The Calgary Flames have been a vastly improved side this season under Head Coach Darryl Sutter. With the exception of Blake Coleman, the majority of the Flames’ changes from last season to this have been in their playing style, which has been faster and harder at all ends of the ice. They have been faster in their breakouts, more relentless in their forechecking, and have limited the opposition’s chances in the defensive zone.
Perhaps the biggest change for the Flames has been their ability to exploit the neutral zone in order to create offence. The team has been able to move from their own zone to the neutral zone and either dump the puck in with speed or carry the puck into the offensive zone with possession. One of the big things that they have implemented into their system has been negative passing, which has made a huge difference.
What is negative passing?
Negative passing is any pass that does not go forward or advance the play. This is both back passing and lateral passing, which are counterintuitively effective at advancing the run of play. Negative passing has not been popular in hockey until recently, but has been a key part of possession-heavy styles of play in soccer, such as FC Barcelona’s tiki-taka or the Dutch total football.
The key strategy behind negative passing was broken down in a brilliant thread by soccer analyst Domagoj Kostanjsak. He argues that there are three key advantages to having this tactic in a team’s system: first, it changes the angle of attack, which forces defenders to readjust on the fly, second, it allows teams to break up defensive blocks, and finally, it helps push the pace.
These advantages are broadly the same in hockey. When playing against teams who stack the neutral zone, it is especially difficult to move the puck to the red line for a dump in and even harder to carry the puck into the offensive zone. The puck carrier is immediately facing a wall of defenders as they try to carry through the zone, but employing a drop pass, it forces the defenders to readjust to the new direction the team is taking to get through. Because the player receiving the pass already knows where they want to go, the other team is often left scrambling on how to react.
How have the Flames employed this play?
The big difference as well with this play is it enhances the pace of play. The Flames have been employing this on the power play for years now with varying success. The first forward skates the puck through the neutral zone, then drops the puck to Gaudreau who picks it up with pace and is able to gain the blueline without much opposition.
At 5v5, this play looks a bit different. There are two broad moves the Flames employ. The first is the defenceman passes the puck up the wall to the winger, who drops it to the centre laterally in the middle of the ice who then reads the play and either skates it out for a zone entry or who makes another pass to gain the line. The second, the defenceman passes it to the centre at the defensive blueline who drops it to the weak side defenceman to skate it out. This second option has been employed particularly well by Oliver Kylington for numerous smooth-skating zone entries.
What this play does is it moves the puck laterally across the ice, which forces the defensive structure of the opposition to change their structure to adapt to the new angles of attack. This is not something most teams are great at, and given both the pace of play by the Flames, they are able to gain the zone quite effectively.
The Flames use this move a lot in game, but it rarely shows up on the highlight reel. Here is one example of when it does on the goal by Matthew Tkachuk in the loss to the Carolina Hurricanes:
Watch the way that the angle of attack changes so substantially when the Flames regain possession. The puck travels laterally from one side of the rink to the other and all the way back again for the goal. The Canes’ defenders are unable to react to the lateral movement effectively in order to defend this play, and with four passes, the puck is in the back of the net.
This system relies heavily on pace, but also on vision and skill. Without a keen awareness of where your teammates are, the results can be disasterous. The Flames have broadly been successful using this play, but were beat badly by the Ottawa Senators, who exploited this tendency.
The Sens’ forechecker attacked the forward on the boards, forcing a turnover and the puck was in the Flames’ net before they could even react. The way the Flames’ tried to breakout was linear, and the Sens were able to exploit it right along the boards. Because the Sens had three players in the breakout, the Flames would have had a two-on-two were they able to get the puck out quickly to neutral ice, but instead the Flames went down by three and were unable to come back.
What does it all mean?
When used effectively, neutral passing has been one of the Flames’ most effective tools this season. Their ability to move the puck laterally or backwards to change the angle of attack and add pace has made their movement through the neutral zone substantially more effective than it was last season. Add pace and a relentless forecheck, this team looks far improved already despite adding few substantial pieces in the off-season. If they can continue to play their game effectively, the Flames have a lot to look forward to in the spring.