If you’ve ever held hockey cards in your hand, you know that, no matter the year in which they’re issued, the layout is pretty much the same. There’s the photo of the hockey player, his name and the position he plays. In the position slot, there’s either a C, LW, RW, D or G.
But, when the ‘23-’24 sets come out, those Upper Deck and O-Pee-Chee cards won’t be entirely accurate. Because, when it comes to the Los Angeles Kings, the cards should read F, M, D.
The Kings, who will once again be the Oilers’ first-round playoff opponent, play a 1-3-1 system. When you look from up high, the Kings look like they are in a cross formation going up the ice. One forward leads, then three players line the middle of the ice. One defender trails behind.
Former Oilers coach Todd McLellan’s team goes up and down the ice kinda looking like a small flock of birds. During the Kings’ most recent visit to Rogers Place, a 2-0 win for the Oilers in late March, I had a few conversations with other press-box veterans about the system. Would it be fair to say that the Kings were defying the notion that hockey has to be played with three forwards and two d-men? The answers were… yes, yes, yes.
Really, it’s a forward, three mid-ice players (because the game is played on ice, I hesitate to use the term “midfielder”) and a trailing defenceman, set to guard against a turnover leading to a potential opposition breakaway.
The 1-3-1 isn’t new. It wasn’t invented by McLellan. But the Kings’ steadfast dedication to it is remarkable — and unusual. And they’ve gotten better at it over the last couple of seasons. That’s because hockey, unlike basketball or soccer, has been rather steadfast in its refusal to innovate. Since the rover was removed from the hockey rulebook about a century ago, it’s been defence, defence, wing, centre, wing. Most hockey attacking and defending systems run on the principles that those positions are absolute.