fb-pixel Skip to main content

The NHL and the growing art of pickpocketing the puck

Jared Spurgeon plays his position with brains, guile, and slipperiness to counter his restrictions on the scale.Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

Jared Spurgeon faces limitations he can do little about. The Minnesota defenseman stands 5 feet 9 inches and weighs 164 pounds. This places Spurgeon squarely in the lightweight category when framed against behemoths such as Zdeno Chara, who stands a foot taller and claims an 86-pound advantage.

The 26-year-old with a bantam’s physical profile has done just fine doing battle with the NHL’s big boys. Through 17 games, only strongman Ryan Suter was receiving more ice time on the Wild roster than Spurgeon, indicating how much his coaches trust his presence. Spurgeon plays his position with brains, guile, and slipperiness to counter his restrictions on the scale.


But while you’d think Spurgeon would be most concerned with physical matchups, the defenseman plays with the appropriate level of caution against smart and technical players.

Pavel Datsyuk,” Spurgeon answered when asked about difficult opponents, echoing the sentiment of most defensemen. “He was pretty skilled at it. You wouldn’t know which side he was coming on.”

The craft that Spurgeon was referring to was the ex-Red Wing’s uncanny ability to strip pucks off opponents’ sticks. In his prime, Datsyuk had few peers at his trade of approaching an opponent and making off with the puck in all manners of thievery. When his counterparts were relying on blunt force to separate puck from player, Datsyuk opened his bag of tricks to pick pockets and scoot the other way.

Datsyuk was once an exception. Today’s game, however, is encouraging more players to employ techniques other than pure muscle to pluck pucks off blades. Referees blow whistles quickly on the first sight of a loose arm. Defenders don’t want to risk missing with a big hit and compromising body position against rapid puck carriers. Above all else, coaches emphasize puck possession.

It is within this context that hounds such as Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are leading the movement among players who have turned puck pursuit into an art. Other players in this category include Henrik Zetterberg, Ryan O’Reilly, Ondrej Palat, Rick Nash, Marian Hossa, and John Tavares. They aren’t necessarily prompt to blast opponents into next week to force turnovers. But they treat the puck like it was their wallet: precious and proprietary.


Brad Marchand (pictured) and Patrice Bergeron are leading the movement among players who have turned puck pursuit into an art.Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

“The big thing first is body position,” Marchand said. “You’re just trying to get leverage under the guy’s stick. One thing Datsyuk does a lot is he’ll whack the guy’s stick away or whack it up. It gives you an extra second to pull it out of the scrum.”

It’s not as easy as it sounds to gain body position. NHLers are good at restricting entry into their bubble of personal space. Once the shields go up, a puck carrier can lessen an opponent’s strength on his stick.

The advantage swings the other way once a player such as Marchand slips inside an opponent’s perimeter. Marchand’s stick becomes that much stronger when he’s in tight and able to put muscle behind it. All kinds of options open up. Marchand can use his body to bump a player off the puck. He can lift his opponent’s stick.

Or, in what has become one of his trademark maneuvers, Marchand can bring the hammer down to get a piece of both his enemy’s stick and the puck. When the other player’s lumber breaks, Marchand is regularly called for slashing. But if the stick stays whole, Marchand usually gains control of the puck.


Bergeron uses this trick, often in the faceoff circle. Bergeron aims just above his opponent’s blade, which prevents him from getting a clean handle on the puck. He can then go on the attack with possession.

In turn, the leaguewide improvement in stripping skill has quickened the pace of thinking. Like Spurgeon, Torey Krug (5-9, 186) cannot rely on brawn to protect the puck. Even before a puck battle takes place, smaller defensemen such as Krug are thinking about what they’ll do if they gain possession. In that way, the emphasis on puck pursuit is encouraging players to expand their processing power to stay a step ahead.

“Eight times out of 10 when I go back to break out a puck, I know what I’m going to do with it before I get it,” Krug said. “If I know a guy like Zetterberg’s on me, there are certain players I know that are not going to come and physically be on me. I know I have an extra 2 feet to make a play when he’s forechecking as opposed to a third-line player who’s going to come in and try to hit me.”

Teams have always treated the puck like it’s made of gold. But never more so than now.


Loss of Stamkos alters Lightning

Steven Stamkos is both quick at healing and stout mentally amid adversity. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Unfortunately, Steven Stamkos has a knack of coming down with catastrophic injuries. On Nov. 11, 2013, Stamkos broke his leg at TD Garden when he slammed into the net. Last April 4, Stamkos underwent surgery to remove a blood clot.


Stamkos’s bad fortune continued on Tuesday, when he suffered a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee while engaging in a puck battle in Tampa Bay’s 4-3 win over Detroit. The Lightning estimate Stamkos, who underwent surgery on Thursday, will miss four months.

