A high-danger move? Lightning’s defensive zone change nets rewards

The Bolts’ change in defensive structure is leading to fewer Grade-A scoring chances. But the beginning was a bit rocky.
Coyotes center Nick Schmaltz (8) flips the puck past Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) and defenseman Victor Hedman (77) during a Jan. 25 game.
Coyotes center Nick Schmaltz (8) flips the puck past Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) and defenseman Victor Hedman (77) during a Jan. 25 game. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published Feb. 3|Updated Feb. 3

TAMPA — After years of playing a modified, traditional man-on-man defense, the Lightning knew it was time for a change.

In the offseason, the team lost a significant amount of size, particularly among the bottom-six forwards. But the defenseman corps also got smaller. Last season, just two of the nine players in the blue line rotation were under 217 pounds. Now, just two of the current 10 defensemen earning playing time are above 217.

In return, the Lightning retooled the fundamentals of their defensive structure to focus on a zone defense.

“Personnel has something to do with it, and it’s just how the game has evolved,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “...You’re trying to constantly (adapt), whether it’s to stay ahead of the game, stay with the game, but in essence putting your team in the best position to win and that’s what we’ve done with this group. Sometimes it’s been good for us and sometimes it hasn’t. So it’s a constant build to where you’re going and I like what’s going on here, especially of late.”

The change has been an adjustment for many — and somewhat led to the Lightning’s slow start to the season. But at the All-Star break, the numbers show that move has met its goal in limiting the number of high-danger scoring chances near and in front of the net.

“We played the same way for, you know, 480 of those wins with Coop,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “There’s always going to be tweaks to the system, but this is probably the biggest major thing that we changed. But once you get accustomed to it, and if the stats show it’s making improvements for our game, that’s what we’re all for. We’re getting comfortable and making better reads.”

Change worth making

Lightning center Tyler Motte (64) puts out his stick to block Golden Knights center Jack Eichel (9) during a December game in Tampa.
Lightning center Tyler Motte (64) puts out his stick to block Golden Knights center Jack Eichel (9) during a December game in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Man-on-man defense used to run the league. Pick a man and cover him around the ice, no matter where he goes. It’s a fine scheme in theory. But as the game and its most dynamic players have become quicker, they’ve become more difficult to cover. There can be mismatches all over the ice. All it takes is for one player to lose his man for a breakdown to occur.

“Playing in your D zone in the NHL is not an easy thing to do, especially when you have guys that can score up and down just about every lineup,” center/wing Tyler Motte said. “Some have more opportunity to do so than others, but everyone in this league can put the puck in the net for the most part. It’s about taking time and space, denying second opportunities, stalling pucks and getting it going the other way.”

The “box-and-one” zone defense, which the Vegas Golden Knights employed last season in winning the Stanley Cup, is focused on the wingers and defensemen in each of four quadrants between the blue line and the goal line — with the wingers high and the defensemen low. The center provides help, primarily in front of the net.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The main premise of the defense is to protect the areas in front of the ice where most Grade-A scoring opportunities occur. The defensemen protect their quadrant, and as the puck cycles around up top, there’s always one man guarding the front of the net, and often the center occupying the slot. As the wingers protect the area of their zones, they cut off passing lanes in the high slot and toward the net, but they don’t chase the puck up top. They’re willing to yield shot volume from the perimeter to guard the area in front and collapse there when necessary.

“We’re trying to keep pucks to the outside, trying to make sure that they don’t get too many bodies to the net and second opportunities at the net,” Motte said. “Every night you do it a little bit differently. The first and foremost thing is knowing your role and the system itself and then being able to communicate and talk your way through it.

“You can work on it in practice and script essentially the way that it’s supposed to look, but as soon as you get in a game and one guy’s 10 feet away from where he’s supposed to be and the pucks in a different spot, it becomes a lot of reads. So communication helps with a lot of that.”

Gradually seeing results

Lightning center Brayden Point (21) defends Golden Knights center Ivan Barbashev (49) during a December game in Tampa.
Lightning center Brayden Point (21) defends Golden Knights center Ivan Barbashev (49) during a December game in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Last season, the Lightning allowed an average of 9.21 high-danger scoring chances a game in 5-on-5 play. And even though they were playing mostly man-on-man, they too often got caught focusing on the puck, which would lead to overloading the corners of the ice and leave an unguarded area in front of the net.

Even early on this season, the Lightning struggled with some of their quadrant-zone responsibilities. Through the first nine games, they allowed an average of 9.5 scoring chances in 5-on-5 play.

“We were used to just kind of gluing onto a guy and that’s your guy, but it’s a learning curve for sure,” center Brayden Point said. “I’ve played one way in the D-zone my whole career here with Coop. … It’s a new thing for the guys that have been here for a while and obviously we’ve got a bit of a new group this year. I think the chances have gone down and it does show it does work.”

Thirty-nine games into the season, the Lightning lowered their high-danger average to 8.1. Over the last 11 games, they allowed just 7.4, and their record (9-2-0) reflected it.

“Through the course of a season, it’s always going to be a continued process as you go through getting guys (adjusted) because there’s so many different situations that happen through a season, regardless even if you’ve played it year in and year out,” assistant coach Jeff Blashill said. “Do I think we’ve improved that? Yes. And I think probably part of that is just how comfortable the players are with it.”

Cooper has said that he believes the Lightning are actually playing better than even the numbers would indicate. They haven’t been in their own zone a ton of late, he said, but egregious turnovers have led to Grade-A scoring chances more than breakdowns in D-zone structure.

In a 5-1 home loss to the Rangers, the Lightning allowed just seven high-danger scoring chances in 5-on-5, but two costly turnovers led to rushes that ended with goals. Also in that game, a coverage lapse in front of the net led to a goal.

“I think we’ve done a good job with preventing the high-scoring chances,” Hedman said. “Most of the goals in this league are off the rush. D-zone, O-zone, penalty kill, the power play, it’s probably less than 50% combined and the rest is off the rush. So off the rush is where you really have to be good. But we feel comfortable in the way we play in the D-zone and how we break pucks out quickly and go quickly. ... It’s protecting those high-scoring areas and letting the goalie see the puck.”

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Instagram, X and Facebook.