On the power play, it is common practice for coaches to position their most skilled players on their weak-side half-boards. Tyler Seguin, a right-shot center, patrols the left wall. Left-shot pivot Nicklas Backstrom makes the right side his man-advantage corner office.
Ryan Spooner is no exception. The left-shot Bruins center has started the season as the right-side PP specialist, a position that fits his vision, touch, and creativity. In such overload setups, playmakers such as Spooner initiate the attack with options fanning out on all fronts.
It is no longer enough, however, for teams to expect results simply by putting their skilled guys on the wall. Smart coaches are using their best players elsewhere.
Through their first six games, the Bruins showed that the bumper is even more critical to a power play’s success than the half-wall playmaker.
Patrice Bergeron is the Bruins’ bumper. When Spooner controls the puck on the right side, Bergeron is his support man, usually positioned in the middle of the four-man penalty-killing box. If the strong-side PK forward or defenseman closes on Spooner, he can give the puck to Bergeron.
In turn, Bergeron’s position is given its name because he can then bump the puck in the most advantageous direction — up top to Torey Krug or David Krejci, or down low to Loui Eriksson. Without a good bumper, teams can be more aggressive on the perimeter of their penalty-killing box. But Bergeron’s puck-bumping touch can lead to bad consequences for opposing penalty kills.
“When they didn’t have the bumper, once one guy jumped the wall, another guy jumped behind the net,” coach Claude Julien said. “We’d call it a three-man press. That’s all they could do. They could push it to the walls. They had nobody in the middle. But by putting that bumper there, it really put teams on their heels as far as being able to press as much.”
Bergeron is like a quarterback and short-option receiver in one. He has to distribute the puck rapidly before penalty killers approach. But he must also be a safety valve when Spooner is under pressure.
There are few in the NHL who can match Bergeron’s skill.
“Best in the league at it,” said Kevan Miller, a PK regular.
Through six games, the Bruins had scored on 38.1 percent of their power-play opportunities, the top rate in the league. They are not alone in taking advantage of good bumper play.
In Alex Ovechkin’s time in the league, Washington has always been excellent on the power play. Ovechkin is money from the left circle, especially with Backstrom distributing the puck from the right boards, John Carlson available up top, and Evgeny Kuznetsov lurking as a goal-line option.
But T.J. Oshie and Troy Brouwer, Washington’s last two bumpers on their first unit, have been sharp at dishing pucks, relieving pressure, and ripping off shots. Through six games, Washington was operating at a 27.8 percent efficiency rate, No. 3 in the league.
In Boston’s setup, Spooner, Krug, and Krejci usually have time to make plays. Some coaches want their penalty killers to play tight and protect the middle of the ice.
In contrast, bumpers such as Bergeron and Oshie do not have the luxury of time. Because they’re usually lurking in a high-danger position in the house, penalty killers will slam down on them to take away scoring chances. Because the bumper requires so much attention, the perimeter players have more opportunities to catch their breath and be finer with their intentions.
“It almost backs the PK guys off,” said Miller. “When that bumper is in the middle, you start getting stretched out. You’re trying to force them to make those long passes, but the bumper is right there to bring everybody back in, then open space back up.”
In the first period of the Bruins’ 6-3 loss to Tampa Bay Oct. 12, Krejci gave the puck to Spooner on the right side. Victor Hedman closed on the wall, but Spooner saw Bergeron making himself available in the high slot. As soon as Bergeron received the pass from Spooner, he bumped the puck up top to Krejci. Because of how quickly Bergeron bumped the puck, Krejci had an interstate’s worth of lanes to find Krug on the left side. Krug walked the puck down and hit Eriksson for a backdoor tap-in.
“He’s always there to support me,” said Spooner. “It definitely makes my job easier, especially when the defenseman comes and pinches me off the wall. I know he’s going to be there. I can bump it in the middle, he gets it up top, and they have two guys stuck on the boards.”
What makes Bergeron even more dangerous is his ability to score. In the third period of the Bruins’ 5-3 win over Arizona Oct. 17, Bergeron popped in a pair of power-play goals.
On Bergeron’s first goal, the Coyotes were playing a tight box when Spooner got the puck on the right side. Bergeron found a pocket between Nicklas Grossmann and Kyle Chipchura, put his stick on the ice, and presented his backhand to Spooner.
Earlier in the game, Bergeron was higher in the slot with the intention of unloading a one-timer. The Coyotes took away that option. So Bergeron told Spooner that next time, he would shift lower and make his stick available for a tip instead. Spooner shot for Bergeron’s blade. Bergeron tipped the puck past goalie Mike Smith.
