By Justin Bourne 4h ago 36 While I don’t subscribe to the idea that “there’s a grain of truth to every joke,” this particular one held enough to fill several prairie bins. This “joke” had also become a running one, as I had once again clipped a video for our Toronto Marlies coaching staff of an unintentional “lateral dump” while proclaiming it hockey’s next great coaching revolution. That was hyperbole, but I really loved the play then and still do now. It was mostly a joke because that’s how my then-lack of confidence led me to present it.
When a player skates the puck up across the center red and enters the area before the blue line, where they start to feel real pressure from both the D and backchecking forwards, the autopilot play of the day is … well, you know exactly what it is. The default play there is to simply dump the puck into the offensive zone.
That scenario checks all the pucks-in-deep boxes. Players have been taught that for decades now. There are numerous times when that is the best play, and there are in fact ways to dump the puck so that your forecheckers can get on top of the retrieval defenseman quick enough to stop them, slow them down or just beat them to the puck. We haven’t been told to dump it in for so long because it’s some horrific play and coaches are morons.
As I see it, lateral dumps are just the logical evolution of smart puck placements when putting it deep.
But what exactly is a lateral dump? Let’s take a step back and think about defending in the big picture to better understand that individual play. From there, I’d like to look at where hockey coaching is going in general, where I think it should go and what’s going to change in the short term.
Structured defenses today try to play a numbers game. If you have the puck in the offensive corner, you’re likely in that corner with a teammate, with a third forward acting as F3 somewhere higher and out of the pile. Knowing those constants, defenses try to have a forward (ideally the center) and a defender to match those offensive numbers one-to-one. They also have the strong-side winger creeping down the wall, shrinking the zone to make it two forwards versus about two-and-a-half defenders. The other defenders creep in as they can, too. That’s how it goes all over the ice. Defenses cheat with extra bodies around the puck because they know how challenging and unlikely it is that offenses will get it through those traps to the softer areas where there’s less pressure.
That thinking includes when a player is rushing the puck through the neutral zone to our presumed “dump it in” area. The strong-side D’s job is to angle that rushing player to the boards and the first forward backchecking is also asked to pressure the puck. They want to kill the rush and entry to before it becomes anything (an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and all that). It doesn’t matter if there are open offensive players farther outside the defensive swarm around the puck; teams are betting their opponents can’t navigate the puck through the converging obstacles.
The burden of offense, of creating, of scoring, is on those with the puck. The defense is always betting they can’t make a strong enough case.
In this neutral zone rush scenario outlined above, the one defender angles the puck carrier (the F1 in blue below) to the wall, hoping to force a dump before the blue line, while his D-partner cheats back to get a head start on retrieval and transition.
That’s a random grouping of what a “standard” rush without a breakdown might look like. Here’s where everyone is heading defensively, very generally.
Don’t worry about all those lines, just worry about this one point: The defense is trying to cut the ice in half. They’re forcing a dump then cheating on the retrieval, while the other backcheckers are coming back to the house and taking away the middle. In this scenario, that leaves a large section of open ice, which is where the offense wants the next battle to take place.
Teams have known they want to get the puck there and out of the swamp, but it’s easier said than done. The hard dump/rim attempt is regularly stopped by today’s goaltender, which then puts that goalie’s team in the best position possible to break the puck out – in solid possession, with a barrier set up between them and the forecheckers. Rims also take an extra couple of seconds to arrive in that open ice window, which makes it more readable for the D. It’s also hard to pick rimmed pucks off the wall, meaning getting to it first doesn’t often result in an immediate offensive challenge. Also, if their D is cheating back on a dump, they’re probably going to get the first touch on it. While hard rims can be very effective, as a goal, they still seek 50/50 puck battles. If you’re starting with 100 percent possession, I’m not sure that’s a great goal.
One summer I had the privilege of skating with Jarome Iginla, and while being way-too-dialed into his every move, I overheard him on the bench telling his linemate something I immediately stole and used with my line in college. He was talking about a play that teammate made while they were rushing the puck up the ice – the guy had tried to saucer a puck over two sticks to him, it got batted out of the air, and they spent the rest of that shift in their D-zone. He told the guy that instead of the difficult touch saucer play, and instead of dumping it in, to just … shoot it at him.
Basically, he was asking for a knee-to-waist-high wrist shot at him. The result was he’d either catch it and put it down, it’d hit him and drop, or he’d miss it, the puck would thud into the boards and drop beside him. It would mitigate turnover risks and successfully move the puck to a teammate out wide while avoiding simply giving the puck back with a dump. That exact play happened later that same game (which made it particularly memorable), as the D-man stepped up to pinch off a neutral zone pass out wide to the big winger just as he’d done before, but the shot/pass came in so high and hot that the D-man couldn’t (or wasn’t prepared to) affect the play. Iginla caught it, tossed it down, and went in alone.
