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The kick-out, the third back checker, and unnecessary division in an increasingly analytical hockey world

On playing the game, understanding the game, using stats to even better understand the game, and civilized debate.

Phoenix Coyotes v Toronto Maple Leafs

A little over two years ago, I wrote an open letter to those framing debate in hockey.

In the middle of a year that saw the hockey community torn apart by a debate on the place of analytics in the sport, the letter pleaded for a few things:

  1. Mainstream journalists needed to do a better job researching and learning, on their own, about analytics in hockey so that they could in turn break down new ideas for a larger audience. Journalists have the ability to make the complicated simple, and the hockey world needed them. They’re also, often, not good at math — hence (perhaps) why they went to journalism school.
  2. Those doing the innovation needed to be patient with everyone else, learn to better explain their ideas (most of which weren’t complicated), or find someone who could help them put their ideas into simpler terms.

Caricatures had developed. The self-righteous blogger needed to bridge a gap with the stubborn journalist — and vice-versa. It became a debate about personalities. Both sides didn’t like the other side’s attitude and the relationships eroded.

But two years later, even as the debate over the role of analytics has come to an end (there is no denying that analytics help teams better understand the game, and they are almost universally adopted by those who make consequential decisions at the highest levels), there’s still division.

For some, still, commentary on the use of analytics in hockey is met with push-back designed to question someone’s voice and authority. Often, this is in the form of questions about whether someone has “played the game” — which is a phrase narrowly defined by those who have played the game at the highest level as “someone who has played the game at the highest level,” because those who play recreationally or at a different level don’t qualify.

Experience at a high level is used as a measuring stick, and everyone else is expected to rise to that level. And having that experience is invaluable. Hockey is an extraordinarily fluid, dynamic game.

But like anything, the mechanics of hockey can be learned. Hockey can be studied. It can be studied through footage. It can be studied through third-party first-hand expertise. It can be studied through coaching the game, or scouting the game. It can be studied through reading about the game, and actually thinking about the game.

And hockey can be studied through an informed understanding of what the underlying numbers tell you.

If you define playing the game at an elite level as AAA and above, then I have never played the game. But I can still tell you what the third forward does on the back-check on a kick-out.

Disclaimer #1. Here’s my hockey experience: I started playing hockey when I was six years old (a year later than most because I was scared). I have played ever since. Along the way, I have suffered six concussions. When I was in Grade 7, after my fifth concussion, I quit playing contact/competitive hockey and lacrosse. Now I play recreationally in the summer in the GTA and in Carleton University’s intramural ball and ice hockey leagues (proud three-time champion). I shouldn’t still play (just ask my family or my doctor) but I do because I’m dumb and I love it. My coaching experience consists of running a summer camp in the GTA for two summers and coaching the Aurora High School Varsity Hockey Team in high school. Everything I have done in hockey has been at a mediocre level.

But I am fascinated by the mechanics, the strategy, and the Xs and Os. I also like to talk to people, people I can learn from. In the last four years, I have scouted four NHL draft classes with intelligent, well-versed, articulate people at McKeen’s Hockey and Future Considerations (some of whom currently scout for NHL and junior hockey teams — brownie points!?). I have evaluated, watched, and broken down the games of more than 1,000 prospects. Some of them, I have gotten wrong. I’ve also spoken with coaches, NHL scouts, and general managers at ever level about the systems they play and why they play them. I feel confident when I discuss the ins and outs of players, the way they function within a system, and the way their coaches use them. But I have a lot to learn.

Disclaimer #2. None of that matters. You should judge anything I say based on its substance. I just wasted 278 words on that first disclaimer.

The kick-out and the third back checker

The kick-what? First, lets define our parameters. A kick-out happens in the transition from offence to defense. In the defensive zone, on a won retrieval, the kick-out generally happens on an outlet pass to a forward in the middle of the zone — or on a two-touch play from a forward on the boards to a curling forward in the middle of the zone.

When the kick-out is converted, the teams have officially transitioned from offence to defence and vice-versa — possession has changed.

On offence, F1 is generally the primary forward (puck carrier) at entry into the offensive zone. F2 and F3 follow F1 sequentially into the zone (sometimes at almost the exact same time). When possession changes, F1 (deepest in the zone while on offence) and F3 (highest in the zone while on offence), generally switch.

Once possession switches, F1, formerly F3 (now the high man), picks up the opposing team’s primary offensive mark, F2 provides back support through the middle of the ice to help prevent a cross-ice play or drop-pass, and F3 (previously F1) picks up the trailer. If the third back-checker recognizes he can’t pick up the trailer, most coaches (not all) teach him to shoulder-check the opposing defencemen for threats, or cut off the half-wall in case the carrier stops up while going the other way. F1 (on the defensive side of the puck), is expected to stay with his mark (or skate hard to catch his mark) all the way back to the crease — if necessary.

Disclaimer #3: Things change quickly, improvisation is often required, not all coaches teach the same back check. Some coaches also don’t believe F1 and F3 swap, in which case F3 is always last into the o-zone but first out rather — pick up the mark instead of the trailer — and F1 is first into the o-zone and last out.

Here’s how that three-man back-check looks, on a kick-out, from a forward’s perspective, as evidence in a goal the Leafs gave up against the Blue Jackets last night:

On the forecheck, with the Leafs down 1-0 in the first period, Leo Komarov is the deep man, Nazem Kadri followed into the zone and William Nylander is the high man.

When the puck changes possession, so do the forwards’ responsibilities. Nylander, now F1, is tasked with getting back hard on the forecheck and does his job, picking up the carrier as he streaks down the boards with the puck.

As expected, Nylander pursues that mark all the way down the ice, finishing below the goal line, while Kadri drives the middle lane to prevent a cross-ice option and keep the play to the outside.

The mistake, however, is made when Komarov (who realizes he loses his trailer early on), doesn’t then make that necessary switch to covering the point. Instead, he collapses into the high slot without picking up a mark, leaving open a pass to the point and preventing him from getting there to front the ensuing point shot. When Brandon Dubinsky feeds Zach Werenski, Werenski has time and space to get off a shot, Jenner picks up the rebound, and the Leafs trail 2-0.

Until we start listening, attempting to learn, communicate, and open up our biases about people and hockey, it will be extremely difficult for all of us to move forward in a productive way. Here’s hoping we can all start doing a better job at engaging with each other on these topics, and others.

Analytics and systems don’t exist in alternative universes. They exist to inform and reinforce each other.