Upstart Golden Knights Similar to 2015-16 Penguins

In a recent press conference, San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer was asked about the similarities between the 2015-16 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the Sharks current rival, the Vegas Golden Knights.

In 2016, the Penguins defeated DeBoer’s Sharks in six games to win the Stanley Cup, so it’s a subject DeBoer is familiar with. In his response, DeBoer pushed back on the notion these teams were similar. Still, the question had merit. Game in and game out, it’s hard to ignore the similarity in style. For what its worth, DeBoer’s team fell to Vegas – in six games.

Similar Hockey

There is no such thing as two teams which are identical. A team changes a good bit over the course of a season, and from one year to the next. So yes, it is easy to find differences between the Pens team of 2015-16 led by head coach Mike Sullivan and the Golden Knights team of 2017-18 led by head coach Gerard Gallant. But this is not about being identical. It’s about a style of play and how to counter it. And on this front, the similarities are striking.

Mike Sullivan
Mike Sullivan (Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports)

So what are the common elements in the formula for both Vegas and the former champion Penguins? And if they are similar in style, does this also mean the way to effectively respond is also similar?

We’ll cover the approaches and look at ways to counter them through the eyes of the Sharks playoff series against these two teams. In the end, we’ll get answers to both of the above questions.

Speed is the Word?

Anaheim Ducks general manager Bob Murray is one of many hockey executives who consider speed to be important. Murray cited the need to improve his team’s speed just days after his team’s playoff elimination in April. Speed is a buzzword across the league. Vegas plays with speed, as did the 2015-16 Penguins.

But speed isn’t the decider; it’s more nuanced than that.

Goals in today’s NHL are mostly scored three basic ways: from set offenses, from quick-strikes and from power plays. It’s the distribution of goal-scoring within these categories that matters. Vegas and Pittsburgh place increased importance on quick-strike goals. Most of the game is played with set offenses working against set defenses. However, these are low percentage scoring chances. One gets much higher scoring percentages if the offense happens before the defense can properly set up. This is why quick-strike scores are so effective – the quality of the chances is much better.

The Golden Knights and the Pens, by design, do a lot of quick-strike scoring. Not surprisingly, they try to create these opportunities in similar ways.

The Penguins/Golden Knights Formula: Step One

The philosophy of “offense from defense” isn’t lip service here, its gospel. The first element is constant defensive pressure, especially where the pressure creates high-quality opportunities for “offense from defense.”

For both Pittsburgh and Vegas, generating turnovers (with the occasional help of puck luck) is a major source of offense from defense. Turnovers are especially valuable in the other team’s defensive zone or when the opponent is attempting to get through the neutral zone.

The teams force turnovers by doing a few specific things. At its heart, it’s simply pressure on the puck, often in the form of forechecking. Effective forechecking makes it difficult for opponents to advance the puck cleanly up the ice.

Of course, forechecking has been around pretty much since the advent of hockey, so what is different here? The key is the pressure on the puck must arrive quickly. It does not require heavy pressure or overwhelming force. Instead, the force must be disruptive to the other team’s timing and decision-making. I call this approach fast forechecking.

We’ll look at this from the perspective of a puck-handler in his own defensive zone. Hesitations of just a tenth of a second are often enough time for an open passing lane to get closed off. A disruption leading to a small puck bobble, a tiny loss of balance or an extra move needed to protect the puck is sufficient.

Disruption is especially effective if the player with the puck isn’t sure where his teammates are or where they are going. Whatever the plan is to advance the puck, if the puck handler doesn’t know it, a turnover is likely. Disrupt the player with the puck before he can assess the situation and the turnover becomes much more likely.

Vegas and Pittsburgh anticipate turnovers, so they’re ready to transition to offense the moment they occur. They go quickly on the ensuing rush, tend to skate in straight lines and critically, don’t give the opposing defense a chance to get set.