The point is, the cost of him not catching that play is basically nil – the puck smacks the boards (or his pants) and he’s the closest player to it – and the only risk is the initial shot/pass getting knocked down. But the odds of too many knee-high wristers from 20 feet away getting knocked directly down are pretty slim, and there’s a risk to every neutral zone puck decision in hockey. If you have a flawless neutral zone strategy, go ahead and take up your job as head coach of whichever NHL team you like.
It was off of this idea – the effectiveness of being able to rip the puck laterally – combined with my interest in getting the puck to the open area of the ice that made me start considering the lateral dump at that crucial “dump or make a play” window near the offensive blue line. I just felt that zipping the puck at the wide boards instead of dumping it behind the goal line would give the team with the puck a few more advantages when a clean entry isn’t an option.
One of those advantages would be knowing where the puck is going before the defense does. That half-step would feel like a tiny form of cheating in terms of dictating where the puck goes next for your team.
A few other things I like about the lateral dump:
To the credit of the rest of the Marlies staff, they not only humored my love of the lateral dump, it felt like they agreed with it outright. (And if it was just me they were humoring, I thank them for that anyway.) Unfortunately, it never really got beyond my “jokes,” as the reality in-season is that there are always real issues to deal with that limit you from really fleshing out the pros and cons of implementing new styles of playing.
In short: there’s the previous game to break down. There’s breaking down your upcoming opponents and game-planning to beat them. There are call-ups and send-downs and injuries and personal problems and travel and practices to plan, too. Real hockey life moves fast, so committing precious time to experiment will always have a cost of time lost elsewhere. Most hockey strategies are fairly generalized so when a guy shows up on a new team, he has some idea of how that team will be playing. Something like a lateral dump would be unusual, meaning it would involve some real drilling into players’ heads. That sort of thing needs time, as being on the wrong page – whipping it wide while your linemates barrel below the goal line – could result in some Grade A chances going the wrong way.
Even with the risks that come with trying new strategies, and with hockey’s aversion to trying anything new in general, there are exceptions. Pro teams do paw at the fringes of new and different, and I’m aware of a couple of teams that do something in the offensive zone that feels like it’s from the same playbook as the lateral dump.
To look at that play, let’s start at the desired offensive outcome and work backward.
You have the puck in the O-zone want to score goals. Goals are good. Those often come off net-front Plinko (screens and tips and rebounds and general crease play), but all playing styles offer some amount of those. If your main plan to create offense is hoping for some random around-the-net bounces, I don’t consider that a good strategy (though many, many coaches disagree). That’s not to say don’t get pucks to the net – I just don’t think blind “smash it into the chaos” is gonna yield great, repeatable results.
I think offenses today are best served by focusing on changing the shape of the defense, meaning: creating movement, moving the puck east-to-west through the zone and looking for open players on passes from out behind the goal line. Both eye-test and stat-fans are nodding at those thoughts. All these ideas require time with the puck to get your head up and find someone, but once that’s achieved, you create extra breaths of space for everyone else, and you pull defenders apart and make them react and switch.
If you agree with the idea that those are valuable ways to create offense, you’d agree that getting players to open ice with the puck is a great place to start. And so we’re finally at that play I was referring to. When the puck goes low-to-high, I know of a few teams that won’t put the puck back down into the muck, they won’t try to force a shot into blocks or even shoot one just wide. Their plan is to immediately put the puck in the other, open corner, with a diagonal area “pass” of sorts. That means using the D the way power plays use the bumper today, as sort of a pressure release valve.
Once the offensive D gets that touch and puts the puck in the open corner, it forces the D to move east-to-west; the offensive forwards know it’s coming, so they get to the puck first and the D is now in switch mode. That’s where the breakdowns come. Ideally, your offensive forward gets there with time and space, all while five defenders are switching over and trying to get sorted out. Any coach of the D group here would tell you those are harrowing moments with holes everywhere. Defenses like stasis, not movement.
Like with the idea of a lateral dump, the offensive team knows where the puck is going first, which gives them a huge leg up. It forces the D to read not just the offensive players but each other. It unclogs the fixed defensive structure.
I believe this is one of the directions hockey is going to go from an offensive standpoint. The question is how do we get the puck east-to-west in the offensive zone so our guys have time to do what they do best while forcing the opposition to move? That may even mean an offensive cycle turns into a lateral dump with the D down the back-side rather than just putting the puck blindly back in the muck the way we used to cycle it.
