Between the blue lines: Lightning, Bickell and the rising East

Sam Hitchcock is an author for Hockey Prospectus and runs the website Intelligent Hockey. Follow him on twitter @intellighockey 

The Bolts’ gap control
The Tampa Bay Lightning has received a lot of praise for having the best offense in the NHL. With a very young group spearheaded by Steven Stamkos, their talent has revealed itself in the form of puck skills and quickness. But Tampa Bay also leads the NHL in shots against. The Bolts’ Corsi Against per 60 minutes is second best in the league. This very inexperienced group is able to shield their goaltender from shots because they possess the puck a lot, and also because they employ fantastic gap control when they don’t have possession.

Tampa Bay’s rush and forecheck are not timid; when the Bolts enter the offensive zone, it is more like a siege than a pep rally. The F3 is self-aware enough to stay high sometimes, but Tampa Bay does not shy away from dropping three to four skaters along the top or below the circles. This is an aggressive team. They are able to maintain such strict gaps because their back pressure is fantastic and their backcheckers recognize where the outlets are for their opponent and where the pressure points exist. Opponents often flub their transition against the Bolts because their counter attack is already being countered, only it is coming from Tampa Bay’s defensive play.

The forwards (and defenseman if he was in on the forecheck) identify and recognize what lanes they need to seal off or impede in order to eliminate the best option(s). On a reset, a lot of motion is run with the intent of coming into the zone entry with speed. Resistance is achieved by keeping live sticks and preserving little separation between the passing targets. If the opposing defenseman wants to rush the puck, that’s fine. The procedure evolves, but does not change fundamentally: harass the puck-carrier by leading with the stick and taking away his puck-possession radius while simultaneously blocking his area to pass. If the upshot is a turnover in a precious spot on the ice, or a dump-in, that is a small victory for Tampa Bay within the bigger game.

Obviously, every team wants to do enforce tight gap control. The Bolts are just better at it than nearly everyone else.

The Chris Kreider hedge

During the Rangers’ run to the Cup last season, Chris Kreider would sometimes bet against his teammate winning the faceoff and dash behind the opposing center. If his linemate lost the draw, Kreider would arrive at the tiny area just behind the center and gain possession of the puck before the defenseman did. It may have been a bit insulting to his center, but Kreider is so forceful and explosive that he was able to charge out of the faceoff with some speed, possess the puck, and sometimes create a scoring chance from it.

Recently, against the San Jose Sharks, Kreider was up to his old tricks and bet against Derek Stepan winning the faceoff against Joe Thornton. Kreider’s gamble paid off. Thornton won the faceoff, the Rangers’ power forward blew past Sharks defenseman Matt Tennyson, and passed the loose puck to winger Martin St. Louis who was sitting right in the middle of the low slot. St. Louis one-timed the pass and scored a goal. If a goal is the result of your linemate wagering against you, your center can’t be mad at you, right?

Versatility of Bickell

When Bryan Bickell received a substantial raise for his part in helping the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2013, it opened up the door for scrutiny. Presently, Bickell is labeled as underachieving during the regular season and a big-time performer in the playoffs. But Bickell supplies value to Chicago in other ways. He is a very good possession player and his hockey IQ is a strength. Bickell understands the moving pieces that are weaving in and out of the middle, and where he needs to go to provide support. He also provides a strong presence around net, and his shooting and passing are underrated. He never looks graceful, but he has not generated all that offense in the playoffs strictly from puck luck. The guy is blessed with some serious puck skills. And he significantly adds to the Blackhawks’ physicality quotient, which is important since they are a finesse team.

It seems unlikely that Bickell will play out the remainder of his contract in Chicago, and to a certain degree, his skill set can be obtained and cultivated at a cheaper price. In the never ending quest to determine who is indispensable and who can be replaced, GM Stan Bowman knows that Bickell falls under the replaceable category. But just because a player is replaceable does not mean he is not a valuable and important contributor.

Anaheim’s stealth climb in the possession rankings

Over the past several seasons, the Ducks have been an average-to-poor possession team. In 2013-14, they were in the middle of the rankings, which was a concern that was brought up when their Cup candidacy was discussed.

This season, they have snuck into the top ten, and it would appear their plan of trading for Ryan Kesler has played a large role in the improvement. Kesler is used against the toughest competition and starts less than 50 percent of his faceoffs in the offensive zone, but has still managed to deliver a Corsi of 51.1 and post 29 points. Kesler is also an ace in the faceoff circle and boasts a 56.2 faceoff win percentage. Offseason addition Nate Thompson has a 53.0 faceoff win percentage and he starts only 43.3 percent of draws in the offensive zone. Gaining possession in the defensive zone can lead to quick zone exits, and faceoff success plays a large part.

Additionally, Ryan Getzlaf is having a Hart Trophy-caliber season, as he is starting less than 50 percent of his faceoffs in the offensive zone and has submitted 47 points to supplement a 51.5 Corsi. Getzlaf’s per minutes numbers are sensational too.

Finally, the Ducks are seeing contributions from unlikely suspects, like winger Matt Beleskey, who is having a career year. And the defense is probably the best it has been in quite some time. The Ducks have won a lot of one-goal games, which raises eyebrows, but there are some reasons to believe in Anaheim this season.

The East is rising

The Eastern Conference was justifiably criticized last season for being inferior to the West and for getting smacked around during interconference play. While the East’s Boston Bruins and New York Rangers were great, the West’s Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and St. Louis Blues had a serious claim for being five of the best seven teams in the league. During the offseason a lot of talent – Thomas Vanek, James Neal, Brad Richards, and Jason Spezza – migrated West, so some believed the conferences would be even more lopsided this season.

That has not been the case. The Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks are still juggernauts, the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues are very good, but the rest of the Western Conference teams are just solid.

But the Eastern Conference has a strong eight-pack of clubs to be proud of: Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, and Washington Capitals. Plus, the Florida Panthers are on the rise. Not all of the likely playoff teams from the East have gone through their Western Conference swings yet (e.g., Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh) where they face the perennial playoff teams. However, the Rangers just waxed California’s clubs, and they have a win and a shootout loss against St. Louis. And the Rangers are in the Wild Card spot at the moment! Also, the Capitals, who are only two points above the Wild Card, have played the Blackhawks twice and won both games.

Using Fenwick close as a gauge, five of the teams in the top ten in possession are from the East. Granted, there were four Eastern teams in the top ten last year, but that included the non-playoff New Jersey Devils and the three best possession teams in the NHL were Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Jose. This season, the New York Islanders are first in the metric and the Tampa Bay Lighting are second. The Chicago Blackhawks are third, but the Detroit Red Wings are in fourth.

This isn’t a complete shift in power. The West is still really good, but the two conferences are close to equal now. The best teams in the Eastern Conference are skilled and fast, but can also play a heavy, tight-checking game. Mostly, the Western Conference teams have won the Stanley Cup in recent seasons, but the East has a very good shot at taking the silver chalice back.

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