If any team can roll on through such a crippling injury, it’s the Lightning. Vladislav Namestnikov, who was the No. 1 left wing, moves to center between Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. Tyler Johnson is the No. 2 center between Alex Killorn and Brayden Point. On Thursday, the first game the Lightning played without Stamkos, they welcomed Jonathan Drouin back to the third line. Drouin had missed seven games after being clobbered by Calvin de Haan on Nov. 1. The No. 4 unit of Brian Boyle, Cedric Paquette, and J.T. Brown is as good as some third lines.

But Stamkos was playing some of his best three-zone hockey prior to his injury. He had the security of his eight-year, $68 million extension. There were no concerns about his blood clot. Stamkos had nine goals and 11 assists in 17 games while averaging 17:52 of ice time. He led the Lightning with a 56.28 Corsi For rating. In five-on-five situations, the No. 1 center was averaging 3.29 points per 60 minutes of play, better than NHL leading scorer Mark Scheifele’s 2.88 clip.

Stamkos is both quick at healing and stout mentally amid adversity. He’ll need both qualities to continue if the built-to-win Lightning plan on making a deep postseason run.



Dubnyk marvels at some peers

Devan Dubnyk has to chew up the ice to push laterally, challenge shooters, and retreat into his cage. Paul Battaglia/AP

Devan Dubnyk stands 6-6 and weighs 213 pounds, which means he has a lot of working parts he has to keep under his command to stay atop his game in the net. So far this season, Dubnyk’s done well at his craft. Through 13 appearances, Dubnyk was 7-5-1 with a 1.48 goals-against average and a .952 save percentage. He is on pace to put up numbers better than those he posted upon his arrival in 2014-15 in Minnesota via Arizona, when he went 27-9-2 with a 1.78 GAA and .936 save percentage.

But as easy as Dubnyk is making the art of puck-stopping look this season, he still marvels at the coolness with which Carey Price and Tuukka Rask play the position. For Dubnyk, it starts with how they skate.

“Just a great skater,” Dubnyk said of Rask. “A little bit like Pricer. It seems like he’s just floating around out there. Not a lot of effort to glide around. It’s frustrating for the rest of us who have to dig up the crease to move around to see him just float out there. He’s fun to watch. His movement is awesome.”

By his description, Dubnyk does not move around his net as gracefully as Rask and Price. Dubnyk has to chew up the ice to push laterally, challenge shooters, and retreat into his cage.

Rask and Price require less effort to get to where they need to be. As a result, they’re usually in good, square position to snuff out first shots. They can then reset if necessary when follow-up shots come their way.

Dubnyk was also complimentary of Henrik Lundqvist’s skating. But Dubnyk noted that Lundqvist isn’t as active as Rask or Price. Lundqvist prefers to stay deeper in his net and wait for pucks to arrive. It’s a style that still requires strength on his skates.

“Henrik Lundqvist is a great skater, but he doesn’t move very far,” Dubnyk said. “He’s still got great feet. He’s still a great skater. It’s a different kind of skating. But it’s frustrating sometimes to watch guys like that who float around out there like they don’t weigh anything and I’m chewing up my crease every time I start and stop.”

Using his head

There’s a lot to like about 18-year-old Matthew Tkachuk, from his size to his attitude to his competitiveness. But Tkachuk is also proving wise beyond his years based on how he processes what’s available in the offensive zone. On Wednesday, in Calgary’s 2-1 overtime win over Arizona, the son of Keith Tkachuk snapped a puck off the back of Mike Smith’s head and into the net at 6:40 of the third period, tying the game at 1. After the Flames won an offensive-zone draw, Tkachuk looked like he didn’t have many scoring options when he settled the puck at the goal line. But even from that angle, shots banked off a goalie, whether it’s a leg or shoulder or head, can be higher-percentage opportunities than traditional net-front chances. The goalie’s not expecting the puck to arrive from that angle. It’s also hard for a goalie to get a good read on a sharp-angle play when the high-danger chances are lurking out front. “It’s a challenge to make sure you can see the puck at all times,” Dubnyk said. “A lot of times, it’s easy to let yourself be screened as the puck comes into the corner. Maybe it’s a D-man. Or some people cross your vision and you don’t really think it matters for that second because of where the puck is. But it just takes that split-second to send it when you can’t see it. You just have to battle to always have your eyes on the puck.”

