the zone in support or in pursuit of a chipped-out clear. If F2 is hemmed in and cannot achieve the red line himself, F3 looks to receive a pass and advance past the red line for a dump in or controlled entry. D2 is located toward the weak side, typically just below the goal line. That allows an outlet for D1 if the strong side is jammed up to reverse the puck to the weak side and break the pressure that way.
In clip 3 above, the Kraken move immediately into a strong-side wall breakout play off a clean defensive zone face-off win by center Alex Wennberg. They had almost successfully executed the same play mere moments earlier, but the puck ricocheted out of play. Jeremy Lauzon (D1) receives the puck and moves to the corner. Vince Dunn (D2) is near the corner boards in his draw position and therefore not where a D2 would ideally be located. He compensates by drifting across toward the weak side in front of Lauzon to open space for Lauzon’s advance and provide a pressure valve for a reverse pass. Wennberg moves into a center ice F1 position; Marcus Johansson positions farther up the strong-side boards as F2; and Jordan Eberle flies the zone as F3.
Lauzon (D1) gets the puck up the strong-side wall to Johansson (F2), who glides to the red line and dumps the puck deep. Eberle (F3) has flown the zone and is ready to chase into the offensive zone.
As an alternative to the strong-side wall play, the player in possession (D1) will often look to relieve pressure by reversing the puck behind the goal to the defenseman on the opposite side (D2). By filtering the puck to the weak side, the Kraken create a transition threat that will often cause the opposition to retreat.
In clip 4, Vince Dunn is the weak-side defenseman but takes possession immediately off the draw. He rapidly moves to the weak side, taking the outlet opportunity. He is supported by Calle Jarnkrok (center of the ice, F1) and Yanni Gourde (high, F3). The breakout clears the zone but concedes possession in the neutral zone.
Scheme scorecard: controlled exits but too many turnovers
Though the team’s approach can feel a bit wooden at times and leave controlled possession through the neutral zone in doubt, on the whole the team has done a decent job at the task of “clearing the zone.”
Per microstats compiled by analyst Corey Sznajder, the Kraken have accomplished an above average rate of “controlled” exits from their defensive zone (see x axis of the visualization below). In other words, the Kraken are not prone to recklessly conceding possession by firing the puck out of the zone and back to the opponent in the neutral zone.
Additionally, the Kraken are not recklessly giving away possession in the zone either. Seattle actually ranks in the top 10 in the league in avoiding giveaways in their defensive zone.
That said, the Kraken have struggled to successfully exit the zone at times. Sznajder’s stats have the Kraken in the bottom half of the league in “successful” zone exits (see y axis in visualization above).
Part of the explanation could be scheme related. The strong-side wall play is not the fastest or most dynamic zone exit scheme. If the opposition is well coached in anticipating the play, there are opportunities to congest the strong side and cause a takeaway. These takeaways are particularly dangerous when forced off an errant pass to F1 in the middle of the ice.
In implementing Hakstol’s “prioritize the puck” philosophy, the Kraken have at times erred too far on the side of caution in protecting puck possession over rapid zone exits.
Kraken defensemen have often been too circumspect in their advance and have invited the opposing forecheck in to create pressure and a turnover. In many instances, this is because the defensemen are awaiting an opening for a stretch pass. The stretch pass is a neutral zone transition concept I will discuss in the next part of this series. But, needless to say, it is a very poor outcome if the team fails to clear the defensive zone because they are attempting to move to the next step in their transition play.
Overall, personnel is likely the biggest limiting factor. The team does not have many skilled skating and passing blueliners. Instead, the Kraken have stockpiled larger, stay-at-home defensemen who excel at protecting the house. With the team willingly trading offensive puck possession skill for defensive lockdown ability, these possession failures are bound to happen, regardless of scheme.
Returning to Sznajder’s analytics, among Kraken defensemen, only Giordano and Larsson have avoided failed exits and initiated successful exits at an above average rate.
Furthermore, as Alison Lukan noted in a great piece posted to NHL.com last week, the recent struggles in transition could be due to injury-related absences of some of the Kraken’s stronger puck-moving forwards.
Are defensive zone breakout gaffes to blame for the Kraken’s struggles?
I would caution against over-emphasizing any perceived issues the Kraken have had clearing the defensive zone. There is room for improvement, but the team’s analytics indicate middling, not disastrous, play.
One common explanation I have seen for the stark differential between the Kraken’s actual goals against and expected goals against mentioned in part 3 is what I will call the “defensive zone gaffe theory.” The theory is the Kraken are turning the puck over in dangerous areas of the defensive zone leading to shots that the goalie is less likely to stop because he cannot anticipate them.
I understand this reaction. Goals off of defensive zone errors are certainly part of the story of this season. But I don’t see the support in the data I’ve seen so far that this a global explanation for the Kraken’s struggles. The Kraken are not giving up a large number of doorstep chances overall, nor are they giving away the puck in the defensive zone at a concerning rate. Their zone exit success rate may be below average, as described above, but it is balanced by an above average rate of controlled possession exiting the zone.
I don’t want to foreclose the possibility that more granular analysis could confirm the theory (a project for the offseason, perhaps). But right now, I think it’s more likely we simply believe the Kraken are struggling with their breakouts because the turnovers that do occur are hitting the back of the Kraken net more often than they should.
Next: decoding Hakstol’s scheme for neutral zone transitions
In Part 5 of the series I examine how Kraken coach Dave Hakstol designs the team’s transitions through the neutral zone on the attack.