The word we all keep hearing to describe the Flames under Darryl Sutter has been “fast.” It is undeniable that the team looks way quicker on the ice, and there is a lot less east to west movement, replaced with almost exclusively straight line speed.
One of the major advantages of this system is that it does not let the other team get set up in their neutral zone forecheck, and it helps the Flames trap the other team on bad changes a lot more often.
Now there are a few risks with “quick-ups.” For one, they often mean that the Flames are attacking without their full five man unit, and in a less organized way. This could sometimes mean that controlled entries are harder, but with the clear emphasis on dumping the puck in, the threat of losing a few entries goes away. They waste no time getting the puck back behind the opposition defensemen, and re-establishing their forecheck, which has looked remarkably better in just two Sutter games.
Neutral Zone Play
The neutral zone is one of the main places where you see the changes made under Sutter. Before Sutter, the Flames would spend a lot of time re-grouping, have their forwards loop back, and try to launch an attack from there.
The obvious problem with that strategy is that in the time it takes to have all of your forwards circle back, the opposing defence can either change or set up their forecheck. In the past, this has led to a lot of difficult stretch pass attempts from their defencemen which rarely work, and in general the Flames end up settling for turnovers or chip-in dump attempts with no speed.
It is clear under Sutter that there is a new urgency in the neutral zone to get the puck back into the offensive zone as quickly as possible.
I love this play from Juuso Valimaki in Sutter’s second game as head coach. This was an easy opportunity to re-group and have everyone retreat. Instead, he quickly goes forward, makes a quick dish to Dillon Dube, and then skates forward as hard as he can to recover the puck and create a decent scoring chance.
This is also an example of the chaos that can be created using this system. Montreal had no structured defence set up because they did not have time to get organized. Calgary used this to their advantage and generated offence when Montreal might not have expected it.
Chris Tanev has been great at these transition plays as well. In the first game with Sutter, he made this quick play recovering the puck in the neutral zone, wasted no time in re-attacking, and pinned some Montreal defenders in the process.
The concept here is the same as Valimaki’s play. Instead of waiting for teammates, Tanev took the puck right back at Montreal. It doesn’t lead directly to a scoring chance, but it re-established the forecheck and let Calgary spend more time in the fun zone.
Even when there is one pass backwards to escape pressure, the next pass goes forward. Here, Milan Lucic makes a nice play to pick up a turnover, sent it back to Mark Giordano who was clearly open with no pressure, and Giordano’s next move was to send it up to Josh Leivo, who was already skating in anticipation of a transition back to offence.
All of this happened just seconds after the Canadiens worked to clear the puck, and they only managed a partial change before the puck went right back below the dots in their own zone.
No time behind the net
Another area where you see the adjustments is on dump ins when Calgary defencemen have clear control of the puck. In the past, this is somewhere the Flames have really beat themselves. By standing behind the net and waiting for teammates, their defensemen often have to rely on hundred foot stretch passes or even worse, rimming the puck around the boards to their teammates.
Under the previous system, this would have been a no-brainer for Tanev to wait for all of his teammates. Instead, Tanev applies the same principal from the neutral zone. Go north, get the puck deep, go back to work on the forecheck. Notice how soft the Canadiens’ forecheck is. Without time to set up, they have no choice but to sit back.
As soon as Jesperi Kotkaniemi turned away from attacking the puck, Tanev already started accelerating with full intention of getting out of his own zone first. While he does dump the puck as soon as it became an option, it’s still a play that indicates quick thinking instead of taking the time to slow the game down behind their net.
Getting up to speed
These are just a few examples of the Sutter effect on the Flames. The old adage “the best defence is a good offence” seems to apply here. To amend it a bit, “the best defence is continuously keeping the puck 200 feet from your own goal” seems to be the idea for the Flames. They spend much less time with the puck in their own zone, and way more time grinding deep in opposition territory. This neutral zone play is a big reason why their shot metrics have been so dominant in two games under Sutter.
Two games in, the system is working.
Photo Credit: Gerry Thomas