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Offense in NHL is soaring because puck-rushing defensemen are changing the game

Charlie McAvoy's ability to skate and handle the puck is ideal for the Bruins' system.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

You don’t need to crack open the Farmers’ Almanac to know we’re soon to hit a winter chill. NHL offenses will slow down as the seasons change, the freewheeling frenzy of fall hitting a post-holiday lull, into a January-February hibernation that has everyone looking toward the postseason for renewed excitement.

Or at least we think. The forecast might remain sizzling through June.

We are in yet another season in which goals have been plentiful. Teams were scoring 3.21 times per game as of Friday, the highest mark since 1993-94. Last year, it finished at 3.14, the third season in the last four it was north of 3.0.


Entering the weekend, the league-average save percentage was .904. For a full season, it hasn’t dipped below .900 since 1995-96. These are puck-stopping rates we haven’t seen since the 2005-06 post-lockout year (.901), which was juiced by teams getting a league-record 5.85 power plays a game.

One more measure of how hot offenses have been: Power-play success across the league was 22.95 percent, which recalls the waves of booming slappers that washed over stand-up netminders in the mid-1980s. The highest full-season number on record in that category is 22.94, in 1983, so we’re in range for a historical high.

It’s just not unusual to see scoreboards flashing 7s, 8s, and 9s these days.

“The chances that are being created now are high-end chances,” Bruins coach Jim Montgomery said. “A lot of them are. Everyone talks about the slot line, if you go through the middle of the zone with a pass to a teammate, they’re hard to save. Now a goalie’s not standing there square, he’s like this” — Montgomery spread his arms as he shifted his body — “and there’s holes.”

Much of it — and we’ve seen this before in Boston — is about defensemen changing the game. The Orr-era Bruins (5.12 goals per game) helped the NHL hit the three goals per game mark for some 25 years, pushing toward four in the early-to-mid-1980s. Then came the frigid days of the mid-1990s and early-2000s, when bigger-than-ever players were allowed to smother opponents.


Orr was singular, but puck-rushing defensemen of his era helped crank offenses into high gear. Today’s grass-roots focus on individual skill development and skating has given the NHL more pace-pushers who happen to line up on the blue line. Glass-and-out is rare when everyone can skate and handle the puck.

As such, rigidly defined assignments are becoming less necessary. It’s hard to call today’s hockey positionless, since forwards still score the overwhelming majority of the goals, and defensemen are almost always the last skaters back. Perhaps position-light is a better term.

Defenseman like Colorado's Cale Makar have become major threats in the open ice, changing the way the game is played.Rob Carr/Getty

“At younger ages, there’s really only two roles in hockey: offense and defense,” said USA Hockey director of player development Roger Grillo, who played defense at Maine and coached at Brown. “Either our team has the puck or we have to get it back. How that looks is based on decisions made by the players.”

At the early-teenage stage, Grillo said, American amateur coaches should focus their players on understanding four free-flowing roles: a player with the puck, the offensive players without the puck, the defender who’s challenging the puck, and defenders off the puck.

“If you watch higher-end hockey nowadays, there’s really only one time you can tell who’s playing what position, if you don’t already know, and that’s off a faceoff,” Grillo said. “It’s not black and white anymore, it’s gray. There’s no designated spots to be. It’s all based off of reads.”


Here in Boston, Montgomery has an ideal roster for that style. It is a veteran group possessing above-average speed and skill. It is laden with established chemistry, from the decade-plus partnership of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron to Czech mates David Krejci and David Pastrnak to the Comm. Ave. connection of Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk.

Nearly all of Montgomery’s forwards play multiple positions. He has four attack-happy defensemen, and even his defensive-minded blue liners (Derek Forbort and Brandon Carlo) are mobile enough to occasionally jump into the play. Their teammates will cover for them.

The onus is on the player with the puck to know his options (“outs”, Montgomery said), and make the right read. His top two defensemen do it as well as any in the league.

On Dec. 3, the Bruins went up, 2-0, against Colorado when McAvoy slashed downhill like an NBA guard and played give-and-go with Pavel Zacha. Trent Frederic was there to clean up the rebound. One month before that in Manhattan, Hampus Lindholm rolled behind the Rangers’ net, as Nick Foligno covered for him, and hit Charlie Coyle with a wraparound feed.

Hardly every Bruins goal is scored like this — over the last month, Wednesday in Denver, for example, all four Bruins goals were scored by forward lines working the zone — but the Bruins’ back-line attack has been a problem for other teams.