“He’s done a great job at relieving the pressure, being the bumper guy, and going in the right spots where he can get it,” Julien said. “I think he’s given Ryan Spooner a lot of comfort in knowing that if he’s under pressure, he can use Bergy as an outlet.”
The best players don’t need time to make plays. They’re thinking two plays ahead. When the puck arrives, they already know where it’s going next. His efficiency on the power play is yet another dimension of Bergeron’s all-around excellence.
Tortorella is what Blue Jackets need
On Wednesday, his first day in his new town, John Tortorella entered the Columbus Blue Jackets dressing room in search of a specific player: Brandon Dubinsky.
Tortorella coached Dubinsky in New York for four seasons. Under Tortorella, Dubinsky developed from a 22-year-old kid into an abrasive, speedy, and do-anything player. The left-shot forward became good enough for the Blue Jackets to ask for his services when trading superstar Rick Nash to the Rangers.
Tortorella’s task, as Todd Richards’s replacement, will be to develop the next generation of young players into dependable professionals such as Dubinsky. Tortorella has plenty of players in that category.
If the Jackets are to succeed, both this year and long term, their results will not depend on veterans such as the 29-year-old Dubinsky. Ryan Johansen (23 years old), Brandon Saad (22), Boone Jenner (22), and Ryan Murray (22) have to be the chain-pullers. Like most young players, once they lost their good vibes early this season, they found it impossible to get them back.
“This is a pretty good challenge here with the situation the club is in,” Tortorella said during his introductory news conference. “There’s some good players in that room. It’s a good team. It’s just gone. The confidence isn’t there.”
Tortorella’s history is crammed with red flags. He is an in-your-face, inflammatory coach. His emotions have affected his teams’ play. In Vancouver, Tortorella’s approach with Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Alex Edler, and an older roster led to his ouster and that of general manager Mike Gillis.
But Tortorella has a pedigree of shaping young players to fit his vision of what players should be. New York’s core of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal developed under his iron fist. Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan became warriors.
In Columbus, Tortorella has good players who are still more moldable clay than kiln-finished products. He will shape them into hard, responsible, dedicated players. Tortorella is good at creating an us-vs.-them environment.
The Jackets will become fighters again, not the zero-resistance, panic-stricken group that retreated against the Islanders in Richards’s final game on Tuesday. Then it will be up to GM Jarmo Kekalainen to improve the defense, which in turn will straighten out goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
“I think we need to really close ranks here as a group and just knock this down,” Tortorella said. “It comes with a conversation. Then it comes with action. We’re going to knock this down, what’s in front of us.”
In the playoffs two years ago, Pittsburgh nearly learned the hard way how nasty the Jackets can be. Columbus put together a similar run last season by playing mean hockey. If anybody can ignite that spirit again, it’s Tortorella.
“It comes down to right here, how you feel about yourself,” Tortorella said, pointing to his head. “It’s amazing what you can overcome if you have that arrogance — the right type of arrogance and strut within your game.”
Savings should be used elsewhere
After the 2016-17 season, some good goalies will be up for raises. Ben Bishop and Steve Mason, aces for Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, will be unrestricted. Based on their performance, age, and comparables, Bishop and Mason will be well within their rights to ask for multiyear deals over the $6 million threshold. Bishop helped backstop the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final. Mason is coming off a very good season for a not-so-good Flyers team.
The volatility of the position, however, might be enough for GMs Steve Yzerman and Ron Hextall to apply their money elsewhere.
Consider that the Avalanche, Bruins, and Blue Jackets are investing $20.325 million this season in Semyon Varlamov, Tuukka Rask, and Sergei Bobrovsky. In turn, the goalies are providing their employers with save percentages of .861, .854, and .840. They are wretched numbers that are more of a reflection of their teams’ ragged play than their individual performances. But none of the goalies have come close to approaching their previous standards. In Bobrovsky’s case, he helped Jackets coach Todd Richards lose his job.
Varlamov, Rask, and Bobrovsky are not this bad. Their numbers will improve. But the nature of goaltending — peaks and valleys, with defensive support playing a major role — does not make payment of a prime puck-stopper a sure thing.
The difference between a struggling, well-paid ace and an inexpensive backup is minimal when it comes to performance. But it’s a massive gap in cap allocations. In the case of Rask and Jonas Gustavsson ($700,000), it’s $6.3 million, or the price of a very good player.