In the video from the 2016 Cup Final, the Pens Carl Hagelin (62) disrupts the Sharks Brenden Dillon (4). The disruption begins in the Sharks defensive corner even before Dillon has the puck. It is not overly physical, but it is effective. Dillon manages to have some control of the puck and skates almost all the way to center ice. But he’s also under continuous pressure from Hagelin, so it never seems Dillon has good control of the puck. Nor can he pass the puck. The continuous pressure doesn’t allow Dillon to see what other choices he has. Dillon is skated where Hagelin wants him to go, into a second Pens defender, Nick Bonino (13). The play results in a turnover and the Pens immediately seize the opportunity.

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When the turnover is forced, the Pens instantly go to offense. Note the hard, straight line skating by Eric Fehr (16), the eventual goal scorer, on the ensuing odd-man rush.

This goal below by Vegas fits a similar pattern. The Sharks break up the Vegas entrance, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) gains possession of the puck. But Reilly Smith (19) pressures him and Vlasic tries to make an additional move to get some space. Before he can finish the move to shake Smith, William Karlsson (71) arrives and tips the puck away from Vlasic. It takes a fortunate bounce onto the stick of Smith, goes quickly to Jonathan Marchessault (81) and turns into a goal.

Vlasic rarely gets the puck taken from him, let alone have it turn into a goal against. But Vegas did this to him twice in the series.

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This same basic description covers many of the goals scored by Pittsburgh and Vegas against San Jose. Fast forecheck -> turnover -> quick change to offense -> hard straight line skating -> goal.

The fast forecheck works hand-in-hand with understanding the opponent’s system. If a player has the puck in his own zone and disruptive pressure comes quickly enough, he won’t have sufficient time to review his options. In this case, he simply moves the puck where the system design tells him. If the opponents know the system too, they can position themselves in the passing lanes, and again, garner turnovers which lead to quick strike chances.

All this is analogous to a receiver in football getting open. It doesn’t matter if the receiver is open if the quarterback doesn’t know it. Likewise, if the receiver is well covered, but only for the brief moment the quarterback looks in that direction, it is as good as being covered 100% of the time.

A hockey player under pressure has four different teammates to pass the puck to (five including the goalie), but if all of the passing lanes are closed off, he is in trouble. It’s very hard for a defense to clog every passing lane. But if the player with the puck doesn’t have time to assess which passing lanes are open and has to guess, then clogging half the passing lanes still works half the time. If the player has time to assess which passing lanes are open, the forecheck won’t be effective.

This is the challenge created by fast forechecking – the player with the puck has insufficient time to figure out what the right play is. Some of the time, it becomes a turnover and a quick-strike attempt follows.

The Penguins/Golden Knights Formula: Step Two

Speed helps the disruptive defensive game work, but it is more than simply speed. Even speed isn’t the best term, since it’s more about quickness. The sort of quickness usually found in smaller players who can stop, start and cover short distances in a hurry. But even quickness isn’t quite the right term.

To make this work, the team needs to be relentless. More than any other term, being “relentless” is what defines the system. This isn’t a formula which works well if applied occasionally. It is a sixty-minute philosophy, more if the game goes to overtime. It is an every shift of every game philosophy. I described this style as 60 Minutes of Hell.

In a sense, this is a numbers game. The more times a team uses this fast, disruptive pressure, the more turnovers are generated. A fraction of these turnovers lead to quick-strike opportunities – some of which result in goals.

The Penguins/Golden Knights Formula: Step Three

Teams need to be careful about overcommitting in their offensive zone against the Pens or Golden Knights. If the Pens or Golden Knights get a helpful bounce, they’re instantly attacking. A simple way of looking at it, a 4-on-3 advantage in the offensive zone down low is good, but if the overcommitment turns into a 2-on-1 odd man rush going the other way, the odd man rush is a lot more likely to become a score. A bad pinch is another way to generate these sorts of odd-man rushes.

It isn’t just turnovers which create offense. The Pens and Golden Knights attack quickly because it is what they do best, even if the numbers are not in their favor. It’s the same idea  – get up the ice before the opposing defense gets set and challenge the defending team to make the right choice on the play. The execution without a numbers advantage coming up the ice is slightly different, but the challenge is similar. Create mental and physical pressure and hope the opponent errs.

This is precisely what occurred in William Karlsson’s overtime game-winner against San Jose in Game 3.

