In part 6 of this series, I examined how the Kraken use the forecheck to attempt to recover possession in the offensive zone after a dump in entry or a turnover deep in the zone. In this part 7, I look at certain set plays used by the Kraken to create scoring opportunities when established and in possession in the offensive zone.
Hakstol’s philosophy: control possession and work through the points
Seattle attempts to create offense first and foremost through an aggressive forecheck designed to recover dump or tip in zone entries in the corners and below the opponent’s net.
Once the Kraken gain possession, the emphasis is on building offensive zone time and stress on the opposing team, through forward passing plays deep in the zone or high-to-low passes along the boards. This approach is intended to wear down the opposition and put the Kraken in position to capitalize when there are breakdowns in defensive zone coverage.
While certain sequences involve Seattle defensemen pinching down the boards to maintain possession, typically Hakstol wants his two defenders high in the zone, manning the points. And in protracted sequences the center ice forward will often join the defensemen high in the zone, creating a three-high umbrella.
This approach has two advantages. First, it allows the Kraken to effectively trap the offensive zone, preventing controlled breakouts by the opponent. Second, by coaching the defensemen to stay high, the Kraken are well positioned to retreat into defensive coverage and avoid breakaway opportunities against.
The downside of this possession-driven and defensive-minded approach is that the scheme does not, by itself, tend to create a high volume of quality primary scoring opportunities from the low slot. Seattle’s shots from close are most often tips, deflections, or rebounds.
Hakstol’s scheme #1: the low triangle play
As we have seen, Kraken offensive zone sets often begin with puck retrieval in the corners off of a dump in or a tip in at the offensive blue line. Whether on a clean recovery or following a puck battle, the Kraken often then implement a low triangle between the three forwards with the goal of an immediate high-danger opportunity before the defense is fully established
The player with the puck in the corner (F1) will consider a pass toward the center of the ice to the support forward who rotates directly to the goal mouth (F3) if the play is open. More commonly, the player in possession (F1) will look to cycle the puck below the goal where the other forward (F2) will be situated.
From below the goal line there will be three options. The first option is to get the puck immediately to the front of the net with a pass to F3 from a new angle. The second is for F2 to make a power move to the front from the strong side or wrap around the net on the weak side, and the third option is to cycle the puck out to D2, the weak side point for the defensemen, to re-set the play.
Facing pressure at the offensive blue line, Karson Kuhlman (No. 25) dumps the puck into the near side corner and follows with an aggressive forecheck. Yanni Gourde (37) supports, and they create a loose puck available for Victor Rask (49) to intercept in the near side corner. Rask initiates as F1, Kuhlman moves below the net as F2, and Gourde rotates to the front of the net as F3. Rask filters the puck low along the boards to Kuhlman; Kuhlman immediately centers to Gourde, but Gourde is not in position to turn the puck on the net.
With the defense in close coverage, Gourde skates the puck out to the blue line to re-set the play, but eventually gives the puck away when trying to pass back down the far side wall to Rask, and the Kings clear.
In this clip, we see several Kraken schematic elements stacked together. As it begins, we see a weak side breakout from the Kraken defensive zone. When former Kraken forward Mason Appleton (22) is pressured at the defensive blue line, he defaults to getting the puck deep rather than risking a turnover. This leads to an uncontrolled offensive zone entry, with fellow traded forward Calle Jarnkrok (19) first in on the forecheck. His aggressive pressure generates a loose puck scenario along the near side corner boards where Gourde is in close support and ready to take advantage. The 2-1-2 offensive zone forecheck led by Jarnkrok and Gourde has worked perfectly.
Gourde now takes possession as the F1 initiating a low triangle set. Appleton immediately dives to the front of the net as F3. Gourde feeds the puck to him, but Appleton can’t get it on net before his momentum takes Appleton below the goal line. Seeing this, Jarnkrok, who was prepared to complete the triangle as the F2 below the net, instead exchanges with Appleton and moves to the net front. The F1-F2-F3 triangle is recreated.
By this point, however, the Panthers defense has established itself and collapsed in coverage around Jarnkrok. The quick strike opportunity from the low triangle play is gone. Accordingly, Appleton quickly moves on to the team’s other core offensive scheme discussed below: the low-to-high play.
The low triangle scheme is intended to create an immediate high-danger net front chance off the forecheck from the corners or behind the net.
The schematic risk is twofold. First, the emphasis on a quick strike can lead the forechecking F1 to rush a blind pass toward the net front from the corners or below the net instead of taking the extra moment to survey the ice. The potential reward of the quick, blind pass is high, but, particularly early in the season, these low triangle plays were marred by turnovers. These are errors that can be reduced, if not entirely eliminated. And the team has improved over the course of the season. The team’s total number of “giveaway” turnovers is relatively low.
More difficult to correct is the fact that the low triangle play necessarily relies on placing three forwards below the dots in the offensive zone. Those forwards need to be trusted to sprint back into coverage in the event of a turnover. Otherwise the team will risk yielding a counterstrike high-danger chance off the rush. This is where the oft-noted team speed of the Kraken forward group is most important. Forming a forward group that would not be exposed defensively by this scheme has been a roster building imperative.
