Until today’s quarterfinal play-in games that saw Slovenia surprise Austria, Latvia surprise Switzerland and Slovakia damn near pull out a miracle versus the Czechs, the hockey hadn’t really been all that thrilling. The lack of parity has positioned underdogs to play a slightly more aesthetically pleasing version of trap-era New Jersey Devils’ hockey, the top teams have rarely had to shift out of third gear, and unfamiliar powerplay units had been fumbling with pucks that handled like footballs during the round robin tournament.
While everyone expects the hockey to get better (as it started to yesterday), I thought I’d take a look at the hockey that’s been played to date and highlight a few NHL/Olympics differences that have stood out to me during this year’s tournament so far. Hopefully some of the trends can clue us into things we can expect to see in the quarters and beyond.
There’s a ton of d-zone sagging
While teams in the NHL don’t exactly play man-on-man coverage in their own end, most do use some version of layering, which involves being a bit more aggressive. The general rule there is that defenders play soft until they see a bobbled puck – at the first hint of that, they’re pedal-to-the-floor, hoping to create a 50/50 battle for a loose puck instead of letting their opponent regain control and continue their possession.
In Sochi, particularly with the lesser teams, we’re seeing them basically pull together into a tight square in front of their net with the extra defender fronting the guy with the puck and inviting him to either take a low percentage shot or to try to beat him one-on-one (which isn’t a high percentage option). The other four defenders are often so tight (sagging) that there’s no middle soft spot, making it seem pointless to head there for opposing forwards (it’s not, in my opinion, but there’s certainly no immediate reward – a shot – as there may be in the NHL). Read the rest of this entry »
“Most believe [the Olympic women's hockey competition] is a two-team tournament between the United States and Canada.”
That was a sentence spoken by an NBC Sports anchor on Saturday, hours after the U.S. and Canada devoured the Finns and Swiss, respectively, by a combined score of 8-1, to open this year’s women’s hockey tournament. Had this broadcast professional instead pursued a career in astronomy, one might assume that his assessment of the inky black void in which all known matter exists would note that “Most believe this universe is particularly large and old.”
Of course this is a god damned two-team tournament. It has been pretty much straight through since the inception of the women’s tournament for the Nagano games in 1998, because the U.S. and Canada have competed in the gold medal game in three of the first four tournaments ever held. The one time they didn’t, the U.S. still won bronze with a 4-0 rout of Finland, while Canada once again stomped the Swedes 4-1.
You hear talk that “the gap is narrowing.” Sure it is. The sun is also slowly but surely using up all its internal fuel and will eventually run out. But that’s like 5 billion years away, so there’s really no sense in worrying about it just yet.
As much as I love women’s hockey, though, things are getting worse for any non-North American team, not better. The big two have played four games, and scored 20 goals. They’ve allowed one. A plus-19 goal differential. All that remains in the group stage is a showdown on Wednesday between the two superpowers. And guess what: It literally almost doesn’t even matter at all; both have already qualified for the semifinals, and the loser will draw the winner of the quarterfinal game between the third-place team in Group A (which they will have already demolished earlier on) and whoever wins Group B (probably Russia, but maybe Sweden). Whichever team that is will pose no problem for the only two hockey powers in the Olympics worth mentioning. Read the rest of this entry »
The National Hockey League is perhaps the professional sports league that is perhaps most willing to appeal to authority and defer to experience than any other. You can say it’s to do with how much hockey treasures its past, and maybe that’s true, but that doesn’t mean it’s not detrimental to the sport itself.
We got a pretty good case-in-point example of this when the Devils, predictably, gave Martin Brodeur the start in the Devils’ first-ever outdoor game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. It was very much a “thanks for everything” moment, and perhaps the team didn’t really care so much about the end result. The guy’s been the face of the franchise almost since he came into the league, so of course they were going to give him the start in that particular game. It was a Special Experience, and all that.
Of course, the fact that Brodeur got bombed for six goals against on 21 shots, bringing his save percentage for this, his age-41 season, below .900 for what has to be the first time ever after 28 games in his career. To judge any goaltender on a .714 save percentage in any 40-minute stretch is of course unfair, but this is in fact reflective of a trend that has plagued the Devils all year.
Asked why he was starting Brodeur, who went into the game with a .905 save percentage, over Cory Schneider, who was on the bench with his sitting at .928, coach Peter DeBoer said nothing about the experience or how much he’s meant to the franchise. What he said, instead, was baseless and ridiculous: “I’m not a big stats guy. I think those numbers are misleading.” Read the rest of this entry »
These days the most commonly used euphemism for the NHL’s tie-solving shootout is “the skills competition,” given that the All-Star Game’s meaningless version is the only other time fans are exposed to the one-on-one, player-on-goalie multi-attempt action. The major difference with the NHL’s in-game version is that it’s the opposite of meaningless, which as a professional wordsmith I have come to learn is “meaningful.” Just last year the Columbus Blue Jackets missed playoffs by a single point and had four shootout losses on their resumé. Another goal or two in those contests would’ve really come in handy, as most teams wind up finding.
