All season, the Erie Otters were the Harlem Globetrotters of the OHL. They scored at will, thanks to their 2nd-ranked power play and the OHL’s top-2 scorers, Alex Debrincat & Taylor Raddysh. In 68 regular season games this year, the Otters scored 316 (!) goals, an average of 4.65 per game! This can be attributed to a few things: 1) high end talent, 2) an offensive system that feeds on speed, 3) commitment to unselfish play. Those 3 things make the Otters extremely difficult to deal with, so let’s breakdown what makes their offence so potent, and why it leads to my favourite offensive theory:
From your icing line to the offensive blue line, the puck goes North/South. From the offensive blue line on, move the puck East/West.
Having the ability to put the league’s reigning scoring champ (Strome) on the same line as the league’s leading goal-scorer (Debrincat), helps. While it is always helpful to have high-end skill, Knoblauch has all 4 lines playing offence the same way. The Otters play a very Russian-style of offence, meaning puck possession and transitions at speed that make your head spin.
Against the QMJHL Champs, here’s second line of Cirelli, T. Raddysh & Maksimovich taking 6.7 seconds to move the puck from their crease to the back of the net. The Otters recover the puck and immediately, the centre and weak side winger fly the zone (although Cirelli is still a support option, if necessary). A great first pass from the D allows Raddysh to one-touch the puck to a streaking Cirelli up the middle. Cirelli takes two strides and moves the puck to the streaking winger. Three passes before the blue line, all North/South. The defensive cross-up occurs when Cirelli enters the zone, taking the left D with him. The right D misjudges the speed and unwisely goes for the hit. The miss allows Maksimovich to cut to the middle (East/West). Joseph (21), the back checker, hesitates because he has to respect Raddysh as an East/West passing option in the play. The 2 on 1 created down low happens because of the speed. Yes, the D-man made a mistake, but that often happens in transitions that move this quickly and at the junior level. You catch the team in a bad defensive shape, creating chances. 6 seconds, 3 passes, 195 feet, now that’s a transition.
We’ve seen a full-ice transition, now a half-ice one that depends on the players recognizing mistakes and capitalizing. Enter Alex Debrincat and Dylan Strome.
This first pass is in Debrincat’s skates, however, the support from Foegele allows the puck to continue moving forward. Foegele wins the battle and 4 Sea Dogs are caught on the same side of the ice. The play really happens when Debrincat picks the puck up. He sees the Sea Dogs forward (37) who looks to be attempting to shadow Strome cutting across, and the subsequent collision that occurs with the D (4). Another avoidable mistake, one that was created by Erie’s transition speed. Debrincat recognizes the open space on the near-side, while Strome uses the confusion at the blue line caused by Foegele and the collision to sneak in the far-side, unmarked. A 2 on 1 with those two ends up in a face-off at centre-ice more often than not, as it does here. From the time Debrincat retrieved the puck in the neutral zone to the goal, 4.3 seconds. Debrincat and Strome both identify the breakdowns in the Sea Dogs play, then Debrincat does a great job protecting the puck and putting it on a tee for Strome to hammer home. There’s individual skill involved, but it started with the transition support in the neutral zone by Foegele going North/South. Debrincat turned it into East/West as he carried it over the blue-line, and moved it across.
Are we seeing a trend? Here’s a fun tidbit: their power play operates the same way. When you can put out a power play unit consisting of Debrincant, Strome, Raddysh, and Cirelli as the forwards, two things will happen: puck movement and scoring chances.
All 4 Otters hit the line with speed, puck going North. Strome forces the D to back off, meaning Debrincat has an acre of space to handle the puck when he gets it just inside the blue line. It isn’t until Joseph, who was marking Raddysh on the entry leaves to pressure Debrincat, that the puck is pressured. Seeing the pressure and the now, wide open Taylor Raddysh, Debrincat makes a great pass through the seam (East/West).
Why is that seam there? Cirelli, stays high, meaning if he goes unmarked, he’s a one-timer option from the high slot and no team wants to give that up. As a coach, you cover that guy and take your chances the 65-foot pass doesn’t get through. The problem is, once Joseph comes over to pressure, the other PK forward (16), has to recognize the switch and take the Raddysh seam. This is a 4v4 rush, as the Otters point man hasn’t joined yet, that’s even strength. Once the pass gets through, Chabot is caught and can’t get back to Raddysh in time to cut off the passing lane to Strome. Raddysh doesn’t one-touch it here, which is key. He opens his shoulder as if he was going to shoot. That little nuance is enough to freeze the goalie. With Strome in perfect position after splitting the D, taking both with him, Raddysh makes the crisp East/West pass across and that’s another tap-in. The Russians scored twice against Canada at the World Hockey Championship on this type of entry and passing play.
Erie is dangerous when they have possession in the offensive end, as well. However, they generate a lot of their clean zone entries because of their transitions. In a game moving more and more towards speed and skill, the Otters are using a brand of hockey made famous by the Russians. It requires the ultimate buy-in from every player, from the D, up. Buy-in to move the puck, to support the puck and to attack with speed, which leads me back the theory: North/South until the blue line, East/West after that. Ergo, attack with speed, and use the East/West puck movement to capitalize on the mistakes in coverage created by the North/South speed.