Has anyone noticed the strange look of the Flames defense core lately ? They are decidedly left leaning and I don't mean politically, though that would be just as troubling. Some reasons why I think its a bad idea.
I started writing this before the season began and haven’t gotten around to finishing it. When Scot Hannan was added to the Flames defence I understood the move, but I knew what it meant, that Jay Bouwmeester would again play on the right side. I was hoping that Jay would get to play on the left side all season long with a solid right hander with him in the shutdown role. Since then, with the injury to Carson and the injuries and benching of both Babchuk and Sarich, the Flames have been playing some games with a defence group entirely made up of left hand shooters.
I don't think that there are any stats that track which side the guy plays so I don't have empirical data, just a feeling that it is far more difficult to play the off side on defence than it is on forward. The game of hockey is played at a high rate of speed and at the NHL level there is no one that is as dominant player that is head and shoulders above everyone ( Orr, Gretzky), so for most players it comes down to consistent performance and not making mistakes. There are several plays that a defenceman faces that makes me prefer the shot side to match the position.
1. The offensive zone hold in. When the defending team rings the puck around the boards, or your forwards send it back up the boards to the point, it is far easier to keep the puck in along the boards on your forehand than the backhand. You can get a shot away much easier and with more authority. There were lots of times last year when Jay was taking those on his backhand and trying to skate backwards to the middle to get on his forehand while being pressured by the oncoming winger.
2. The defensive zone pressure clear. When a defenseman is being pursued in to his own corner, facing the end glass, the best play is to chip the puck off the glass up the short side. A defenceman who is playing the off side will either have to use the backhand to go up the short side or, try and ring it around the long side on his forehand.
3. The forward facing clear. The angle of a forward facing clear off the glass is flatter if you are playing your strong side, reducing the probability of funny bounce off the glass in to the centre of the ice.
4. The one on one driving winger. Wingers are taught to drive wide on a defenceman when they get the chance. The purpose, other than to beat the man to the outside is to get the man to turn which opens up ice in the middle for a trailing forward. The winger while driving does his best to protect the puck from the defenseman. The d man playing the off side has his stick in the middle and in order to make a play on the puck he has to reach across his own body as well as the wingers in order to engage his stick. Because the defenseman must reach to play the puck he will turn a half step sooner to make a play on the puck, than a guy who has stick in position on the strong side.
5. Facing the corner. While standing in front of the net and facing the play down low, a d man playing the off side has his forehand stick position defending the high slot or back to the point; not the pass to the front of the net.
6. Addressing the puck in the defensive zone. This one is probably the subtlest, yet probably the most important. When teaching a player defensive positioning in basketball, you drill in to their head – keep yourself between the man and the basket; you never get caught on the wrong side of your man or the ball. The defensive side of the ball is not only north and south but east and west or left and right across the playing surface. In basketball you centre your body on the man and draw a line from him through you to the cage. In hockey this is far more difficult because of the nature of playing the object, using a stick that is placed to the side of the player. If you think of every opportunity for a defensive player to address the puck ( to defend it, pass or shoot it), that involves placing the puck to one side of his body or the other. Generally it is the forehand, and in the case of a left hand shooting defenceman playing the puck on the right side of the ice in his own zone, this means that his feet, and consequently his body is now no longer on the defensive side of the puck, but rather to the outside of the puck. If the puck skips, or hits a shin pad he is already a half step out of position to defend his net in his zone.
If there is any player who can play the off side on defence, I think it is Bouwmeester. His speed, size and reach help him considerably. Having said that though, I think it is a waste of our biggest defensive asset to essentially be playing him out of position. To have 3 guys doing it night in and night out is I think potentially disastrous. I have less confidence in Giordano, Butler and Hannan , let alone Smith or Brodie, to be playing the right side continually. If I was preparing the game plan for the opposition I’d be chucking the puck at the Flames right defence all night long, hoping a bunch of those back hand clears end up in giveaways.
Solutions ? Ideally, the Flames need to acquire a decent right handed shooting defenceman. Otherwise you have to live and die with Sarich and Babchuk(once healthy) as your 2 and 3 pair right siders, and just see if you can wring 25 minutes out of Gio and Bouw as your #1 pair.