Between the bluelines: Chicago strategies, Boychuk deal and Iginla’s year

Sam Hitchcock looks around the NHL. Follow him at @intellighockey and at intelligenthockey.com

Fun set play on the Blackhawks’ power play

The Blackhawks miss Patrick Kane a lot, and until Kane comes back, scoring will be by committee. Chicago has not had an elite power play this season, but when Kane was healthy, they occasionally could rely on the man advantage to be the difference maker. The power play operates differently without Kane, but what remains the same is that Chicago still runs some fun, creative stuff.

Against Arizona, Brandon Saad came out from below the goal line and brought the puck to the half-wall, right along the hash marks. Jonathan Toews was facing Saad, with his stick raised, giving the indication that he was the trigger man, ready to fire away from the off-slot. Saad passed it to Toews, who gave him a quick return pass. After the give-and-go, the Blackhawks had attracted three Coyotes skaters to participate in this ruse.

Arizona forward Craig Cunningham marked Toews, and Michael Stone skated below Saad and Toews, taking away the direct path to the net. Meanwhile Shane Doan blocked the path and passing lane between Saad and Duncan Keith, who stood at the point. This meant three Arizona players were bunched together with one Arizona defenseman covering Andrew Shaw in front of the net. That leaves a very large swath uncovered.

With Cunningham practically sitting on Toews’ lap, and both Coyotes players puck-watching Saad, Toews once again raised his stick for the one-timer and Saad passed the puck in his direction, but it was a trick! Toews let the pass move through and the puck glided into open ice for Marian Hossa, who was wide open for a one-timer. Hossa did not score on it, but the deception worked very well to set up the scoring chance.

Jarome Iginla’s season

This has been a really ugly season for the Avalanche. They are a dreadful possession team. The young star forwards did not crescendo like expected. The roster is poorly constructed and the lack of depth is unsettling. The coaching has been bad and the cupboard is bare from a prospect standpoint.  Colorado actually has had very good puck luck this season (fourth in PDO at even strength!), yet they are going to finish either 11th or 12th in the Western Conference standing.

But give Jarome Iginla his due! The Avalanche were justifiably mocked from all corners of the hockey media when he signed his three-year contract for a lavish $5.33 million, but the guy has once again demonstrated he is a goal-scoring machine. His 14.3 shooting percentage is not even that outlandish relative to his 13.3 career shooting clip!

What is clear is that Iginla — with 22 goals and 25 assists at the not-so-young-age of 37 — still gets to the scoring areas. And when he does, he records shots. Colorado is a mess, but Iginla’s season has been a bright spot.

Okay with the Johnny Boychuk deal

Assessing Johnny Boychuk’s contract in a vacuum is the wrong approach. Yes, Boychuk is 31 and just signed a seven-year contract for $42 million, which on an AAV basis almost doubles what he earned this season. It is a little concerning that a player who did not see consistent NHL playing time until he was 26 is going to be earning that much money for that length of time. Incredibly, Boychuk has less than 460 career NHL games, and that is counting regular season and playoffs.

But the positives overwhelm the negatives. Boychuk was going to be a UFA, and he is a good, right-handed top-four defenseman with a big shot and strong possession numbers. There are a finite amount of such players in the league, and even fewer will be available this offseason. When Brian Campbell signed his eight-year contract for over $7 million with the Florida Panthers many moons ago, it was heavily criticized. But in 2015, for his role and his impact, Campbell’s contract seems much more reasonable. Part of this is because, as the salary cap rises, important cogs on the roster make more and more money.

The Islanders are entering their Cup window, and with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo in their primes, stabilizing the team’s defensive corps is crucial. New York is going to continue to try to develop players organically, but with Boychuk and Nick Leddy locked in long term, there is one less pairing to worry about.

Lastly, there is Boychuk’s locker room presence. Tavares has extolled Boychuk’s ebullient attitude in the locker room and that helps a team with a lot of young talent playing important roles. Boychuk has been through the ups and downs of the postseason, and that abstract, hard-to-measure component is valuable as well. 

Parity apparent through goal differential

If the NHL regular season ended today, there would not be a team with a goal differential higher than +50. ESPN.com lists the last twelve seasons prior to this current campaign, and in every single season there has been at least one team with a goal differential of +50 or higher. So if it seems like there is more parity and not one dominant team in the regular season, the numbers bear that out.

How the Rangers Create

The Rangers are all about speed and passing. Their defensemen want to get the puck to their forwards as quickly as possible and are not afraid to utilize a vertical passing game. In hockey that equates to flipping the puck 100 feet and letting the forwards go get the area pass.

The Rangers love to stretch the ice over the top, but they are also incredibly adept at X-axis passing. Being able to move the puck to the opposite side of the ice as effortlessly as they do is an asset, and defenses struggle to recalibrate. New York also interchanges forwards and defense on the cycle seamlessly. Defensemen come down low and pressure around the net as forwards skate toward higher ice. That wrinkle consistently harms opponents’ defensive coverage.

Finally, watch how the Rangers’ forecheck. The second-level support by the Rangers after the F1 arrives is not only precise, but also businesslike. If the F2 or F3 is forcing the turnover, they move the puck – by shot or pass – quickly after collecting possession. Knowing what one will do with the puck before gaining possession is pivotal in the NHL, and New York’s players are always thinking about how they will attack once they get the puck.

And the coordination between the forwards and defensemen does not end there. The Rangers’ back pressure is consistent enough that it gives the defense permission to step up and challenge zone entries and passes through the neutral zone. New York wants to be aggressive in all three zones with all their skaters, but they want it to be channeled aggression.

 

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