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The Sharks are ever so slightly overcommitted in the offensive zone. When Vegas gets the puck off a bounce, Joe Pavelski (8) is slow to react. Note where Karlsson (71) is at the start of the play compared to Pavelski. Karlsson is the faster skater, but Pavelski has 10-15 foot advantage. Karlsson goes about 80 feet before he accepts the pass, Pavelski only needs to cover 65 to break it up. If he reads the play correctly, he’ll take away the eventual passing lane. It’s not hard to read correctly, but it’s hard to read quickly. From Karlsson’s first stride until he gets the pass, he’s skating in a straight line. Defensively for San Jose, what matters is reading the play, then reacting properly and quickly. None of the Sharks involved read the play properly or quickly.

Trace the movement of San Jose defensemen, Paul Martin (7) and Brent Burns (88). None of the Sharks players are skating in hard, straight lines. Vegas takes an innocuous breakout opportunity and turns it into a quick strike goal because their aggressiveness and quickness caused confusion.

Erik Haula’s goal in Game 1 of the series was similar. So was Jonathan Marchessault’s score in the same game. Vegas didn’t have the numbers entering the zone, but the Sharks defense didn’t have the time to set up properly and the Vegas players took advantage.

One important subtlety, the aggressive approach tends to sucker opposing teams into playing the same style as Vegas and Pittsburgh. Thing is, Vegas and Pittsburgh are really good at it because they play it all the time. Though it isn’t on the video, it is part of the story on the Karlsson goal. San Jose tried playing Vegas-style hockey, racing up the ice on this possession before Vegas got the puck back. But racing up and down the ice is not what San Jose does best and it played into the hands of Vegas.

The Penguins/Golden Knights Formula: Step Four

In order to create this relentless pressure and be effective, teams must be disciplined and deep. Rolling four lines is an oft-used expression around the league. It’s said far more often than it’s employed. For these teams, though, it’s critical.

Rolling lines is an essential part of relentless hockey. Relentless hockey demands a ton of energy and depth. In the case of Pittsburgh, it was the team’s third line which did a ton of damage against the Sharks in 2015-16.

This style only works if there is a strong buy-in with the right mix of talent and mindset.

The roster requires players who identify with the phrase “defense leads to offense.” The right mindset requires discipline. The defensive structure doesn’t allow for chasing the play, it requires players being in right locations, because this leads to turnovers. Puck watching is a no-no.

The right roster means rolling four high-energy lines. It is insanely hard to play this style without substantial rest between shifts. If a team overplays its top unit, the top unit will stop being effective because it can’t be as relentless. William Karlsson is the top Vegas forward in ice time this season, but he is only 55th among NHL forwards in average time-on-ice. A bit less ice time helps a player to be fresher and more aggressive over the course of a period, a game and a season.

Finally, this approach relies on players assuming every situation can become a quick-strike opportunity. It means pressing play at every opportunity, even if the opportunity doesn’t look promising.

To be fully effective, it helps greatly to have players on every line capable of scoring on quick strikes. Both the 2015-16 Pens and current Golden Knights have deep, talented rosters. The pedigree of the top Pens skaters is more apparent and ultimately, it’s probably the biggest difference between the two teams. Style-wise though, they are at least close cousins, if not siblings.

Getting It Done

Before I end this part, I’ll offer up a few more links to videos of goals which came about as a result of the relentless style of play. You’ll see plenty of similarities as you explore the clips. The quickness of the defense causes a turnover leading to a high percentage scoring chance. In each clip, the time between when a Sharks player last has control of the puck and when the opponent scores is about three seconds.

Vegas forces a Vlasic turnover and turns it into another score. This was the second time a Vlasic turnover resulted in a quick-strike Vegas goal in the series.

Pens pressure causes Sharks turnover and it turns into a score. Note the Pens clogging the passing lane and the Pens straight line skating

Pens pressure causes a Sharks turnover and Pens score.

Both teams place a major emphasis on creating high percentage chances which result in quick-strike scores. This is a huge portion of the offense for these teams. It’s also a big reason for their success.

Relentless and Effective

When I watch Vegas, I see much in common with the 2015-16 Mike Sullivan-coached Pens. Sure, the players are different, but the approach isn’t.

