In part 4 of this series, I looked at how the Kraken attempt to exit their defensive zone after gaining possession. In this part, I dive into how the team schemes its transitions through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone.
Hakstol’s philosophy: avoid dangerous possession sequences
Last time I posited that Hakstol’s coaching point from the moment a Kraken player gains control is: prioritize the puck. Hakstol wants closely managed, low-event hockey with fewer risks, fewer turnovers, and fewer rapid counterattacks for the opposition.
Similarly, Hakstol’s schemes appear to emphasize driving the puck away from the high-danger areas where a counterattack can quickly manifest if things go awry.
As we have seen, Kraken goaltenders are active, looking to clear the puck from behind the net to lower-danger areas along the side boards. And the Kraken’s most frequent breakout play drives possession to the boards when the Kraken are under pressure because a failed exit along the boards is less risky than a failed escape attempt through the middle of the ice.
The team’s actual performance in avoiding dangerous counterattacks has been mediocre. The Kraken have committed too many defensive zone turnovers and too many goals have resulted. But the schematic intent is clear.
The same approach carries over into the Kraken’s neutral zone transitions. More time, possession, and passing in the neutral zone increases the risk of a turnover and controlled re-entry by the opponent into the Kraken defensive zone. Therefore, the Kraken lean on schemed set plays originating in the defensive zone designed to minimize time and possession risk in the neutral zone.
When pressure foils the team’s planned approach, the Kraken err on the side of dumping the puck deep into the opponent’s zone. 200 feet away from the Kraken goal is the safest place for the puck.
Hakstol’s scheme #1: the neutral zone stretch pass
There are many instances within the flow of the game where the Kraken gain clear, unchallenged possession in their defensive zone. It may be the result of a desperate dump in by the opponent or a change in opposing lines, or it could be from the Kraken creating the clear threat of a controlled zone exit, which causes the opposing team to retreat into their neutral zone forecheck.
In these situations, the Kraken commonly look to control and delay with their defensemen to allow their forwards time to flow deep into the neutral zone in a three-across formation just north of the center line. The defenseman in possession scans the neutral zone coverage, looking for an opening for a long stretch pass to one of the forwards.
The intention is for the forward to receive the pass with possession and the ability to move immediately into the offensive zone. But most often the distance and speed of the pass means that the forward tips the puck into the zone, ideally while carrying momentum toward the offensive zone to immediately chase and retrieve.
When the opposing defense collapses on the three high forwards or otherwise denies passing lanes for the stretch pass, the schematic alternative is for the defenseman in possession to skate the puck. If that happens, he looks to carry momentum forward seeking a controlled advance while the three across forwards pin the neutral zone defense deep. The puck possession skill of the Kraken defensive unit is below average. So, most commonly, a controlled advance by a Kraken defenseman has the goal of achieving the center ice red line for a dump in that gets retrieved by the attacking forwards.
In clip 1, Adam Larsson hits Marcus Johansson with a stretch pass mid-line change, and Johansson tips the puck into the zone. Since the other forwards aren’t yet in position, only Johansson is left to chase and attempt retrieval. The Rangers easily recover and clear.
In clip 2, Haydn Fleury delays in his own zone, allowing the forwards to establish three across near the opposing blue line. Fleury fires a stretch pass to Jordan Eberle in the center of the ice, but the puck leaks off Eberle’s stick weakly and right to the Rangers defense. Fleury and Eberle do not accomplish a controlled entry or get the puck past the defenders and below the goal line for a puck battle. Instead New York easily takes possession.
In this clip, again the defenders delay, reversing the puck. Adam Larsson attempts to connect with Jared McCann on the right wing, but McCann is only able to deflect the puck into the offensive zone.
I include this last clip mostly because it encapsulates the Vince Dunn experience and because it shows why Seattle continues to try for stretch passes. Dunn is skilled at executing the stretch pass, and his significant stick talent leads him to attempt passes others would not.
The stretch pass is not drawn up to start from behind the net with a forechecker in close coverage. But Dunn connects on a relatively high-risk pass and generates a controlled entry. This is what talent can bring, even if it bends the scheme in a way that probably makes Hakstol uncomfortable.
