September 17, 2010
Guy Boucher's entrance into the NHL head-coaching fraternity has had a whiff of the Steve-Spurrier-to-the-Redskins vibe: An innovative coach bringing a system that worked at a lower level of competition to the big leagues, amidst considerable hype. (For Boucher, via his public rejection of the Columbus Blue Jackets in favor of the Tampa Bay Lightning.)
In Spurrier's case, it was the Fun ‘n Gun offense. In Boucher's case, it's a novel strategy that the Columbus Dispatch said "stands alone in modern professional hockey."
Boucher runs a 1-3-1 forecheck - which is rare in its own right - but it includes a highly unusual wrinkle. While the first skater into the zone steers the puck toward the outside, the left-side defenseman skates along the left wall with two forwards to his right and the right-side defenseman trailing the play.
"(Dallas coach) Marc Crawford is pretty much the only coach in the NHL who even dabbles in a 1-3-1 zone," said an AHL coach who has coached against Boucher. "And Crawford has the defenseman in the middle of the ice with the other two skaters, not off on the wall."
("Dabbles in the 1-3-1" is either our favorite new description of Marc Crawford or a sexual euphemism-in-waiting.
With Boucher's first camp with the Lightning about to begin, Damian Cristodero of the St. Pete Times attempted to crack the new system open ... but found Boucher unforthcoming and players like Marty St. Louis unsure of what, exactly, it is. But he managed to shed a little light on what the Bolts will play this season.
From the Times, Cristodero does his best to explain the innovation:
The coach wants the puck on the sticks of his top six forwards. That means immediately moving the puck forward and eschewing, for the most part, the passes between defensemen that so many teams use to start clearing the defensive zone.
The defense will pick its spots to join the rush but will not hang back, either, coming forward enough toward the opposing blue line to oppose counter-attacks while being in position to jump into the offense.
Defensive zone coverages will include a somewhat unique technique in which two defensemen converge on opponents in corners to force turnovers. If the defensemen get beat, forwards are expected to play stout defense.
The question of the preseason for Boucher: Does this roster offer the personnel necessary to make the system work?
The lack of a classic puck-moving defenseman, for example, might be a concern, although Boucher downplayed it. To complete the Spurrier analogy: It was a rude awakening when the Redskins' offensive line was bad to the point where his quarterbacks had neither fun nor gun. So the system's only as good as the players making it work.
Boucher's one of the most interesting stories of the preseason, and in the Southeast. Like Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings, he's got a post-grad degree in Sports Psychology (wonder if Yzerman noticed?) and Tampa Tribune columnist Joe Henderson is impressed:
I had never heard a hockey team described as a table. Until now.
"One leg is the physical part. Everybody is great at that because they all have personal trainers now. You've got the technical part, shooting this way or skating that way. You've got the tactical part, the team tactics and systems. Coaches spend all their time on that," he said.
"Then the other leg that's missing is the mental part of the game. We all say it's the most important part of the game, but what are the tools?"
Boucher is all about tools.