It’s safer to invest big money and long term to skaters. They don’t have as many in-season variances in their play. Their performance also isn’t influenced as heavily by their teammates.
So when Bishop and Mason are set to hit the market, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia will have hard decisions. No GM wants to say goodbye to a high-level goalie. Bad ones get their coaches sacked.
But considering the current depth of goaltending talent, there will always be good, young, and cheaper puck-stoppers available around the league.
Andrei Vasilevskiy could be ready to take over Bishop’s job. Anthony Stolarz, Philadelphia’s second-round pick in 2012, might crack the NHL.
A market correction should come soon.
Not drafted? Not a problem
Of the 56 goalies who have seen playing time this season, 12 were not drafted: Antti Raanta, Martin Jones, Mike Condon, Antti Niemi, Carter Hutton, Matt O’Connor, Gustavsson, Cam Talbot, Eddie Lack, Keith Kinkaid, Jonas Hiller, and Andrew Hammond. Among the group, Jones, Talbot, and Lack, all traded this summer, have ace potential. The number of undrafted goalies making an NHL impact underscores the depth and breadth of puck-stopping talent. Just as significant is that teams don’t necessarily have to invest high-round picks to build depth in goal. There will always be the can’t-miss netminders such as Carey Price. But organizations are recognizing that it’s wiser to spend draft capital on skaters. There are plenty of good goalies available via free agency.
Award winners shouldn’t feel secure
In 2004, John Tortorella won the Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach. Three firings later (Tampa Bay, New York Rangers, Vancouver), Tortorella resurfaced in Columbus on Wednesday following the sacking of Richards. Including Tortorella, six of the last 11 winners were fired from the clubs with which they won the award: Lindy Ruff, Alain Vigneault, Bruce Boudreau, Dan Bylsma, and Paul MacLean. Patrick Roy and Bob Hartley, the last two winners, are coaching last-place teams. The award has traditionally gone to coaches who have led their teams to better-than-expected results. The trouble with that notion is that overachieving happens for a reason: The teams weren’t very good to start.
Rinaldo hit fails the eye test
The Department of Player Safety made an airtight case to support its decision not to suspend Zac Rinaldo for his punishing hit on Sean Couturier on Wednesday. Rinaldo was tossed for charging, but video showed that his skates did not leave the ice before he launched into his hit. Review also concluded that Rinaldo’s hit connected within the acceptable window of the puck leaving Couturier’s blade. So by the rule book, it was a legal check. But to the eye, it was a disrespectful and unnecessary play. Couturier was engaged with Adam McQuaid. The puck was gone. The period was ending. Rinaldo’s move should have been to cover as the third man high when McQuaid pinched down the wall. There was no need for Rinaldo to clean Couturier’s clock.
Panarin looks legit
So far, the Blackhawks have a keeper in Artemi Panarin. The 23-year-old rookie, riding with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane on Chicago’s second line, had two goals and six assists in his first seven NHL games. The 5-foot-11-inch, 170-pound Panarin is yet another example of Chicago’s insistence on landing players that tick off their checkmarks: skating, puck skills, hockey sense, and competitiveness. The Blackhawks will lean on Panarin even more while Duncan Keith recovers from knee surgery.
Short-term Bruin Joey MacDonald is tending goal for Schwenninger of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga. MacDonald served as Condon’s backup in Hamilton last year. Upon the conclusion of his playing career, the 35-year-old MacDonald wants to be a goalie coach. Crease partners have always considered MacDonald a good teammate . . . Vancouver GM Jim Benning received the equivalent of a free lunch when Columbus, per league rules, ceded a second-round pick as compensation to hire Tortorella. It’s a nonsense rule and one that will be eliminated next year . . . Vincent Lecavalier has been a healthy scratch for Philadelphia’s first six games. The Flyers are carrying $8.55 million of dead money between Lecavalier and Andrew MacDonald, currently buried in the minors. With Lecavalier on the books through 2018, the Flyers will be limited in improving their roster unless they can resolve the center’s situation . . . If you had Matt Hunwick leading the Maple Leafs in ice time per game (22:38), there is a suite in Las Vegas with your nameplate on it.
The Blue Jackets’ firing of Todd Richards after an 0-7-0 start is unconventional (and perhaps warranted) but hardly unprecedented. It’s the 13th time in the Expansion Era (starting in the 1967-68 season) that a head coach was fired within his team’s first 10 games, and the eighth such instance in the last 20 seasons. Only two of those teams ended up in the postseason.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.