The sticks line a wall in the Bruins’ dressing room at Ristuccia Arena, their blades curving near the floor. Each is marked according to its owner — a name, a number, a brand. But it’s that curve that is crucial, the bends indicating the left shots and the right shots on a team that has perhaps too few of the latter.
In the course of a whirlwind few hours, as NHL free agency started, the Bruins saw both of their right-shot right wings sign elsewhere. Neither was a surprise — Shawn Thornton already had been told his future was not in Boston, and the Bruins’ salary-cap restrictions made leaving a near certainty for Jarome Iginla.
That left the Bruins with just two right shots among their forwards back from last year’s squad — both centers. It is generally considered optimal to have right shots play on the right side and left shots play on the left side.
Next came the questions. Did the Bruins need to acquire a right-shot right wing? If they didn’t have one, would it hamstring the team? Would rookie David Pastrnak rise from a first-round draft pick to fill a seeming void?
But there was another question: Does it really even matter?
“I think teams try,” general manager Peter Chiarelli said of having equal left shots and right shots. “It’s just that sometimes you can’t.”
The Bruins are not alone as a team with fewer right shots than right wing spots. In an entirely unscientific look at the listed rosters of all 30 NHL teams this summer, it was determined that there were just 241 right shots in the league and 407 left shots. The ratios were roughly equal between defensemen (82 and 142) and forwards (159 and 265).
The Red Wings had just a single right shot on their entire roster: Luke Glendening.
“Crazy,” Brad Marchand said when apprised of that fact. “That’s tough to explain. But all over, especially defensemen, there are a lot more lefties. For the most part, it’s lefties everywhere.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to work with what you’ve got. Maybe that’s the case.”
That’s the case for the Red Wings. And, after a summer in which no new right wings came to Boston other than Pastrnak, that’s the case for the Bruins right now.
But asked if the dearth has been overplayed, Chiarelli doesn’t hesitate.
“Yes,” he said.
But how did we get here?
In the general population, more people are righthanded. Usually the dominant hand is positioned at the top of a hockey stick, meaning that righthanded people are left shots and vice versa. But not always.
There are some Bruins who buck the trend, most of them righthanded right shots, including David Krejci, Dougie Hamilton, and Adam McQuaid. Daniel Paille and Carl Soderberg (left/left) are lefthanded left shots. Hamilton, for example, said everyone in his family is righthanded, and professed ignorance about the top-hand dominant rule.
“I did it wrong, I guess,” Hamilton said.
But he’s not alone. There is a strange quirk in the United States. Although stick manufacturers sell more lefthanded sticks to the rest of the world (specifically Canada and Europe), they sell more righthanded sticks in the US, according to an industry representative. The split is somewhere from 60-65 percent lefthanded around the world, and 60-65 percent righthanded in the US.
Apprised of the fact, Milan Lucic started listing names: Phil Kessel, David Backes, Joe Pavelski.
All star forwards from the US. All right shots.
“We’re the country that is backward with it,” said Ken Martel, the technical director of the American Development Model for USA Hockey.
USA Hockey is so concerned the organization is studying the issue to make sure the US isn’t losing top talent to something as fundamental as grabbing the wrong end of the stick.
“What we have extrapolated looking at this [is] a lot of our growth has been in nontraditional hockey areas, a lot of first-generation hockey people,” Martel said. “So when they take their kid to the pro shop to buy a hockey stick and the guy says, ‘What is he – right or lefthanded?’ They go, ‘He’s righthanded. He’s right hand dominant, he writes with his right hand.’
“Well, that person should probably be a lefty. So we are assuming that that’s where that trend is coming from, which is really strange.”
That assumption could make all the difference.
USA Hockey surveyed the 216 campers at its development camps last summer, determining that of the left shots, 113 of 200 had their dominant right hand on the top of their stick. But of the right shots, just 18 of 96 had their dominant left hand on top. They plan on continuing the study in subsequent years to get a larger sample size.
The question is really whether those righthanded players who grab righthanded sticks are more likely to flame out at younger ages, whether they end up dropping hockey for, say, baseball because they’re not as successful as they could have been as a left shot. As Martel said, “Is this an inhibiting factor for them turning out to become a great player?”
“What we’re trying to determine right now is if that is a disadvantage or an advantage,” Martel said. “We think it’s a disadvantage over the long haul. More of the players are turning out in those other countries than in ours at the higher level.
“So is this a detractor for development early on? We certainly think it is.”
That determination, though, is in the future. The Bruins are still faced with a situation where they have fewer right shots than they’d prefer, at least at the moment. They’ll use their left shots on the right side — or “off wing” — as they did with Loui Eriksson and Reilly Smith last season.
In fact, Eriksson’s only qualms about playing right wing — which he also did in Dallas — came from playing with a right-shot center (Patrice Bergeron) rather than the left-shot centers to which he was accustomed.
“There are a lot of advantages to playing your off wing,” Chiarelli said. “Generally if you’ve got good stick skills, you can adapt very easily. And you’re probably in a better position playing your off wing.”
For some who have played both throughout their careers — such as Paille and Matt Fraser — the switch doesn’t seem all that daunting. It can even put them in better position for ripping off a shot, Fraser pointed out.
“Basically in the D zone [the difference is] handling the puck on the wall,” Paille said. “It’s actually easier handling it on your right side, on the right wing, because you have it on your forehand as opposed to the left side.
“And I think in the offensive zone it’s basically just positioning with the puck, which one you feel more comfortable with carrying the puck when you’re driving the net. Other than that, you just have to adjust your awareness on the other side of the ice. That’s all.”
But it is easy to find players who weren’t able to make the move to their off wing. That group includes Iginla, who struggled at left wing in his brief stint in Pittsburgh before moving back to his strong side in Boston.
Of course, defensemen are different. Because of that, the Bruins have done their best to have roughly equivalent numbers among their defensemen, including one (Dennis Seidenberg) who is used on both sides at times.
“It’s a little harder to play the wrong side defensively than it is to play [on offense],” Chiarelli said. “Harder because the consequences of a mistake are greater.”
That’s why Chiarelli has worked to keep his numbers even on defense, and less so on offense.
Because, in the end, there’s this: “You know, the only time you’re right and left and center is on the faceoff,” said Simon Gagne, who came to camp as a right wing after being on his natural left side for most of his career. “After that, most of the time it doesn’t really matter, especially offensively.”
Like so much in hockey, though, it’s all fluid.
Some players succeed as righthanded right shots (Krejci). Some players succeed as lefthanded left shots (Soderberg). Some, likely, pick up the wrong stick as a 6-year-old and end up moving on to other sports.
Some players like their strong side. Some like their off side. And some switch off in the middle of a shift.
While Thornton and Paille combined to form a traditional line — the right-shot Thornton on the right, the left-shot Paille on the left — they didn’t always stay that way. They would often swap sides in the defensive zone, a preference the coaches didn’t seem to mind.
They made playing on their off side — even briefly — work for them.
They saw the advantages, the disadvantages, and they judged them and reacted. It’s what the Bruins will be doing for much of this season as they enter with a team rife with left shots.
And even if the lack of right shots hampers their power play — possibly the key area where an extra right shot could help — that’s not a significant concern for Chiarelli and the Bruins. He wasn’t going to force a right-shot player onto the roster.
“If your priority is the shot direction, you’re not going to build the right team,” Chiarelli said.
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