Let me be clear, I’m a fan of this style and I think it’s good for the game. It is what Sullivan brought to the Pens and it’s carried them to a pair of Stanley Cups. Sure, it helps to have superstars in the lineup. But until Sullivan arrived, the Pens had spent several years coming up short, even with their superstar talent. Further, the Pens won their Cups despite significant injuries.

We know these two teams are hard to beat, their records prove it. But what does work against this form of relentless hockey, besides trying the same thing with more talent? San Jose’s experience provides some answers.

Countering Relentless Hockey

I’ll start with something which seems like a good idea at first, but doesn’t work. If there is relentless defensive pressure up the ice, it seems likely a team could strike back with stretch passes and odd-man rushes. Alas, there are two basic challenges with this approach. First, it’s not easy to connect on stretch passes if the player trying to make the pass is under pressure from the fast forecheck. The defense in the neutral zone is looking to clog passing lanes and they’ll force a lot of turnovers against the stretch pass approach. As we saw, teams like Vegas and Pittsburgh thrive on turnovers. Second, stretch passes are part of a high-tempo game. This is an advantage to teams who excel at this style – teams like Vegas and Pittsburgh. Playing their style probably won’t work to your advantage.

Gerard Gallant Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant  (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Countering relentlessness isn’t easy. For starters, a team must be able to mentally handle a relentless game. This requires playing with poise. Coaches spend a lot of time implementing systems and players must trust each other within the system. It may require adjustments against specific teams, but the trust factor matters. Teams must anticipate their options and scenarios before the game even starts. And if things don’t look right, players must be prepared to eat the puck if needed, and hold onto it long enough so other teammates can get in a better defensive location. A lot of handling relentless play is mental.

Relentless play from teams like Vegas or Pittsburgh requires them to have forecheckers up ice. They try to pin the other team in their own zone and force turnovers there or in neutral ice using fast forechecking. Closed off passing lanes means there is a premium on opponents having mobile and skilled defensemen – players who can pass efficiently and also skate their way out of trouble. One of the Sharks major vulnerabilities in the 2016 series was their third defensive pairing. It featured two slower players – the Pens feasted on this pairing.

Grinding Away Against the Golden Knights and Penguins

Committing players up ice for the fast forecheck makes it difficult for them to get back on defense and set up properly. It’s a drawback, but teams like Vegas commit to skating back to their own zone in hard, straight lines when the opponent gets past the up-ice defense. But it doesn’t mean everyone gets to their ideal defensive spot. Plus, the sprint back requires a lot of energy, and players can tire on a lengthy shift. Opponents who get up the ice successfully are often facing out of breath and out of position defenders.

Having compromised defenders is a good start for countering relentless hockey, but adding additional chaos to the mix is even better. And there is no better form of additional chaos than having players going behind the net with the puck. This further scrambles the defense and players tend to lose their assignments, especially if they weren’t properly settled in the first place.

This approach results in long shifts, defenders not wholly sure of their responsibilities and players looking at the puck instead of their assignment. Done right, strong play behind the net makes the relentless aggression working against the teams which practice it. The example below doesn’t result in a goal (and is painful to Sharks fans), but it results in a terrific scoring chance and only a mind-blowing save by Marc-Andre Fleury prevents a goal. Note how the Vegas defenders don’t even notice Couture on the play, they are all puck-watching after a physically demanding shift.

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Power players add an important dimension. As mentioned earlier, teams that play a relentless game often feature smaller, quicker players. Over most of the rink, smaller and relentless is effective against bigger and stronger. But down low, this isn’t the case. Here, the advantage shifts to the bigger, stronger team.

Grinding out lengthy shifts against smaller players sounds like a pretty good counter. But does it work? The evidence says yes – and it’s pretty emphatic. The Sharks were most effective against the Penguins when they went behind the net. And against Vegas, well, it was the same thing.

In this Logan Couture goal, the Sharks heavy players pin the Pens down low in their own zone for an extended period. When Pens finally get a chance to clear the puck, it’s not very effective. Fresh San Jose skaters take advantage of Pens players dealing with a long, heavy shift – including some trying to get off the ice on a change – and the Sharks cash in.

