After player feedback, Blackhawks adjust offensive scheme to pinch defensemen

With interim coach Derek King in charge, the Hawks have become something of a democracy — an approach which led to this recent tactical change.

SHARE After player feedback, Blackhawks adjust offensive scheme to pinch defensemen

Caleb Jones and the Blackhawks’ defensemen started playing more aggressively Wednesday against the Oilers.

AP Photos

ST. LOUIS — As the winter days drag on, Derek King wanted to give the Blackhawks something to be excited about.

He also figured that more scoring wouldn’t be a bad thing.

So the interim coach tweaked the Hawks’ offensive system to allow their defensemen to pinch more aggressively, and the team has worked on implementing that adjusted scheme since returning from the All-Star break.

“We didn’t have to,” King said Friday. “We could have just stuck with what we were doing. But [given] the position we’re in, I felt we had to give these guys something, like a task or a challenge or a job. And the challenge was to be a little more aggressive, but do it in the right structure.”

The right structure involves a “high F3,” meaning the last forward to enter the zone on the forecheck (the F3) should stay relatively close to the blue line (high in the zone). If the Hawks’ pinching defenseman doesn’t quite get to the puck in time, which often can lead to counterattacks, the high F3 will be able to cover for the lost defenseman and equalize the numbers on the counter.

That’s the key difference between what the Hawks are doing now and what they did in October, when they conceded odd-man rushes left and right. The Hawks’ greater familiarity and communication with each other now — versus at the start of the season — helps with that, too.

“It has to be a balance,” Seth Jones said. “We were pinching early on, and we didn’t really have anyone back helping us, or we just made bad decisions as ‘D.’ 

“Now when we have a high F3 — that guy is always there and we know he’s there — it’s a lot easier. Because by the time you have to look and decide whether you’re going in or not, it’s too late already. The fact we know they’re going to be there and we can pinch using our instincts makes it a lot easier.”

The Hawks hope they’ll be able to force more turnovers and create more offensive-zone pressure and scoring chances. 

They succeeded with that Wednesday, at least. They kept several possessions alive after defensemen crashed down the half-wall to cut off the Oilers’ outlet avenues, and both of the Hawks’ even-strength goals occurred when defensemen — Caleb Jones on Brandon Hagel’s first-period goal and Calvin de Haan on Kirby Dach’s third-period goal — pushed deep into the zone.

“Teams are pretty effective when they have a five-man forecheck and everyone’s involved,” Jones said. “We’ve left our forwards hanging a little bit, when they’re working their butts off [but the puck] gets to the [opposing] winger and they have a lot of time. We’ve made that adjustment where the ‘D’ have a little bit of free rein.”

Most of all, the tactical shift demonstrates how democratic the Hawks have become under a quintessential “players’ coach” like King.

“We get feedback from them,” King said. “It’s like, ‘What would you like to do?’ And this was something they brought up, where we could be a little more aggressive. So I said, ‘OK, let’s look at it.’

“They absorbed that, and they were like, ‘Yeah, this is great. We’re going to do it; we’re going to keep working on it.’ It keeps them thinking instead of just the same old [strategy of] dump it in and one guy goes and the other two just sit back and we don’t pinch our ‘D.’ It gets redundant after a while. 

“For me, it’s [about] learning we need to do something to change this up a little bit — [to] give these guys that job, that excitement, especially in the offensive zone. If we tweaked the ‘D’-zone, they’d be uninterested. Offense, everybody’s interested in.”

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