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Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher tries to keep opponents guessing with his aggressive playing style

Among the players Guy Boucher has impressed is Penguins star Sidney Crosby. Boucher was an assistant coach on his junior team.

Getty Images (2009)

Among the players Guy Boucher has impressed is Penguins star Sidney Crosby. Boucher was an assistant coach on his junior team.

For new Lightning coach Guy Boucher, hockey is a numbers game.

Some equations are simple, such as swarming a puck carrier to force a turnover or smother a play. But others are eccentric, such as the one Boucher presented to his players this past season at AHL Hamilton.

"He told us 8 percent of dekes one-on-one will work," left wing Mathieu Darche said. "If you're going to Vegas, would you bet on 8 percent? The 92 percent is you attack seams and somebody else supports, so the defense has to make a decision."

In other words, the game is best played with a relentless "first-on-the puck" attack with players who think quickly, react quicker and dictate the tempo.

But be careful, said Boucher, 38, the NHL's youngest coach. Those who claim he is a slave to one system do so at their peril. His approach evolves, he said, with his players and opponent.

"People try to break down my system, but the reality is it varies," Boucher said. "It's constant permutations that keep teams on edge and keep your players on their toes because I can change the system any second."

"It's constant pressure," Darche said. "It's forward, forward, forward. After a while, everybody knows no one is going backwards and guys would be flying."

• • •

The numbers most connected to Boucher are 1-3-1, code for the system many say he used this past season at Hamilton, which won a team-record 52 games. Its 271 goals were third in the league, its 182 allowed the fewest.

In its simplest form, the 1-3-1 uses one player as the primary offensive-zone forechecker. Three behind him cover the ice in right, left and center quadrants. A rover is behind them.

But Boucher said labeling his system as 1-3-1 is wrong. He wouldn't even admit that 1-3-1 is the baseline for his permutations, calling it "only partly correct."

"I vary it," he said. "That's why it's unjust to simplify what it is."

For one thing, "I try not to limit players to their positions. Whether you're a left wing, center or right wing, it doesn't prevent you from being in places that are unorthodox.

"If you're the first guy back in our zone, I need you to be aggressive and in the other team's face. We'll have different breakouts. We'll have different (coverages). That's why, to me, it changes and you can't really break it down."

Perceptions certainly seem in the eye of the beholder.

Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel, at AHL Manitoba this past season, said one of Boucher's twists was to use defensemen to guard the boards as part of the three-across alignment and use a forward as the rover.

But Mark French, coach of league champion Hershey, said the rover usually was a defenseman because he has to react quickly to retrieve pucks and spark the transition.

"Personnel is important," French said. "You need a puck-carrying D to really make it effective. Where they deployed it well was on the quick counter."

On the other hand, Arniel said, "It's all about clogging the neutral zone and not letting teams skate freely into your zone."

And Darche insisted that everything stemmed from the defensive zone coverages in which up to three players converged on puck carriers in the corners.

That leaves a lot of unprotected ice, but Darche, a former Lightning player, said, "It's low risk. You just don't give them time to make a play."

Boucher, who said, "I have the mentality that you don't want the other team to know what you're doing," did not tip his hand.

"The reality is I change every year," he said. "I change even during the season, so my philosophy is I have an adaptive mentality.

"I have to adapt to the team I have. Every year I play a different way because I have a different team, so before we have a complete picture of what our team will be, I couldn't tell you with specific detail what we're going to do."

• • •

Darche said Boucher considers the power play "his baby. … If you win 6-1 and the power play is 0-for-7, it feels like a loss."

Boucher's 2008-09 Drummondville team led the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with a 31.9 percent efficiency. Canada's 2009 junior team, with Boucher as an assistant and running the power play, converted 21 of 42 chances on the way to a world title.

The key, Darche said, is keeping opponents guessing with two units that run different systems: a standard 3-2 formation with players on each point, and a 1-3-1, similar to what Tampa Bay ran this past season with a player next to the net, three across the middle of the offensive zone and one on the blue line at the high slot.

Hamilton's 17.6 percent efficiency this past season was 13th in the 29-team AHL, but Darche did not fault Boucher:

"Between every period, if there was a power play we didn't do well, he would show us on video what was open, and I can tell you, most of the time when he told us something was open, it was," Darche said.

That kind of attention to detail impressed Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who played for QMJHL Rimouski in 2004-05, when Boucher was an assistant.

"He has a great mind for the game," Crosby said. "Guy understands every role and everything that goes into being a hockey player, the mentality, the preparation, all of it. If I wasn't playing well, I knew he was going to be there."

"It's all about details," Boucher said. "I like working out the details. I like working out the permutations and patterns. But there are scenarios when players are at their best. It's my job to find that edge."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher tries to keep opponents guessing with his aggressive playing style 06/19/10 [Last modified: Sunday, June 20, 2010 11:00am]
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