Between the Bluelines – ‘Canes, Stars rise and Eichel

Sam Hitchcock takes a look around the league in Between the Bluelines. He also runs the website intelligenthockey.com. Follow him on Twitter @intellighockey

The evolution of the net drive

The objective of driving the middle on a rush attempt is to open up space, and a strong drive to the net can produce a nice horizontal seam pass. Furthermore, sometimes opponents are so eager to stop the pass across the middle of the ice that they will release off the forward driving to the net, and their hedging can be exploited by the attacking forwards. The forward providing the net drive, who was initially striving to open up the seam, suddenly finds time and space while cutting to the net.

Carolina and Dallas on the rise

The Hurricanes and Stars are both far outside the playoff picture, which is undoubtedly disappointing for both franchises. But encouraging signs over the last two months could signal that both teams are closer to becoming playoff-level than their underwhelming records suggest.

Since February 1st, the Hurricanes and Stars have the second and third best Corsi For percentages at even strength, trailing only the Kings. Unfortunately, neither team has received much puck luck. The Hurricanes are second to last in that time frame in PDO, with a horrid 96.9, and Dallas is 25th overall with a 98.2 PDO. For the season, Carolina ranks 29th in PDO at 5v5 while Dallas is 21st.

The Hurricanes can point to a pitiful shooting percentage and save percentage for their downfall, while the Stars can only blame their save percentage. To be fair to the Stars’ goaltenders, for large portions of the season their defense was allowing A-grade scoring chances. Still, the best way to offset bad puck luck is to control the puck more, and the fact that possession numbers have improved for both teams indicates that there is now better structure in all three zones.

Moreover, both teams have seen strong contributions from their best players of late. Since February 1st, Carolina’s Eric Staal is first in the NHL in even-strength Scoring Chances Differential and his teammate and brother, Jordan Staal, is third. Ranked in fourth is the Stars’ center Jason Spezza, and ranked second among all defensemen is the Hurricanes’ Justin Faulk.

Similarly improved results can be found in Corsi. Over the last two months, the Staals, Spezza, and Faulk have been tremendous at controlling the puck and manufacturing offense for their teams. Also, Dallas captain Jamie Benn has not been too shabby this season. Benn sits in the top 10 for points per 60 minutes. And while it took some acclimation for Tyler Seguin once he returned from injury, the sniper has looked very good in recent contests.

The Hurricanes and Stars will/might not be contending for the Cup next season, but both teams have good foundation pieces and are developing talent that will pay dividends in the near future. Believing in process over results, and the core players learning what is needed to submit a winning performance consistently, will benefit both franchises down the road.

Ryan Spooner’s weird alternating pivot in open space

The former second-round pick from 2010 stayed in the lineup for Boston last night despite David Krejci’s return to health. Spooner also retained his role as center for wingers Milan Lucic and David Pastrnak.

Since recalling Spooner from Providence, the 23-year-old’s play has been fine. Spooner has a Corsi For percentage of 49.6 (which puts him in the negative for Relative Corsi), six goals and seven assists, and his best work has come on the power play. With Spooner’s contract expiring at the end of this season and the Bruins squeezed by the cap, it seems very plausible that his time with Boston could be coming to an end.

But this section is intended to focus on Spooner’s pivoting idiosyncrasy. There are some notable exceptions like Brad Marchand, but Boston mainly wants their forwards to play a straight-ahead game. Yet when Spooner receives the puck with some time and space, he will open up his body toward the middle of the ice like he is going to shoot or pass and, if he does not like what he sees, he will pivot back and keep skating. What makes it so peculiar is that Spooner alternates between moving the puck north and looking to pass or shoot by pivoting. It is not strange to do a stop-and-go move, or to look to pass or shoot and then keep going, but to alternate multiple times in one herky-jerky sequence is curious.

What the Devils are missing

The Devils are one of the worst possession teams in the NHL and it makes sense. They are slow and old in the wrong spots on their roster, and their style of play is painfully antiquated. Lou Lamoriello’s fails to recognize that the state of the franchise will cripple this team for a long time unless they are thrown a life preserver like winning the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.

ESPN Insider’s Corey Pronman recently wrote an article about who should be taken after McDavid and Jack Eichel, advocating for Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner instead of Noah Hanifin. Pronman asserts that forwards are more important than defensemen. He cites the research of Hockey Prospectus’ own Tom Awad that reveals that forwards supply more value, and that the best forwards are more of a driving force for success than the top-pair defensemen. Pronman makes a crucial point when he states, “Good forwards elevate a team and bad ones crush a team, and the effect is more intense than that of their defensive counterparts.”

The lack of any meaningful forwards under 30 on the Devils provides a good example. There is one player on the roster with 40 points and only two players with more than 15 goals. The amount of dynamic puck-handling forwards for the Devils amounts to zero. One of the reasons they are so awful at possessing the puck is because their players struggle to carry the puck into the offensive zone and create space. The Devils’ offense relies on counterattacks and sporadic territorial advantage and the hope that this will generate enough goals to win. It hasn’t.

The Devils are 28th in goals per game, and their lack of speed and puck skills is sinking this team. Pronman’s thesis at the end of his article is “good teams are built from the faceoff dot to the sides and back, and not from the net and out.” That flies in the face of what Lamoriello resolutely believes.

Lamoriello drafted defenseman Adam Larsson fourth overall in 2011, and then traded the No. 9 overall pick in 2013 for Cory Schneider. Schneider has been terrific — too good actually. The Devils are wallowing in mediocrity because their workhorse goaltender is too good to let them lose as much as the roster should dictate. Schneider trails only Devan Dubnyk and Carey Price in save percentage.

The free-agency band-aids have mostly been an ugly failure (hello, Ryane Clowe), and the Peter Principle rationale for Travis Zajac’s contract has been an unmitigated disaster. Teams that control the puck win. Teams that possess forwards who have high-end speed and skill do better at accumulating shot attempts. The best way to accumulate those types of players is through the draft. The Devils have flopped in all respects, and this mess will only get sloppier.

Jack Eichel

I’ve only seen Jack Eichel a half-dozen times at Boston University, but what I appreciate (and love) about his game at the NCAA level is his style of dominance. It isn’t the speed or the shot that makes him such a forceful player; instead, Eichel looks like the kid playing in a youth league that is too weak for his skill level so he can do whatever he likes at will.

Eichel can get to any spot he wants to on the ice. He can glide around any NCAA defense with relative ease. His confidence that he is significantly better than everyone else on the ice allows him to take some chances, and that unbridled creativity makes for terrific television. Like the kid carving up his youth hockey league, Eichel also staunchly believes that, as long as he is healthy, his team will never lose because he is the deciding factor. His influence on the game is the most important aspect to what team wins. And most of the time he is right.

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