As Evgeny Kuznetsov circled behind the net and up the side boards toward his own defensemen on Nov. 25 against the Winnipeg Jets, he was most likely not thinking about how similarly he looked to past Soviet greats such as Sergei Makarov, Boris Mikhailov, or Vladimir Krutov. While Kuznetsov himself shares traits with many of those players such as his creativity, his ability to find teammates on the ice, and his gift for playmaking at top speed, his team is the real driving force behind the resemblance.
How Soviet Hockey Did It
The Soviet/Russian system, developed by Anatoli Tarasov after World War II, was built on puck possession. Regularly their forwards would circle back at the blue line instead of dumping the puck into the zone. They would weave in and out, sometimes crossing multiple times with multiple drop passes to gain the space needed to make an offensive play. In the offensive zone, defensemen would cross with forwards, forwards could end up at the point, and defensemen could end up behind the net or even in front of it. Tarasov deemed the pass to be the most important aspect of the game. Corsi and Fenwick, shot attempt statistics, dominate the hockey landscape today, but Tarasov kept track of passes.
A simple idea: if a team passes more than its opposition, they will have more offensive opportunities. It makes rational sense. A completed pass most likely moves the puck from a covered player to an uncovered player, so an increased number of those “improvements” should mean a greater number of offensive chances. Because of an immense emphasis on passing, the burden fell on the players without the puck to get open. Players were never stagnant. They moved to open spots. They moved to pull defenders in certain directions. There was always an open outlet. It was a ballet.
How Washington Does It
Take a look at the goal from the first paragraph:
The video begins after Kuznetsov had switched places with Orlov. He then switched with defenseman Taylor Chorney coming to a stop at the half-wall. As Kuznetsov moves back toward the point, Chorney crosses down toward the corner or the side of the net. That is not very ordinary for a defenseman. Marcus Johansson slides out to the half-wall and gets open as well. Chorney’s movement dragged the man covering the point down with him leaving Orlov wide open.
This type of movement with and without the puck is customary with the Washington Capitals under Trotz, especially this year. They regularly have had defensemen playing well below the hash marks.
See some examples in just the last couple of games:
Other teams have active defensemen as well, and with teams’ abilities to stifle offensive opportunities improving, an active defenseman is the new “innovation” to combat that. In reality, this isn’t an innovation as much as it is an evolution, one rooted in borrowing from the past.
How the Russian Five Did It
We don’t necessarily have to go as far back as the Soviet Union to find it either. Twenty years and one month ago Scotty Bowman and the Detroit Red Wings acquired Igor Larionov from the San Jose Sharks. Larionov joined fellow ex-Soviets Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, and Sergei Fedorov in Detroit to form the Russian Five. While Bowman didn’t put them together at all times, when they were together, he let them play the Soviet style, and it was beautiful. See the links below to see some highlights:
The Washington Capitals do not have five ex-Soviets to facilitate that style of play though. Of the Russians on the Capitals, only Ovechkin was born before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and only Ovechkin and Orlov (by a few months) were born before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Stanislav Galiev are not a unit, and Orlov has no Russian partner on the backend. Nobody is going to confuse Barry Trotz with Victor Tikhonov, and he is not a reputed creative offensive mastermind, but the Caps under Trotz are on the forefront of offensive innovation. Or is this just a case of teaching a new dog old tricks?