I want to thank you, loyal readers, for the largest volume of traffic to the blog over the last two days since the Scouting Post started up in mid-July. I guess that means that you’re either starting to make this a regular destination in your daily internet travels or you’re just desperate for something, anything to get ready for the new NHL season. I thank all of the other sites like Stanley Cup of Chowder and several hockey writers and colleagues who have linked to my pieces as well- much appreciated!
In trying to get the wingers piece up yesterday morning to beat a work deadline, I realized when a friend of mine on another Bruins forum brought up a point about the Boston defense that I missed out on a prime chance to briefly touch on some of the vulnerabilities the B’s wingers and collective forwards face as a group in the 2015-16 season, so let me hit on that now.
Roger T. wrote: But I do think a good part of that will depend on the D … ie how reliable they are defensively, whether they’ll be effective at containing speed, how often they can get to the puck first, how effective they’ll be at transitioning out of their zone (into capable offense) … and how well the B’s play overall team-defense 5 on 5.
This is a fundamental point that sometimes gets lost in the sauce and gets back to the second and third order effects that exist on hockey teams in the middle of the pack or in the bottom half of the league. It’s what separates the upper tier clubs from the mediocre ones. Allow me to explain:
It used to be that the ability of an individual to defend held primacy in the way that NHL teams viewed their players on the back line, and so having big guys with the long reach who could physically impose their will along the walls and out in front of their net was the accepted norm. Bobby Orr revolutionized the concept of the two-way threat who could control the flow of a game on offense and defense. His supernova achievements paved the way for the speed merchants of the 80’s like Paul Coffey and Phil Housley, who were more offensive catalysts and less counted on to help keep pucks out of the net. Scott Niedermayer may have been the best blending of the speed/offense with the positional savvy and discipline to shut down the best opposition (once his game matured). Team speed on defense, which didn’t used to be an essential ingredient because offenses tended to move in straight lines, dump the puck at the blue line and go get it and establish possession with speed and energy up front, is now overcome with the more restrictive rules on obstruction which has encouraged teams to employ their mobility and skill at all positions to gain the offensive zone and maintain possession throughout.
Having a mobile, puck-carrying *unit* on defense is essential to success these days because what it really comes down to in the modern NHL is this: the less able a team defense is able to begin the transition game and beat the opposing F1 and F2 with either their feet or accurate outlet passes, the harder it is for the forwards to back the opposition D up and create lanes in the offensive end that ultimately lead to quality scoring chances. We saw it last year more than any of us wanted to- Boston opponents standing them up at the blue line and forcing the B’s to surrender possession with the dump and chase or having to cycle back into the NZ and attempt re-entry…when that happens and defenses are able to be set up and largely static and prepared for the zone entry, it leads to lower percentage scoring chances from the outside or worse- turnovers at the offensive blue line that a fast and skilled opponent can exploit the other way.
When the defense lacks foot speed and the puck handling/passing to retrieve and immediately transition the play back the other way so, as Torey Krug told me in his interview here, they’re not having to play defense anymore, then more is required of the forwards who often have to fight back against the grain of the play to support the D or worse, receive the puck in the neutral zone without enough forward momentum to beat the next layer of defense, either surrendering possession or unable to gain a clean offensive zone entry. A defense that can’t beat the forechecking pressure to the puck either loses possession in their own end, or can’t make a clean pass to either the D partner or supporting forward, meaning that the other guy now has to make a play under pressure and before you know it, your team is running around in their own end and the play breaks down.
Just as defensemen who aren’t having to play a lot of defense because their team has the puck in the offensive zone more is a good thing for them, forwards who spend more time in their own end because their D can’t move it out and develop the transition and attack with speed is not a good thing. You need an awfully long stick to score a goal when you’re stuck in your own end for long periods of a given shift.
It’s not just speed when it comes to defensemen, either. It’s the transitions- the footwork- the pivots and directional changes that are so important in today’s NHL skill set for that position. That’s why a player like Rob O’Gara is one the Bruins are so high on. He’s not blasting up and down the ice with his 6-4 frame, but when opposing forwards are coming at him with speed and attempting to shake-n-bake at the blue line, he’s got the agility and quickness to stay with them and then either uses his reach to knock the puck off the stick or can lock on and ride that forward into the wall away from his net until he gets support on the puck. When opponents dump the puck in, watch him use his long, fluid stride to get back quickly and then make the smooth pivot with it to either wheel it out himself or spot the high percentage breakout play ahead of the forecheck. Speed’s great, but your defensemen must be able to change direction rapidly and then put the puck on the sticks of their skill players with on-target feeds that don’t require a player to break stride. Those are the hallmarks of a top-quality hockey team at any level.
It’s kind of like that old definition of pornography- you don’t have to define it to know what it is. You take for granted sometimes that a team defense can quickly move the puck out of its own end and transition to offense…until you watch a team that struggles to do it consistently. It ends up becoming a vicious cycle. And that, as Forrest Gump liked to tell us, is all I have to say about that.
I missed out on a chance to mention Minnesota forward Jack Becker in the two previews I did on Boston’s futures up front. I covered the seventh-rounder in a blog post a few weeks back, but the bottom line with him is- long-term project with a nice potential payoff.
Becker has size and plays a physical straight-ahead game, getting a lot of his points by going right to the net and crashing the crease. He fought through a bout of mononucleosis, which is never a good thing, especially in one’s draft year. However, around March and April, he put together his best stretch of hockey all season with Mahtomedi High in Minnesota, finishing the year with 22 goals and 47 points in just 23 games. The numbers themselves must be put in context of public high school competition, but when you factor in the mono and effect it had on him physically, he really heated up at the finish.
The Bruins will have to wait a while on this kid- he’ll skate in the USHL with Sioux Falls and then is off to University of Wisconsin in 2016, but if he continues to develop, they could have a nice hybrid power forward on their hands eventually. As a seventh rounder, it’s a long shot, but if you’re going to draft someone that late, taking a chance on someone with some emerging upside is never a bad deal.