People laugh (myself included) at the change in player tone during post-game interviews depending on a team’s win or loss in the “skills comp,” but I kinda get it. When you lose you’re frustrated at putting yourself in a position where it comes down to something that seems out of your control at times, and guys are aware how much each point matters.
With the importance of the shootout in mind (like it or not), I took to the interwebz to see which players have been helping their teams grab full two, and which have been costing their teams points. And my word, was I surprised at the latter group.
The list below is ranked in order of performance versus expectations, not raw numbers. As in, Sidney Crosby being 0-for-3 would be looked at as worse than some plug being 0-for-5 or 1-for-8 or whatever, in this imaginary world where plugs get lots of attempts. (Crosby, for what it’s worth, is 1-for-2, and 23-for-55 lifetime – that’s 41.8% total – well above the league’s current shooter average of 32.79%)
A few notes on the shootout before we jump in
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File this observation on “soft spots” under “Purely Anecdotal” for the time being.
I have this distinct memory of being in my late teens and watching Mario Lemieux sit on the powerplay, as so many players do today, with his stick cocked above waist height, inviting his teammates to get him a puck. Basically, just stuff a bullet in this gun, and I promise to shoot it and shoot it well. Ovechkin does it, Stamkos does it, just about everyone playing the point on the powerplay does it. …The thing was, Mario Lemieux was on the goal line.
Lemieux’s skates used to essentially touch the icing line on the left side, his right-handed stick sitting a foot or two above it. Sometimes he was deep enough to touch the boards in the corner if he reached. He didn’t have the game’s hardest shot, but goddamn if he couldn’t place a one-timer accurately enough to kiss the inside of the far post and put one on the board for his team. Whether that was a skill other players didn’t have, or whether they just lacked the confidence to try it, you didn’t see it much around the league then.
This isn’t the one I’m thinking of, but you can see where he’s shooting from. Read the rest of this entry »
Smith, left, after one of his five points in 16 games with Tampa.
Trevor Smith is 28-years-old and entering his first season with a one-way NHL contract after touching six AHL teams since 2007-08. The Toronto Maple Leafs picked him up for a league minimum $550k which has to be a pretty great feeling for the guy, because as I understand it, that means you get 550,000 dollars.
Entering the 2009-2010 season, he was on the cusp of making the New York Islanders, and I (wrongly) wrote as much for Islanders Point Blank based on my time spent playing with him during the 2007-2008 season, and my assessment of the Isles team that year. It’s really quite difficult to make the NHL, you’ll be shocked to learn, and Smith just needed a little more time.
My biggest compliment for Trevor’s game is the same now as it was then, and leads me to believe that if given the right opportunity, he could be someone like PA Parenteau who breaks into the league a little older after some AHL seasoning, and becomes a quality contributor. (Frankly, I think had he received the opportunities of someone like Joey Crabb over the years he’d already be there, but I’m pretty biased in that view.)
That compliment: whether he realizes it or not, his ability to shoot the puck accurately and hard from seemingly anywhere in his stance was better than anyone else I’ve ever played with.
In baseball, they use “heat maps” to show where in the strike zone (or out of it) a hitter tends to have the most success. Some guys like their pitches belt-high, and some guys would rather golf it out of the dirt. The same is true for hockey. When you stay out after practice to work on one-timers with guys you learn where they like their passes: off their front foot, mid-stance, off their back foot or otherwise. Read the rest of this entry »
(Andy Marlin, Getty Images)
In 2012, the New Jersey Devils made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final and were the only team to win more than one game in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings. What makes the run particularly surprising is that the Devils missed the playoffs in the previous and subsequent seasons.
The Devils finished the 2010-11 season with 81 points, jumped up to 102 points in 2011-12, then dropped down to 48 points in 2012-13, an 82-point pace. It’s a remarkable trio of seasons, as the Devils jumped from 11th up to 6th in the Eastern Conference, then dropped right back down to 11th.
It’s enough to make you wonder exactly what happened in those three seasons and what will happen in the future, with the Devils losing both Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson, while also adding some significant pieces. To go from well out of the playoffs to the Stanley Cup Final and right back to being well out of the playoffs is a stunning reversal of fortune, and it’s fortune itself that I want to investigate.
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