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In the 2015-16 series against the Pens, the Pens outskated the Sharks by a bunch. San Jose had the better goaltending (including an outright theft of Game 5) but it didn’t matter. Against Vegas, the Sharks slightly outskated Vegas (after Vegas whomped them in Game 1), but the Knights won the goaltender battle by a healthy margin. Martin Jones was good for San Jose (except for Game 1), but Fleury was in another zone for Vegas.

San Jose’s power forwards represent an effective counter to the style used by Vegas and Pittsburgh. Alas, against Pittsburgh, the Sharks didn’t have the same power forwards they have now. Today, the Sharks have Timo Meier, Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl and Eric Fehr. Vegas had real trouble with them, especially Hertl. Against Pittsburgh in 2016, the Sharks didn’t have Meier or Kane. Hertl was injured in Game 2 and missed the rest of the series, while Fehr played for Pittsburgh.

While he’s not a power forward, Brent Burns was effective in both series when he played like one. He had one even-strength goal in each series; each came on plays he went behind the net.

Relentless play up ice makes it difficult for a defense to get properly arranged. Going behind the net further scrambles the defense. This creates the counter opportunities.

The current Sharks are a faster team than the one which faced Pittsburgh, but adding more speed just to counter the opponent’s speed isn’t really an answer. In the series against the Pens, many Sharks fans wanted speedy Matt Nieto inserted into the lineup. He was put in, but made no difference. San Jose wasn’t going to beat Pittsburgh (or Vegas for that matter) by trying to be the faster team. Against Vegas, San Jose went 0-for-the-series in odd-man rushes, while ten of their 14 goals were traceable to play behind the net (including plays which drew penalties resulting in goals).

Success Against Relentless Hockey

There are numerous examples of goals which San Jose scored with behind the net play in the series against Pittsburgh and Vegas. Several of the videos are linked here.

Brent Burns scores against Vegas coming from behind the net, his lone even-strength goal of the series.

Brent Burns scores against Pittsburgh coming from behind the net, his lone even-strength goal of the series.

Joonas Donskoi scores against Pittsburgh coming from behind the net in a play that looks a lot like Burns’ goal.

Tomas Hertl scores against Vegas after play behind the net.

Hertl scores (again) against Vegas following Boedker’s play behind the net.

• Justin Braun scores against the Pens. The heavy play behind the net comes after an icing against Pittsburgh.

There are ways to beat the relentless style employed by Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh and Gerard Gallant in Vegas. Their form of NHL hockey is not a ‘grind it out in the corners and heavy play behind the net’ game. It is a relentless pressure game. Grinding it out behind the net is a tactic which works against relentless pressure.

Playing against these teams requires tremendous discipline, especially with the puck in your own zone. Neutralizing relentless pressure requires mobility and players with a good understanding of how their own system works, including how to recover when a clearing attempt goes wrong. It requires understanding when it’s better not to make the clearing attempt and simply hold onto the puck, even if it results in another puck battle.

Vegas and Pittsburgh can successfully be challenged by a strong puck possession game in the offensive zone. Relentless pressure is a very demanding style, physically and mentally. Defensive structure tends to suffer during long possessions and play behind the net. Having players strong on the puck can tire a group and lead to penalties and grind-it-out type of scores.

After the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2016, I wrote, “Pittsburgh created a roadmap for success that other teams will emulate. Teams who decide not to emulate it will need to find ways to beat Pittsburgh.” The Sharks, even in defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh then and Vegas now, have produced an effective counter approach.

Marc-Andre Fleury Kevin Labanc
San Jose had good answers for a lot of what Vegas did, but not for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury  (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

San Jose didn’t do enough of it against Pittsburgh, though it was one of the few tactics which proved effective in that series. Against Vegas, it was very effective. If it wasn’t for Fleury’s heroics, including several plays which fall somewhere on the spectrum between amazing and miraculous, the Sharks likely beat Vegas.

We’ll soon see if a very talented Winnipeg Jets team can solve the Vegas puzzle. Committing to play behind the Vegas net is a good place for them to start.