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Explaining Guy Boucher’s System: Part 1

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The first of two articles analyzing Boucher’s famous System

Ottawa Senators v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

One of the biggest talking points in the Senators’ fanbase this season has been Guy Boucher’s infamous System, which has largely been given credit for the team’s recent improvement in the defensive zone. However, judging by conversations on Twitter and Silver Seven, it seems that a lot of fans don’t know exactly what a system is, or why Guy Boucher’s is so much better than Dave Cameron’s. This is why I’ve teamed up with fellow Silver Seven writer Colin to write a two-part analysis of The System. This first part will focus on basic explanations and breakdowns of plays, while Colin’s will focus on numbers and data.

A coach’s “System” is, essentially, the directions he gives to his players when they are on the ice. This mostly involves positioning and set plays.

For example, let’s say I’m a right winger. In my first year, my coach tells me that when my team is in the defensive zone, I should plant myself along the boards and wait for a pass. That way, my defensemen know that when they get the puck behind the net, they should send it up the boards, where I will be waiting. My centreman also knows that I’m probably going to send it toward the middle of the ice, and positions herself accordingly. Everyone knows where they’re supposed to be, and because of that, the breakout works most of the time.

But let’s say I have a different coach in my second year. This one notices that in staying close to the boards, I’m leaving the opposing defensemen wide open at the blue line. To fix that problem, they give me different instructions: stick with the defenseman on my side, and make sure she doesn’t get the puck. My left winger does the same on her side, and my three other teammates each choose opposing players to cover. Maybe it’ll take me a few games to get used to the new instructions, but once I get the hang of it, my team will be able to effectively shut down our opposition when we’re in our own zone.

We’ll do the same thing in the offensive zone. One coach might say to cycle the puck, use the defensemen a lot, and focus on possession in order to get the best shot possible, while another might encourage their team to put everything on the net without worrying about possession. Needless to say, the effectiveness of certain systems often depends on the talent level of the team, as well which positions are stronger than others.

That brings me to the Sens. About a year ago, I published a fanpost on this website titled “Dave Cameron’s (Terrible) System,” in which I explained why Dave Cameron’s system simply wasn’t working for the team. In short, I pointed out that the Senators seemed to be improvising in all areas of the ice, as each player looked like they were playing according to a different coach’s system. There was no communication, no cohesiveness, nobody appeared to have any idea what they were supposed to be doing.

Obviously, that has changed a lot under Boucher.

This year, the Sens seem to have gone from one extreme to the other. Instead of a heart-stopping, totally improvisational free-for-all that highlights individual skill without having any structure whatsoever, they’re now playing a brand of controlled, calculated, low-event hockey. Everyone on the ice is playing a role, which is why the team as a whole has been playing better despite the fact that it feels like a lot of the players are having a bit of a down year.

What does this result in? Better breakouts, for one. Though anyone watching the games can tell that the Sens still suffer from the occasional defensive breakdown, they have generally been playing very aggressively along the boards, getting to the puck before their opponents, and have thus been able to exit the zone cleanly much more frequently than they did last year.

Furthermore, if you look at some of the recent goals against the Sens, the problems are mostly caused by players being out muscled or out skated instead of being wildly out of position. The second Sabres goal from the February 14th game is a good example of this.

That said, one area that could use a lot of improvement is the offensive zone. Under Cameron, Ottawa would often gain the zone, get a few shots away, and then go back to running around in front of their own net. While that certainly wasn’t ideal from a possession standpoint, the offensive chances the Sens did generate were almost always good ones. Remember how exciting it used to be to see Ottawa gain the offensive zone? That’s because there was always a good chance they’d score.

Now, on the other hand, it looks like the Senators are so caught up in their set plays and their positioning that they forget how to be creative. They don’t do many one-timers, but rather pass the puck around a lot. I’m assuming that’s the main reason for Ottawa’s woes on the man advantage.

However, this strategy does result in extended time in the offensive zone, which is always a good thing. For an example of a play in which The System worked well, let’s check out Ottawa’s third goal against Dallas on Thursday, February 9th.

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We start with a solid zone entry: Stone has the puck along the boards, Dzingel is at centre headed toward the net, and Brassard is hanging back. Ceci is right behind Stone.

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This is where we see the difference compared to last season. Stone sends the puck backward to Ceci, Dzingel reaches the front of the net, and suddenly the Sens are cycling the puck. I explained that play in my last post, but in case you need a reminder: Stone, Dzingel and Ceci are essentially moving in a circle. If they go by the book, once Stone passes the puck backward, he’s going to take Dzingel’s place down low, Ceci will move in toward the hashmarks and Dzingel will skate along the edge of the circle until he ends up behind Ceci. Ceci will then send the puck backward to Dzingel, and the cycle will continue with each player taking the other one’s place until they get a good enough scoring chance. The centreman (Brassard) and the other defenseman will simply try to get themselves open.

When Ceci gets the puck, he will have the option to either continue the cycle to maintain possession, or make a move right away.

This is not the kind of thing we used to see in Ottawa.

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He chooses the latter. Seeing that he has three teammates down low, he decides to send the puck toward the net. He’s probably hoping for a deflection, but even if that doesn’t happen right away, he knows there’s a good chance one of the Sens forwards will pick up the puck. Considering one of them is Mark Stone, I’d say that’s a pretty good bet.

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Sure enough, it results in a goal, as Stone takes the puck behind the net for a wraparound. This play works because the Sens are all in their proper positions, yet still play with a significant amount of urgency.

Even if Stone hadn’t succeeded in scoring, Ottawa would have been in a good position to get another scoring chance, with Brassard in the slot, Dzingel in front of the net and two defensemen at the point.

Has Boucher made this team better? I would say so. He’s brought structure and communication to a reasonably young team, and his system certainly looks to have resulted in more consistent, sustainable play. I’m only saying that based off observation though: Colin’s post will dive into the actual stats.

One big reason for optimism about The System is that it seems very well adapted to the playoffs, where teams tend to tighten up and limit creativity. If the Sens manage to make the playoffs, I think they’ll have a decent chance of at least winning a round.