Each week, Justin Bourne’s column will cover three different topics in varying depths. Think of it as a three course meal with an appetizer, main course, and dessert…
Appetizer: How “in shape” will everyone be if the NHL returns this season?
Were hockey to resume sometime later this summer, I don’t expect everyone to come back in terrible shape, or in great shape, but I do expect fitness levels to vary greatly across the board, due in no small part to what equipment was available to them during this hiatus. What a weird time for figuring out how to just…exercise.
Here in Toronto, a big number of the guys live in (inevitably smaller) downtown apartments with closed gyms. The advantage of the great, nearby facilities for those players has been voided, as they’ve been left to figure out how to maintain their strength and cardio in other ways. I know one player who bought a Peloton, and another who bought a road bike; they’re all just doing the best they can.
Meanwhile, a guy like Jason Spezza has a family-sized house (he has four daughters) with a proper gym, and according to his Hockey Central interview on Wednesday, he’s working out with a fear of what happened to some older players who came back after the 2012-13 lockout looking like they lost a step — and never got it back. That will be something to keep an eye on when/if hockey returns: who was able to find creative ways to stay in playoff hockey shape, and who fell behind?
Main course: The often imperceptible but undeniable value of having “good sticks,” and why the Colorado Avalanche are so tough to beat
Again, what looked like the start of a promising offensive zone possession was strangely disrupted. Our opponent got their hands on the puck and the play slid back up ice towards our goal like the ice was tilted. Again.
Sheldon Keefe, myself, AJ MacLean and Gord Dineen were watching video of our game against the Lake Erie Monsters. We never got a sniff against them and were trying to figure out how that’s even possible when you have names like William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Zach Hyman, and Marc Arcobello, to name just a few. Those 2015-16 Toronto Marlies were shutout as many times as they scored 10 (once each), and were held to just one goal only a half-dozen times.
The final score against Lake Erie was a not-terrible-looking 2-1 loss, but we had generated just 20 shots, and our internal numbers showed that we got filled in in every conceivable way.
“Again, same guy with the little break-up deflection there. Who is that?”
“That uh … that’s Jan Hejda?”
In college, I played on a line with (and lived with, and spent all my time with) a guy named Charlie Kronschnabel. ‘Kronsch’ had come from a USHL team called the River City Lancers, who were coached by Mike Hastings (the current head coach of Minnesota State University). He brought something from that Hastings-coached team to our practices that drove us nuts on a daily basis. Any time he came near anyone handling a puck ‘Kronsch’ extended his long stick as close to the blade of the puck handler as he could and said out loud “good stick, good stick, good stick, good stick.”
He was doing it in part to be funny and annoying (at least the vocal part), but man, it made it clear just how difficult it is to operate offensively when a defender extends what coaches would call a “good stick” into your workspace and leaves it there.
The value of having a “good stick” sounds obvious, but many miss the fact that “good stick” doesn’t involve lunging at the opponent to knock the puck free. You aren’t trying to actively take it. There’s no reaching poke for the puck, and there’s no swing of the stick to knock the puck away, because those are weight-shifting actions that talented players expose and burn defenders with (particularly the swinging at the puck part).
By simply presenting your blade in the area of the offensive player’s puck-handling, it’s stunning how often you make them do something they don’t want to do (while maintaining your defensive positioning). They may have to pass it through a different lane than they’d prefer, or stickhandle farther behind their body than they’d like, or even chip it in rather than hold on to it and look for something better. It’s the professional hockey version of the annoying little brother’s “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you” move.
Offensive players often stickhandle the puck into the “good stick,” even if it’s just a tick, which means the puck gets bobbled — and just like that a 50/50 puck is created. That changes the game state from an offensive zone possession to a puck battle, which is an instant-win for any defending team.
So, again. That’s what happened again and again to our Marlies team in that game against Lake Erie. Hejda was the absolute good stick star of the show for the Monsters that particular night, but he wasn’t alone (nor was he a part of that team long, but he sure had that part of their game plan down).
Their entire team, specifically their entire D-corps, constantly had stick blades in places that troubled our skill. It killed us that night in Cleveland, and unfortunately, it’s one of the few things that you can’t do anything about as the offensive team. If they’re going to have good sticks you just have to be that much better everywhere else, because you’re not only playing against five bodies, there’s a whole other minefield of well-placed obstacles to sort through.
When the dust settled on the season more than five months later, we won two playoff series but lost in the conference final, while Lake Erie hoisted the Calder Cup as AHL champions.
On Monday’s Hockey Central we were joined by Jared Bednar, who was head coach of that champion Lake Erie team and now holds the same title with the Colorado Avalanche. In that conversation, he emphasized the importance of that seemingly miniscule detail — and all small details in general. Most importantly, he shined a light on at least part of what makes the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche so difficult to play against.