Hakstol’s scheme #2: the low-to-high play
Once the opposing defense is established, it will most frequently look to disrupt the low passing lanes, which lead to the most dangerous scoring areas. In doing so, the defense will often leave the wall open for a low-to-high pass back to the strong side D1. With the defense collapsed toward the goal to cover the three low forwards, D1 has the option to immediately turn the puck on net, cycle the puck back below the net, or move the puck across the blue line to D2 in search of a better angle for a shot or further pass.
At :12 in clip 2, Appleton transitions from an attempted low triangle play into a low-to-high play, cycling the puck up the far boards to the weakside D2 Vince Dunn (29) to reset the offensive set. Dunn receives the puck and immediately reverses it back down to Gourde below the goal line. But with the Panthers condensed, Gourde is forced to the outside and ends up sending the puck back to the point where Adam Larsson (6) ultimately shoots a wrist shot toward the slot looking for Mason Appleton’s deflection on goal. Appleton’s redirection does not work, the puck ricochets away, and the Panthers clear.
In this clip, the Kraken begin by working a low triangle. Eventually, Joonas Donskoi (72) sees four Hurricanes defenders collapsed low, taking away the triangle options. So Donskoi looks for an opportunity to get the puck back to the strong side point (D1). A defender denies the pass initially, so Donskoi skates back toward the blue line until the passing lane opens to get the puck to former Kraken blueliner Mark Giordano (5).
In this clip, the Kraken manage more than twenty seconds of offensive zone time, primarily by cycling two separate low-to-high passes into point shots. Initially, Ryan Donato (9) gains possession as F1 in the far side corner and then cycles the puck up the boards to D1 Larsson. Larsson unleashes a shot toward the net looking for a tip on goal, but the puck goes wide.
Donato moves down to retrieve the puck below the net and the play resets. By skating the puck to the near side, the near-side boards are now the strong side in scheme parlance, and Donato again cycles the puck to the strong-side point D1, this time Jamie Oleksiak (24). Oleksiak doesn’t see a desirable pass or shot, so he moves the puck along the blue line to D2 Larsson. Larsson eventually fires the puck toward the net, again looking for a deflection. The deflection opportunity fails for a second time in a row, and eventually the Bruins clear.
Defensemen shoot early and often in this scheme
The low-to-high play is a core offensive default scheme deployed by the Kraken. As shown in the videos, the low-to-high play most frequently results in point shots, meaning long-distance wristers or slap shots from defensemen near the blue line.
Hakstol’s system generates these shots from the point at an exceptionally high rate. According to hockey analyst Corey Sznajder, the Kraken set up the third most point shots per sixty minutes and have completed the eighth most low-to-high passes overall in the NHL.
HockeyViz’s heat maps can help us visualize this schematic preference. The charts below show the shot volume preference for each of Hakstol’s teams, with dark red meaning more shots relative to average, and dark blue meaning less. The commonality is unmistakable.
While these shots are not particularly threatening in isolation, the forwards are taught to move into a net front position in order to (a) block the goaltender from seeing the puck on its way in, and/or (b) to seek a deflection and rebound opportunity from the low slot. Per Sznajder, the Kraken generate the fifth most rebound opportunities in the league.
On the downside, if these relatively low probability shots are not going in or creating rebound opportunities, the offense can feel slow and over-determined, without room for goal production through creativity or skill along the forward line.
The keen observer may note from the heat map above that the 2021-22 Kraken tend to shoot mostly from the left point. I believe this is a result of the handedness of the regular defensemen on the roster, all of whom, aside from Adam Larsson and Will Borgen, are left shots. When a left-handed defenseman is playing the right point, his best opportunity to shoot comes when his body is rotated toward the middle of the ice and therefore the shot tends to come from closer to the middle than the right boards.
Scheme scorecard: the Kraken have struggled to create shot quality and goals
Seattle general manager Ron Francis has acknowledged that the team believed going into the season that they may struggle to score goals. But I don’t believe anyone associated with the team projected that with almost 70 games under the belt, the team would rank third to last in goals scored, and second to last in expected goals scored (which suggests that the offense has not been hindered by “bad luck”).
As the HockeyViz chart demonstrates, the Kraken have failed to generate an adequate volume of scoring opportunities from the slot. Some of this is talent based. The Kraken do not have the puck possession skill through the neutral zone to create regular controlled zone entries and line rush opportunities, nor do they have singular offensive play drivers who can regularly negotiate traffic and defeat coverage in close.
But the offensive zone scheme has not been able to manufacture shot quality either. The point shot scheme can create deflection and rebound opportunities. And, as noted, the Kraken have done reasonably well creating those types of chances. Yet, the team is below average in attempting and completing high-danger passes. Instead Seattle tends toward play on the periphery of the offensive zone where it is hard to score.
Indeed, per TopDownHockey’s analytics, the Kraken’s offense has produced shots with the lowest expected value per shot of any team in the league:
All involved must be disappointed in the production. The Kraken need to and will be looking at all avenues to improve their offensive zone play this offseason, both in terms of personnel and in tailoring the scheme to the strengths of the players on the team.
Next: decoding Hakstol’s penalty kill scheme
This part wraps the series examining the Kraken’s even strength schemes. In part 8, I’ll look at how Hakstol and his staff scheme their penalty kill to deny opponent scoring opportunities, and selectively counterstrike.