I’m not sure I believe in ‘puck possession’.
No, I’m not advocating some transcendentalist hockey philosophy that suggests that no one can truly every possess the puck, the puck being a free object controlled but none by the hockey gods themselves. That, probably, would be silly. I believe that there is such a thing as a puck that may be possessed by a particular player at any given moment. What I’m uncertain about is the existence of ‘puck possession’ as a distinct hockey strategy; i.e. a style that a coach chooses to impart to players over other, competing styles. What people mean when they say that the Red Wings are a ‘puck possession’ team, or that Martin wants to train the Canadiens to play a ‘puck possession’ system, that concept of puck possession. I think…maybe… perhaps… possibly… it’s bullshit.
My doubts arise from the suspicion that ‘playing a puck possession style’ is just a code for ‘being a very good hockey team’. There is clearly no such thing as a puck dispossession style. There is no such thing as a keep-that-motherfucking-puck-as-far-away-from-us-as-possible style (except insofar as that is the preferred style of goalies everywhere). Most hockey teams, most of the time, want to have the puck. Trying to get the puck and keep it is fundamental to the game.
There is, I concede, a kind of possession-indifferent style. The storied neutral zone trap strategy places more importance on controlling the lines and protecting the defensive zone than it does on getting the puck. A trap team may go for long stretches of the game without actively pursuing possession, content to dispossess the opponents again and again until the perfect opportunity arises for an offensive push. But this is comparatively rare, since there aren’t so very many pure trap teams left in the world.
Even if there were, though, I’m not sure that contrasting puck possession to the trap proves anything. The trap has long been considered an equalizing strategy, the final recourse of the offensively-deficient. The trap is what you play when you think you’re going to get your ass kicked on open ice. So if the defining characteristic of puck-possession hockey is that it isn’t trap hockey, it comes back to my initial hypothesis: puck possession strategy = being good at hockey.
A new angle. Forget intentions, consider actions. What are the definable actions that distinguish a puck possession style from other possible styles? This is hockey, not international espionage- any strategy at work should be clearly visible on the ice surface. A color commentator of reasonable intelligence, observing a trap team in play, would be able to select certain plays, repeat them in slow motion, and outline with circles and arrows in bright neon yellow exactly when a given player takes an action redolent of trappishness. You can see the trap in play. What would be the distinct actions that are redolent of puck possessiveness?
Under what circumstances in a hockey game do teams voluntarily, deliberately, surrender possession? Involuntary losses of the puck don’t count- one player’s ability to hold the puck in a situation where another might make a giveaway is an example of skill, not strategy. No, the important question is: In what situation does a puck possession team keep the puck when another equally skilled, equally rational team might choose to forsake it?
The shot. I haven’t done the research to back it up, but I’d guess that a preponderance of shots result in a loss of possession for the shooting team, as the puck generally ends up in the netting, in the goalie, or bouncing back towards the neutral zone. Theoretically, a strategy based on puck possession might emphasize taking fewer shots of more precise calibration, resulting in a lower shot count and a higher shooting percentage than other teams. We may, however, reject this proposition on two grounds: firstly, the entire aim of possession is to get shots on net, it would be ridiculously self-defeating to forego shots in favor of aimless puck-wandering (although such a choice is not unimaginable for those of us familiar with Alexei Kovalev); secondly, there is the empirical evidence of identified puck possession teams, who seem to have normal-to-high shot counts.
The dump-in. Opposing a puck possession style to a dump-and-chase style might be on the same level as opposing it to the trap; that is, what you’re really doing is opposing skill to not-skill. After all, dump and chase is most commonly found in hockey as the preserve of bottom-six forwards who can’t be trusted to do anything fancier. It’s the default, basic, not-exactly-smart-but-at-least-it’s-not-stupid play- just get it in deep- but it’s also usually seen as something to be superseded if one has the talent to do so. However, there have on occasion been teams, even teams with skilled offensive forwards, who chose to make dump-and-chase their preferred mode of attack. I’m still inclined to think such teams are a minority, however, like pure trap teams.
The clear. There are a variety of ways for a defending team to get the puck out of their zone, but several of the more popular ones involve a probable loss of possession. Under pressure, most players will happily take a nice toss up the boards to no one in particular. Even more pressure, and they’ll take any available tap or whack over an open stretch of blue line, anything for a little room, an extra breath, a change. Given space, and time, and vision, most teams will happily take a moment to set up an attack in their territory, but keep a team in their own hole for a minute or a half and most will take any opportunity to get the puck free. It takes courage, or hubris, or an absolute faith in some kind of system to ignore those options and try to make a cute pass or deke a defenseman when you’re still escaping more than attacking.
Which is where we come, at the end, to the Canadiens. When Martin came in and started talking about a puck possession system, it seemed like little more than talk- a story for the press, the obligatory rationale for the fans. Every new coach has to say he’s got something new to offer, and puck possession is a popular buzzword of late. But something’s been bugging me about the Canadiens play style thus far in the season, and I think it might be exactly that last point: they (or at least their top two forward lines and the occasional defenseman) are passing up the easy, pragmatic defensive plays in favor of the high-risk, high-reward options. Because we know enough now to know that if Gionta or Gomez can get out into open ice with puck on stick, they can pick up speed through the neutral zone and make landfall at the opponents’ crease before half the other players on the ice have hit the red line. We know that, they know that, and the results are dazzling when it works… but the first step, that first fucking step beyond the blue line with clear possession… it’s hard, man, and the risks are huge. Turn that thing over while most of your forwards are looking outbound and picking up speed and there’s very little left behind to protect the poor lemur in the net, other than Hal Gill’s blessedly immobile bulk.
I think, God help us, they really are trying to be a puck possession team. I just don’t know if they’re good enough to make it work.
Sunday, November 01, 2009
I’m not sure I believe in ‘puck possession’.