Hakstol’s scheme #2: three-across rush
When the Kraken gain possession in the neutral zone, either off a controlled defensive zone exit or a neutral-zone turnover, the team will often look to set up a “three across” line rush of its forward group. The rush is supported from behind by the two defensemen, typically with one defenseman available to jump into the offense off the rush for a high slot shot if the defense collapses. The other defenseman trails and guards against a rapid counterattack.
Upon successful, controlled zone entry, the Kraken forwards are looking for a net drive. If there are no openings, the team will often set up a 2-1-2 offensive zone formation (as will be discussed further in the next part in this series).
In clip 5, F1 Ryan Donato possesses the puck into the offensive zone in the center of the ice before passing to F2 Alex Wennberg, who participated in the rush on his off wing. Wennberg recovers a difficult pass with his skate and funnels it back to the trailing D1 Jeremy Lauzon. Lauzon has an opportunity for a shot at the top of the circle, but instead attempts a further cross-ice pass to F3 Morgan Geekie on the weak side. While the idea is probably the right one, a quality Panthers stick check ends the rush without a shot on goal.
In clip 6, a similar sequence plays out. Eberle, Johansson, and McCann form a three-across rush. With F1 Johansson and F2 Eberle successfully exchanging passes, the defense collapses, and the Kraken enter the zone with possession. When Eberle hits the top of the right circle, he lays the pass back for the trailing D1, Dunn. Here again, the trailing defenseman finds and passes to an open F3 on the weak side. The pass connects this time and F3 McCann has a prime chance.
In this last clip, we see a three-across line rush form from behind. (You can also see the standard side view here.) Calle Jarnkork and Alex Wennberg drive to the net with Yanni Gourde in possession on the left wing entering the zone. The collapsing defense leaves an opening for a cross-ice pass from Gourde to Jarnkork for the easy tap-in goal. If the defense had closed that passing lane, Dunn was moving into the high slot as the trailing D1 and a passing option for Gourde. Lauzon trails the play farther back as D2 to protect against rapid counterattack and ensure the Kraken get established in the offensive zone.
Scheme scorecard: very few rush opportunities
While almost every team will have some version of the stretch pass in the scheme, the Kraken look for this play very frequently if there is not an immediate opening for controlled advance. This may be Hakstol’s strong schematic preference or it may be a concession to the limited puck handling talent on the roster.
Either way, the 2021-22 Seattle Kraken have intentionally minimized player possession through the neutral zone. This approach decreases time spent in the neutral zone and the risk of turnovers. It also effectively achieves offensive zone entries.
But, as mentioned in part 4, the scheme requires more time in the defensive zone than others that prioritize rapid defensive zone exits. This raises the risk of a turnover and failed exit at the outset.
Furthermore, as seen above, the tactic tends to result in fewer controlled offensive-zone entries than other schemes. As it has played out, the Kraken rank sixth from the bottom of the league in entering the offensive zone with possession. Instead, the scheme leads to more offensive-zone board battles for puck retrieval. (More on that in the next part of this series.)
By implementing a scheme that de-emphasizes quality, possession-driven zone entries in favor of a larger quantity of dump-and-chase entries, the Kraken are effective at setting up offensive zone board battles but struggle to create transition scoring opportunities. In fact, they are the second worst in the league at creating rush opportunities. Only the New York Islanders are (very slightly) worse.
Here, again, I should note that the schematic emphasis could be due to the lack of puck possession skill in the skater group, particularly since the team has lost Brandon Tanev and Jaden Schwartz for much of season.
At the end of the day, the scheme, and the players implementing the scheme, have struggled to create offense. The Kraken have scored the fifth fewest goals per 60 in the league and have generated the second fewest expected goals per 60 in the league.
Unfortunately, we will be returning to this concerning graphic frequently in future parts.
Next: decoding Hakstol’s scheme for the offensive zone forecheck
In Part 6 of the series I break down the Kraken’s scheme to retrieve the puck and drive possession in the offensive zone.