By Darren Eliot –
I don’t know about you, but playoff hockey always points out things about the game. For instance, the N.Y. Rangers insistence on playing the entire game along the boards is simply out of date. They break out ‘D-to-Winger’ almost every time. When they get it to the neutral zone, they get to the red line, dump it in and muck for it in the corner. They put it back to the point and hope for a screen, tip, deflection, or rebound. The middle of the ice is largely off-limits, both on offense and defense.
Now, that safe style of play was all the rage pre-lockout…2004. Not coincidentally, that is when current Rangers’ coach John Tortorella guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup. Well, the game has changed drastically since then, but obviously not for his team. The best teams – to counteract opponents taking away the boards – exit their zone through the middle of the ice and enter the offensive zone wide to ultimately create space in the middle of the ice.
All of that is predicated on mobile defensemen that can handle the puck close to their net on the breakout and get up the ice and be part of the attack. The Red Wings have long espoused this style of play and even with more inexperienced players on the blue line, they continue to use the entire ice surface to play the game. It is higher risk and leads to more turnovers and chances against, particularly when so much youth is in the mix. But it is how you have to play to be successful.
That is why we’ve seen this Red Wings team continue to get better – the players have changed but the execution expectations have not. What we’re witnessing this spring is a team getting better while at the highest level of competition. To play this way, skating is a priority over size. The day of the slow-footed player is over. Size still matters, but if you cannot skate, you can’t play. That is why rookies Brendan Smith, Gustav Nyquist and first-year player Damien Brunner have shown growth in their respective games over the last four months – they all can skate.
Further underscoring how the game is all about putting five mobile players on the ice for every shift, St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock noted that big guys still dominate the game, but only if they can skate. The trick here is for coaches to embrace movement instead of scheming to control it. Like the game itself, the best coaches evolve. Hitchcock himself has been slow to get his team to fully move as five on offense. He has moved some, but with the fine skaters he has on the Blues’ blue line in Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, there is still room for more.
Maybe the best example of a coach changing his ways from a conservative chip-and-charge mindset to one that involves all five players skating at all times in Bruins’ bench boss Claude Julien. He loosened the shackles on his D-men in the 2011 playoffs – at the suggestion of assistant coach Doug Houda – and they won the Stanley Cup as a result. The result this year involves local boy Torey Krug. The Michigan State star and 2012 CCHA Player of the Year jumped into the playoff fray and had an immediate impact with two goals in his first two playoff games for the Bruins. Krug is smart, competitive and an exceptional skater. Listed at 5-foot-9, he is also undersized by NHL norms – especially as a defenseman.
Yet, the limits of his stature haven’t limited his development. In fact, Krug providing an offensive spark in the playoffs for the B’s s is a testament to what is possible in today’s game if you can skate – regardless of size. Coach Julien’s willingness to put the youngster in a position to