Flames fit for plunder

Johnny Gaudreau will be sidelined for six weeks following surgery on a broken finger.Paul Battaglia/AP

The foundering Flames took a wallop on Wednesday when Johnny Gaudreau was diagnosed with a broken finger. The former Boston College star suffered the injury the previous night in a 1-0 win over Minnesota. With their best player sidelined for six weeks following surgery, the Flames will be desperate to make a move to reinforce their roster. One of their prime trading chips is Dougie Hamilton, parked behind Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, Dennis Wideman, and Deryk Engelland on Calgary’s depth chart. But this is where other GMs will be rubbing their hands in hopes of ripping off Brad Treliving. Calgary would be selling low on Hamilton if they move him now. Other teams still see promise in the 23-year-old, right-shot defenseman, provided he receives the proper coaching like he had in Boston. Treliving would be best served waiting until Hamilton shows first-year coach Glen Gulutzan he’s worthy of his trust.

Wild save a year on Eriksson Ek

The Wild loved Joel Eriksson Ek’s start. The 19-year-old scored a goal in his NHL debut against New Jersey. Two games later, he helped torch the Bruins with three helpers in a 5-0 rout. But Eriksson Ek’s playing time and confidence began to dip as the games went by, to the point where the Wild decided it was not worth giving him 10 games and burning the first year of his entry-level contract. On Thursday, the Wild assigned Eriksson Ek, the No. 20 overall pick from 2015, to Farjestads, his club team in the Swedish Elite League. Eriksson Ek completed his nine-game NHL run with two goals and three assists while averaging 10:07 of ice time. The smart and skilled left-shot forward will play for Sweden’s World Junior Championship team, then return stateside in 2017-18 for his first official NHL season. Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau went through a similar situation in Anaheim in 2012-13 with Rickard Rakell. The Swedish forward appeared in four games for Boudreau, then was sent back to Plymouth, his junior team. Rakell hit his stride last season, scoring 20 goals and 23 assists in 72 games for the Ducks. “It’s for his development,” Boudreau said of Eriksson Ek. “He’ll come back next year 10 pounds stronger, knowing what the league is about, knowing what he has to do even more so than he did this year. I think he’s going to be a real good player.”

Bad break for Seidenberg

Dennis Seidenberg is on injured reserve because of a broken jaw.Al Bello/Getty Images

The Islanders entered Friday with 13 points, dead last in the Eastern Conference. Everything’s going wrong for the Islanders, from their three-goalie rotation (Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss, Jean-Francois Berube) to John Tavares’s invisible wingmen to the flickering production of summer signing Andrew Ladd (on the books through 2023 at $5.5 million annually). To that end, it did not help that ex-Bruin Dennis Seidenberg is on injured reserve because of a broken jaw, according to Newsday. Seidenberg, cut loose by the Bruins because of the two years and $8 million due on his previous contract, had been a good bargain pickup for the Islanders, who invested just one year and $1 million in the left-shot defenseman. Through 15 games, Seidenberg had racked up four goals and four assists while averaging 19:20 of ice time. During five-on-five situations, according to www.puckalytics.com, opponents averaged 58.65 shot attempts against Seidenberg per 60 minutes of play, the lowest rate among regular Islanders defensemen. The Bruins had little choice but to buy out Seidenberg because of his $4 million average annual value, too steep for a third-pairing defenseman. But Seidenberg had been a good fit at reduced term and price in Brooklyn.

Loose pucks

There haven’t been many signings better than the two-year, $3.3 million deal the Rangers gave Michael Grabner on July 1. The explosive left-shot Grabner is one reason the Rangers have the league’s best goal differential. Grabner had 10 goals through 17 games despite averaging only 12:54 of ice time as a third-line wing. The ex-Islander’s shooting percentage (24.4 after 17 games) will go down as the season progresses. But his speed and smarts will continue to give him quality scoring chances . . . Tough luck for ex-Chicago widebody Bryan Bickell, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Bickell’s already received well wishes from Jordan Sigalet and Josh Harding, two former NHL goalies diagnosed with the condition . . . The Panthers claimed ex-Bruins prospect Seth Griffith on waivers Nov. 12. Griffith’s addition gives the Panthers four players once owned by the Bruins: Reilly Smith, Jaromir Jagr, and Shawn Thornton. Or five if you include Roberto Luongo.

Their savior?
Rogie Vachon’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame after a 30-year wait gives hope to other goalies whose best shot at enshrinement is their career longevity. Here’s a look at seven netminders with a shot at the Hall whose numbers are comparable with those of Vachon, whose 16-year career concluded with the Bruins in 1982:
Player Games played Wins Goals against avg. Shutouts
Curtis Joseph 943 454 2.79 51
Roberto Luongo* 937 442 2.49 72
John Vanbiesbrouck 882 372 2.97 40
Mike Vernon 781 385 2.98 27
Rogie Vachon 795 355 2.99 51
Tom Barrasso 777 369 3.24 38
Chris Osgood 744 401 2.49 50
Andy Moog 713 372 3.13 28
*still active; compiled by Sean Smith

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.