Montgomery has been like a parent who offers their toddler several positive choices. He’s creating the environment for them to succeed.

“I think that’s what’s so great about Monty’s system,” Foligno said last month. “It’s so fast but predictable. We really enjoy playing it. I think it’s tailored toward a lot of guys in the room. We feel that when we are playing, we know where guys are supposed to be. You can have that sixth sense.

“It’s dangerous, because we’re playing with so much speed, too. With those guys in the right spots, it makes it really hard on other teams. You’re seeing that right now. Positioning, but also where the puck’s going to go. We know where our routes are going to be on breakouts. We know our forecheck. There’s little rules of thumb. It’s not set in stone.”

Montgomery recalled how his coach at Maine, the late Shawn Walsh, always knew where the outs were on the ice. He sees today’s game as more fluid than ever.

“Everyone’s interchangeable,” Montgomery said. “Players who grew up with it are used to it. Players are physically faster, even faster than they were a decade ago, but more importantly, everyone plays faster.

The Sabres' Rasmus Dahlin is one of those blueliners that can skate and handle the puck like a top-tier center.Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

“I think the offense is going to be ahead of defense, if you’re looking at goals per game, over the next couple years. But coaches will figure it out, like they figured out how to go through the trap better and create offense. The defense is going to catch up. It’s just the way the game goes. You’ve got to figure out a way to stop players like [Cale] Makar, McAvoy, Lindholm.”


For another example, take Rasmus Dahlin. In Buffalo’s Oct. 13 season opener against Ottawa, he scored the 2-1 goal in the manner big Dave Andreychuk used to do his damage: flat-footed, right in front, chipping it home.

There was no lumbering movement before that. From the red line in, Dahlin acted like a No. 1 center. He dished to the wing, cruised the middle lane and posted up in front of the net. After battling for position, he slipped free when Ottawa defender Erik Brannstrom chased Buffalo forward Peyton Krebs behind the net. Krebs hit Dahlin for a tap-in.

At no point in the sequence did Buffalo appear concerned about a breakaway the other way, with Dahlin so deep in the zone. His partner, Owen Power, was at the blue line watching the Ottawa forwards that were changing. By the time fresh-legged Claude Giroux decided to enter the zone and help his teammates, Dahlin had his hands in the air celebrating.

The play began with Dahlin’s breakout. Ottawa sent one forechecker, Mathieu Joseph, and Dahlin looked toward his partner long enough that Joseph turned the wrong way. Dahlin had the smarts to know Ottawa’s skaters were nearing the end of their shifts. He had the skating speed to explode past a flailing Joseph and take the entire neutral zone, as Ottawa changed forwards. The defensemen were unable to change because of Dahlin’s push.

Again, it doesn’t happen every shift, but for teams with danger-creators such as Dahlin, Makar, McAvoy, Lindholm, Miro Heiskanen (Dallas), Erik Karlsson (San Jose), and others, the threat is always there.

“You still have boundaries that you’re giving people,” Montgomery said. “For instance, a D man, we want them in the rush, but if there’s nothing going on by the time you hit the tops of the circles, you’re not involved in the play. Let the forwards go. We still want to have ice balance. The onus has become more on the player with the puck to make good decisions so we maintain the ability to have scoring chances or possession.”

“If you go back 30 years ago, if a turnover happened above the tops of the circles in the offensive zone, and the defenseman was trying to get open offensively, the defenseman got yelled at, because he wasn’t in a position to back up the play. That’s no longer the mentality. That’s been a big shift.”

Bruins Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, a three-zone force in his heyday (1979-2001), is enjoying watching Monty Hockey. “I found my way into those areas many times,” he said of the danger zone below the dots. “Some guys didn’t want to. It’s different now. The six D move pretty well. Back then, not everybody did.”

At the younger levels, Grillo expects that position-light hockey will continue to flourish.

“The modern coach, coaching the modern athlete, will have more success if ownership is given to the players, and the structure part of the game isn’t set in stone,” he said. “I always tell coaches: it’s building a frame and letting the players paint within it. You have your structure, but don’t be paint-by-numbers — ‘you go there, you go there.’ You take away their decision-making and their reads, and development stops.”

