Inherent Risk: The Heightened Importance of the F3 in a Puck-Possession Universe

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The forecheck has become the most engrossing sequence in modern hockey theater. Yes, the rush is plenty exciting, but what makes the forecheck so captivating is how scripted it has become both for the team in pursuit and the team on its heels. It is the modern hockey sitcom, where every movement is scripted and there is byplay to primary action. And the most polarizing character in the melodrama is the F3, but first, some context.

Every team that is retrieving the puck in its defensive zone has a carefully laid out sequence for the transition once the puck crosses the goal line. Zone exits are a collaborative effort. In the NHL, it has always been important to know what you are doing with the puck before you receive it. That used to apply solely to players, but breakouts have become beautifully systematic.

There have always been breakout plays, but now, when teams try to exit their zone and it fails the first time, there is a Plan B, C, and D. If the breakout fails when going up the boards, try the middle. If the breakout fails through the middle, bring the forwards back for support and exit the zone with strength in numbers. Or have the most dangerous forwards push the defense back and stretch the opponent out so that there is more space below the circles. No one is trying to reinvent the wheel; teams are just trying to incorporate more Detroit Red Wings tenets in their breakouts.

This differs from the past because now teams are loathe to just flip it out or shoot it off the glass and relinquish possession on their zone exit if they fail the first time; instead they will try to breakout through direct passing, and teammates are expected to support the puck and carefully finesse it out of their own zone.

The most aggressive forechecking teams will push three or four bodies into an offensive-zone foray to try to wreak havoc on a well-timed and precisely executed breakout. This is by design; adaptation is the mother of necessity. The amplifying speed of the modern game is visible on zone exits — and puck movement to the outlets and the mobility of the opposing skaters have become incredibly fluid. Forechecking teams expect their defensemen to be aggressive on the forecheck and cycle, so defensemen are pinching consistently up the boards and can play the role of the F1, F2, or F3.

Of course, there is a tipping point. If one team is flooding a small area with skaters on the forecheck, and an opposing team is making every effort to pragmatically move the puck out of the grasp of that pressure to start their transition and rush, one team will attain the upper hand and the scoring chance. The channeled aggression and success of the forecheck hinge on the F3.

The life of an F3 is one of onerously multitasking; he is a moving target who has to be able to strike offensively and support off the puck while also maintaining defensive integrity against an opposing rush that might develop at any second. (And that opposing rush will be coming with speed and often numbers.)

A forechecking team wants the F3 to be versatile enough to become more aggressive and help out the undermanned forecheckers, but also protect the point if and when the defenseman on the strong side pinches. The risk when the F3 cheats down low and supports the puck is that, if the opponent can gain possession and breakout cleanly, a potent attack is coming the other way. The hemmed in team can slip the offensive-zone pressure, often resulting in an odd-man rush or at the very least an easy zone entry. This is hockey’s most fascinating Catch-22. The F3’s close proximity to the other two forecheckers also gives reinforcement if the puck-carrier loses possession or becomes confined by the defensive overload.

The St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks are fun teams to discuss in regard to the F3 because both squads are trying to accomplish the same thing, but in these instances, obtain very different results.

In this first video, David Backes dumps the puck in, and Alexander Steen, the F1, wins the race to the puck, spins, and throws the puck on goal.

Backes, the F2, battles with Cam Fowler off the puck and rides him out of the play, which eliminates him from the sequence. The juicy rebound allowed by Frederik Andersen sits in the middle for the trailer, T.J. Oshie — who is the F3 — and he deposits the rebound in the open net as the Anaheim Ducks’ back pressure does not get there in time to obstruct him. This is a dream scenario. A cycle does not even need to be established. The defensemen on the forechecking team do not need to pinch, and there is no interchange between the F3 and the strong-side defenseman. This is ideal.

The Blues’ second goal is a little more garden variety.

In this same game, Kevin Shattenkirk arrives as the F3 after Jori Lehtera comes in as the F1 to chase, with Paul Stastny providing the necessary F2 pressure. Lehtera forces the turnover, Stastny provides the pass, and Shattenkirk scores the goal as the F3-staggered-trailer. F1 to F2 to F3.

Both of these goals happen pretty quickly on the forecheck, but a lot of times, goals come about when teams pin their opponent in their own zone and work the cycle. In these instances, the pinching defenseman and F3 can switch, and everything needs to be well coordinated otherwise the forecheck turns into a rush opportunity for the opponent, like it does for the New York Rangers against Vancouver in the videos below.

Like the Blues, the Canucks employ many of the principles that are adored by the hockey intelligentsia. They prefer to carry rather than dump. Their defensemen are mobile and aggressive. They exit the defensive zone via direct passes. And in the offensive zone, the off-the-puck forwards support the man on the puck, but if the defenseman pinches to offer reinforcement along the boards, the F3 has a decision to make. Does he want to recede? Or should he keep a close distance below the circles and hope that he can keep in close enough proximity to shoot from a scoring area while relying on his speed to get back if the opponent breaks free of the offensive-zone stranglehold?

If the F3 falls into no-man’s land, or stays below the circle and does not have the recovery speed, he runs the risk of getting burned on the rush. Vancouver can look incredible when everything is working in harmony; the puck is advanced astutely and players are moving into space and rotating with purpose. When the Canucks hem a team in and they are playing well, it looks like there is a magnet on the Vancouver players’ sticks.

But if that aggression is off a tick — a player does not rotate fast enough, loses his assignment, or is a beat slow – it all goes to hell. The Canucks were run out of the building when they played the Rangers on December 13th, and Vancouver’s overzealousness on the forecheck led to odd-man rush after odd-man rush for them.

On the first goal, defenseman Ryan Stanton is caught on the pinch and Derek Dorsett does not properly buttress as the F3. It leads to a three-on-one and a goal by Ryan McDonagh as the weak-side defenseman.

On the second goal, which starts at the 39 second mark in the above YouTube clip, it is defenseman Luca Sbisa who is pinching up the strong side, and Bo Horvat as the victimized F3. Horvat steps over to try to keep the puck in the offensive zone and whiffs. That leads to the two-one-one and a pretty pass by Derek Stepan and goal by J.T. Miller. And all of this was because the Canucks were a step slow on their routes to the puck.

The F3 is one of the most challenging jobs in the NHL for teams who are trying to attack on the forecheck this way. The F3 needs to reinforce the forecheck and try to stay close enough to the first two forecheckers so that the team maintains possession, and that means being a threat to pass or shoot. But he also needs to have the awareness and recovery speed to nullify the rush if the puck escapes the heavy strong-side pressure and the opponent gets a rush the other way and has several attackers with speed.

Both Blues goals came pretty quickly on the forecheck, but what was also a possibility was Oshie failing to capitalize and the Ducks turning the failed offensive-zone attempt into an odd-man rush the other way. At the point of attack, St. Louis had three players below the dots. If Andersen makes that save or Oshie misses the net, the outcome could have been very different.

Likewise, the outcome could have been very different on the Shattenkirk goal. If you pause that video at 45 seconds, you can spot a player above Shattenkirk hanging out between the circles. That’s Vladimir Tarasenko in the middle slot. If Shattenkirk fails to score, the Blues have four players below the circles and are vulnerable to a counter rush. When teams give their F3 freedom to journey beneath the circles that leaves them susceptible if the puck heads upstream. On the Shattenkirk goal, Tarasenko likely recognizes a rebound opportunity and strays from the point.

But being overly aggressive cuts both ways. And the case-by-case decision-making of the F3 dictates how a team can keep possession and kill its opponent (relatively) slowly, or a team can lose its footing and be walloped by a quick strike. The risks come with the territory.

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