Bednar called good sticks an “underrated” part of the game, and went on to mention another important detail:
“ …When you talk about coaching you start looking at structure all the time, and the compete level of your team, but every team works so hard as you move through the American League, the National Hockey League,” Bednar said. “The details of the sticks is just … you know when you go in and you play a team and you’re trying to make plays and you just can’t seem to execute because their sticks are so good, how hard that is. Two of the things we like to stress here is that, you know, stick position, stick-on-puck, and being physical through that. And the second one is talk.
“You look at some veteran teams when they come into your building, Boston really stood out to me this year. Doesn’t surprise me they are where they are in the standings because of their skill level and their competitiveness, but the details and the talk in their game. Communication eliminates confusion, and they have some veteran guys on their team, you can even watch them in practice, there’s a constant noise and chatter on the ice … that helps teams play through difficult times.”
An interesting note for me was “Still being able to play physical through that” regarding good sticks. Basically, he means that when you’re closing on a puck carrier with your good stick, you don’t have to stop closing on them just to say you had a good stick. You keep that good stick, but carry on through the body to fully eliminate them when you can.
I think people look at the Avalanche and say, “That’s a fast team that wins with a high-powered offence.” And sure, that’s a big part of it. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Cale Makar, Gabriel Landeskog, Sam Girard, Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri … that’s a team that can ‘Do That Offence.’
But the Avs are also sixth in the NHL in goals-against per game, giving up as many goals as the St. Louis Blues, who you tend to think of as a defensive stalwart. Take a look at the “goals against” total (in the last column) of the 10 teams who score the most in the NHL. Only Boston has done a better job (though a considerably better one) at keeping pucks out of their net than Colorado.
Part of this can be attributed to “good sticks,” which is the type of little thing my buddy Anthony Stewart is referring to when he talks about “details” on Hockey Central every weekday. It may be a little one, but I think the Avs are a testament to just how effective it can be when prioritized.
Dessert: Auston Matthews’ shootout strategy hasn’t paid massive dividends yet, but it will
For last week’s dessert, we enjoyed a light sampling of Kasperi Kapanen’s breakaway move, focusing on just how remarkably identical it has been every time going back some five years. To his credit, when he executes his shot it works darn near every time. Thing is, he’s a guy who gets a lot of breakaways, and teams/goalies will get the book on him; it’s safe to say they have that book now. We’ve seen Kapanen shoot to a spot other than high glove only once total now, and he scored on it.
Imagine, then, a world where Kapanen did everything exactly the same up to the moment of release – and then we don’t know what he’ll do next. That’s essentially what Auston Matthews has done with his shootout attempts. He skates the same route for every attempt (save for one or two over his career), gets his stick to the middle of the ice just inside the hashmarks, then … shoots, maybe? Dekes? Maybe low blocker, maybe high blocker, could be five-hole, could be backhand five-hole. He might try low glove. He might even try the Kucherov no-shot fake. You never really know, but you can guarantee Matthews is going to set it up the same way every time.
You can find a frame of him crossing the blue line just inside or on the neutral zone dot:
You can find a frame where he’s in line with the faceoff dot at the top of the right circle:
And you’ll always find him with the puck on his stick somewhere roughly within the right circle’s left hashmark, which is his decision zone. He’s going to start showing you something starting there.
(The last frame there? Yeah, that didn’t end well for Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck.)
Over the course of his career, Matthews has been almost exactly league average in the shootout.
Since 2016-17, NHL shootout attempts have been converted into goals 31 per cent of the time. Matthews has scored on 31.8 per cent of his attempts. In his rookie year he was two-for-eight (25 per cent) and has gone five-for-14 (35.7 per cent) since. Even though he was just one-for-six in 2019-20, I’d be willing to bet Matthews’ success rate from now until the end of his career not just exceeds league average, but exceeds that 35.7 per cent. I love how his process all develops the same, with no book on what’s coming next.
(Fun fact for Leafs fans: with all that offensive talent on the roster, they’ve converted at a meager rate of under 19 per cent in the shootout over the past two seasons, going seven-for-37.)
Whether it’s been by intentional design or not, Matthews has set the table nicely for attempts going forward. Even though this reel doesn’t end in a bevy of goals (and includes one blatantly fanned attempt), it’s worth a look at what I’m seeing here. These are his last 10 shootout attempts:
He’s eliminated the goalies’ ability to hedge on one or two options, which means he’s usually going to have enough room to fit pucks in all over, provided he hits his spots. And if you’ve been watching his career, there’s plenty of reason to have confidence that he’ll be able to do that at an elite rate.