Five-star performance

Sabres’ Thompson shows sizable advantage

Tage Thompson couldn't stop scoring against the Blue Jackets.Kirk Irwin/Getty

The puck skills for a man of his size — nearly 6 feet, 7 inches and 220 pounds — are immense. His shot brings triple-digit heat, and might be the hardest in the league. Like the best shooters, he can change the angle as he’s releasing the puck.

Buffalo’s Tage Thompson keeps proving he is a legitimate star.

At Columbus on Wednesday, he scored a hat trick in the first 13 minutes, on two nifty tucks in tight and a one-timer clocked at 100.3 miles per hour. His line, at the time of that goal: 3-1—4 in 3:45 of ice time.

He scored again a few minutes later, giving him 4-1—5 in 5:14 of ice time, across the first 16:40 of the game.

It made him the fastest to four goals since Joe Malone, of the 1921 Hamilton Bulldogs, who did it in 8:45. Malone, who died in 1969, holds the record for goals in a game (seven), set in 1920. He retired shortly before the Bruins entered the league in 1924.

Coasting off his previous accomplishments, Thompson scored only once in the second period. It was a laser of a wrister from the left circle. Final line for Thompson: 5-1—6 in 13:56 of ice time. He became the first player with a five-goal game in less than 14 minutes since ice time was tracked beginning in 1997.

“I think it just leaves you hungrier,” Thompson said afterward. “You want more from yourself. You know you’re capable of it now, and I think it’s just something I’m excited for. You get a night like this, and now you just want to continue to grow and continue to test yourself.”

Thompson, whose father, Brent, was a defenseman who finished a 15-year pro career as Providence’s captain in 2005, when the AHL was stocked with locked-out NHL talent (Patrice Bergeron was a teammate). He has coached the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn., since 2014.

Tage Thompson, born in Phoenix in 1997 while dad was in the Coyotes’ system, lived in 11 different cities as a youngster, all but one of them in the Lower 48: his dad spent two years as head coach of the ECHL (Anchorage) Alaska Aces. Last week he became the third American (Mickey Roach and Mark Pavelich the others) to score five in a game.

Thompson is making $1.4 million this year, before a seven-year, $50 million extension kicks in next fall. That $7.14 million cap hit seemed like an overpay for a player with 18 career goals in four seasons before busting out for 38 last season. The UConn product (two seasons in Storrs) could look underpaid if he keeps this up. He had 21 goals and 40 points in his first 26 games.

The Blues quietly picked Thompson 26th overall in the 2016 draft. The big man scored 14 goals for UConn that season, but 13 were on the power play. He was seen as a right wing with a big shot and decent hands, but not much else.

The Sabres, who tried to pull Jordan Kyrou or Robert Thomas instead of Thompson from the Blues’ prospect pool, looked like fools when the centerpiece of their blockbuster trade, Ryan O’Reilly, became a Conn Smythe winner for St. Louis in 2019. They heard it again when they signed Thompson, coming off a breakout year, to No. 1 center money. Time might prove them winners of the deal.

Loose pucks

One of the great perks of this job is being a hockey tourist. Power-ranking the NHL arenas I’ve yet to visit: 1. Climate Pledge Arena, Seattle: Gimme the dual-jumbotron strangeness, the random eye-and-tentacle combo creeping up from the deep, and a chance meeting with whatever that troll mascot is called; 2. Mullett Arena, Tempe, Ariz.: Many of us made bad decisions in college, and for about $200, a Coyotes ticket could be part of yours; 3. UBS Arena: Elmont, N.Y. There’s a speakeasy tucked away in one of the concourses, but I’ll be too focused on chronicling Bruins-Islanders to partake … Speaking of Seattle, the goaltending has been such a washout it’s hard to believe the Kraken will be a player in the West. As of Thursday, they were allowing the fewest shots in the league (674) but had the fourth-worst team save percentage (.883), while holding down the No. 4 spot in the conference … Thought Toronto had goalie trouble? The Leafs’ team save percentage (.920) was third best entering the weekend. Matt Murray’s 44-save shutout Tuesday at Dallas saw the Stars rack up 93 shot attempts, the highest number by a team that was blanked since the NHL first tracked shot attempts in 2009-10 … Two great fits for high-earning veterans: Erik Karlsson to the Panthers, and Patrick Kane to the Rangers. But can they make the dollars work? … One way McAvoy and Lindholm connect away from the ice: both of them like to surf. Both goofy-footed, if you’re wondering.

Matt Porter can be reached at matthew.porter@globe.com. Follow him @mattyports.