BROSSARD, Que.— The phrase has been uttered so often by members of the Montreal Canadiens since training camp opened 15 days ago that it should be painted on the dressing room wall.
“We want to play faster,” they keep saying.
They’re not alone. It’s the way of this National Hockey League. The game is now being played at breakneck pace, and it moves up and down — and far less side-to-side — than it has in recent years. So if you’re not building your system to achieve that style of play, you’re getting left in the dust.
Still, it’s a notion that needs some explaining. Something deeper than the puck-moves-quicker-than-anyone-can-skate type of cliché coaches and players rely on to avoid giving away their secrets.
We asked Canadiens coach Claude Julien for some technical examples of how his team intends to play faster this season than it did in achieving the league’s 28th-best record last season.
“We’re trying not to get painted on the wall and stopped,” he responded after Tuesday’s practice. “I think we’re in movement a lot more this year and our transition game is better because of that. We talked about our speed and we just want to use our speed more. When you have to stop and take off again, it takes away from that speed. So it’s not about going in circles; it’s about making sure that you’re in movement all the time so that when you do get the puck you’ve already got some of that speed.
“And we talk about the quick transition and moving the puck quick to those guys because it’s hard for teams to go from offence [and] losing the puck to having to get back in good position defensively. With good transition and quick play you’re able to catch teams off balance.”
That’s something the Canadiens failed to do with any consistency last season, but it’s also something they’ve been doing rather successfully in building a 4-1 record through pre-season this September.
One of the biggest adjustments they’ve made to ensure that transition from defence to offence happens quicker is to reduce the frequency of lateral passes between defencemen as first-pass breakout options.
According to ThePointHockey.com, only 11 teams employed D-to-D passing at even strength more frequently than the Canadiens did last season and only five of those 11 teams made the playoffs.
It was in January of last season that Bruce Cassidy brought his Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins to Montreal and was asked to explain the biggest tactical change he made in taking over from Julien in February of 2017.
“We try not to slow the game down,” said Cassidy. “By that I mean, when the D gets puck possession, it’s not always D-to-D. For us, we’re trying to go north. We’re up ice in a hurry. You can’t go up the ice in a hurry if the other four guys aren’t ready for the puck. So that’s what we tried to instill in practice from Day 1 is getting it up in a hurry before defences set their defence, or if they’re in a line change [we want to] make them think.”
It’s the same thing the Vegas Golden Knights were doing en route to becoming known as the fastest team in hockey last season. And they may have been borrowing the tactic from the Columbus Blue Jackets, who rattled off 16 consecutive wins a year prior when coach John Tortorella turned D-to-D passing into a tactic of last resort.
“When Columbus went on that insane run of wins we watched a lot of their video,” said Canadiens defenceman Karl Alzner, who was with the Washington Capitals in 2016. “In five games we saw them do maybe a total of two D-to-D passes and it made them so fast it was almost impossible to play against.”
That’s what the Canadiens are hoping for and they’re making other adjustments to generate that result.
“We’ve changed up the whole neutral zone,” said Alzner. “Zone entries seem to be a pretty good indicator of teams and how they’re playing. The fewer clean zone entries we allow, the better we’re playing. We’re stepping up on a lot more plays in the neutral zone because we’re trying to be more aggressive to stop the play at our line. We have much better back-pressure from our forwards to enable us to do that.”
The offensive structure has changed, too.
“A lot of really good net-front traffic is a change and it’s huge,” said Alzner. “You saw two goals from Xavier [Ouellet against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday] just because of it. It seems to me we’re replacing really well up top, too — meaning if one guy is down low, the next guy is in his spot ensuring we don’t get caught in transition back to defence.”
None of it works without the commitment of each player. The minute one of them starts freelancing, the game slows down and it forces everyone else to scramble to react and inevitably ends up leading to overthinking instead of relying on the muscle memory the system instills.
“At times, when you’re struggling like we were last year, you do a little bit extra and that’s where you get into trouble,” said Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher. “That takes you further away from where you want to be. Last year we had a lot of issues we had to fix. But just playing as a five-man unit on the ice is more of what we need to do; trusting the system and trusting the structure. So far in the pre-season — it is just pre-season — I think everyone is starting to believe that can be a winning formula for us.”
It’s going to have to be. The Canadiens don’t have the depth of talent that Boston, Toronto, and several other teams across the league possess. They need to be working completely in unison in order to ramp up their pace of play and take advantage of the speed they have up front.
“I think you can be aggressive and fast when guys are in the right position,” said Gallagher. “You can’t forecheck hard if you don’t have support, and the D-men can’t pinch when they don’t have support. It’s what we’ve been talking about all pre-season.”
We’ll see if they can put into practice with regularity come regular season.