F3 (the high forward in the zone) above would just fill in for the D, and while the offense would keep right on churning, the D would have questions to answer and quick. In the defensive rotation asked of the D above, does the defending winger in the middle of the ice now take on the low battle (he’s going to be the first forward near the puck, after all), while the center fills in for him … along the wall? Without getting too into this specific play: there are major decisions on how to defend and little time to make them there.
Coaching in hockey today can be woefully stagnant and risk-averse. That’s partially because if you do what everyone’s always done and fail, you can get another job. If you try something new and fail, nobody’s exactly sure what comes next, and nobody seems to want to be the first to find out.
There are two more major points about coaching I want to make.
One: If the problem of time is what’s keeping coaching staffs from getting more creative with their teams, that’s an issue that needs to be addressed. If I were an NHL GM, every summer would involve a two- or three-day coaching summit with the staff. That doesn’t mean “find time at development camp to talk strategy” or “tack a ‘new ideas’ meeting on to the end of a summer day.” I mean, the staff meets at some destination for two or three days to discuss strategy during the days and to BS over some fancy dinners at night. I’d want every coach to come up with two different ideas –original ideas – in each of the areas where there is coaching strategy and the staff would then talk those through. (If guys have only one, or they have three, whatever – the point is newness.) It really wouldn’t be that hard to come out with a few new breakout routes to consider how they’d end up, even if the answer is usually “poorly.” It’s not so difficult to cook up a regroup that doesn’t involve just posting up and tipping the puck in.
My idea here is that when new strategies are discussed, even outlandish ones, other staff members pick them apart and gains are inevitably made. In deconstructing those ideas, you get to consider how they butterfly effect the play going forward and there can be realizations about other strategies that may challenge particular opponents. It should also make you question why you do certain things the way you always have. There’s the opportunity to better look at the unique tools you have on your roster as well, and to consider how you can maximize their usefulness. In all, I figure if you leave those three days each summer with one new, effective idea each year – just one, whether it be on your breakouts or special teams or forechecks or regroups – you just made your team better heading into the next season. That said, I highly doubt you’d settle on just one.
The NHL season is a grind and staffs are dying for a break by the time it’s over. In the summer, there’s the draft and free agency and development camps and main camps and individual player projects, and frankly, nobody wants to add more offseason work. I get that. But if I’m the GM, I think “tough beans” (but I don’t say as much out loud), then wrap the couple-day endeavor with the trappings of a vacation getaway, because I’m an ever-competitive, but considerate GM, of course. I truly believe this kind of coaching ideas summit every year would provide a sizeable leg up.
Two: One of the greatest strengths of the Marlies staff I left is that they address team weaknesses by building unique practice drills to work on them, day in and day out. (They often improvise in-game this way, as best they can.) It’s not rocket science, but the point is, Sheldon Keefe doesn’t simply have a portfolio of drills from which he picks X amount each practice. He’s always building some new drill to work on the exact needs of his team.
Unfortunately, that flexibility isn’t all that common. Most coaches I’ve come across use the best drills … of drills they’ve seen before. Most use the best systems … of systems they’ve seen before. Hockey is grotesquely copycat at this point. On the powerplay, the question is almost always “who’s on their 1-3-1,” not “what’s their set-up?” It’s “who do they drop the puck to on their PP breakout,” not “how do they breakout on the PP?” It feels like so few coaches out there even bother to think about ways to gain advantages. They just teach what most coaches teach and then enforce their particular brand of culture.
Hockey is a fluid, dynamic game, and there’s a lot of room to do things differently. Sports evolve, sometimes very quickly, as we’ve seen with the shift in baseball and the explosion of three-point shooting in the NBA. Once someone shows it works for long enough, the game changes.
It’ll be less obvious, but it’s coming for hockey. There will be movers here, particularly with the introduction of player tracking data this upcoming season. Coaches will see where they can make better gains more directly and they’ll attack those areas. At least a few people will, anyway, before everyone follows. Dumping the puck was the first “let’s just put the puck where we want it” – that being their end – “and go from there” move. The aerial flip has become another accepted version. The “open corner” diagonal puck placement from the point is becoming one. Maybe the lateral dump is next.
Maybe it isn’t, too. But I know any coaching staff that is willing to implement a dose of offensive strategy to counteract today’s defensive systems is going to find a sliver of success that’ll bring the copycats running. It feels like chances, and in turn goals, and in turn wins are being left out there by just about everyone, every night of the NHL season. The game is always changing and I think we’re going to undergo a big shift in the coming years. The only question, as always with pro sports, is who wants to go first?