fb-pixel Skip to main content

The D-to-D pass has become a casualty of speed in today’s NHL

<?EM-dummyText [Drophead goes here] ?>

Kevan Miller belongs to the generation of defensemen trained to backtrack into the defensive zone, put their sticks down, and await the first pass from their puck-retrieving partners.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

Remember the D-to-D pass? It was not long ago that defensemen, following a lifetime of instruction, retreated into their zone, placed their blades on the ice, and made themselves available for their partners' passes.

Like enforcers, covering the points, and standup goaltending, sightings of the D-to-D pass and its accompaniments — the pass up to the strong-side wing or the cross-ice fling to the weak-side forward — have become as commonplace as those of real-news Facebook feeds.

The play's deemphasis is a recent example of how the game's evolution has transformed a tried-and-true method into a play that demanded adjustment.


"A lot of that transition game, D-to-D in the zone throughout the league, is gone now," said the Bruins' Kevan Miller. "There are times when you use it still. But the traditional D-to-D and up to the wing is almost over now."

Miller is 29 years old. He belongs to the generation of defensemen trained to backtrack into the defensive zone, put their sticks down, and await the first pass from their puck-retrieving partners. The D-to-D pass, however, has turned into yet another relic in the NHL's shift to a speed-first format.

Some teams forgo anything resembling a standard breakout. The Canadiens, for example, tell their forwards to blow the zone and be in place to chase down a fling of the puck. The objective is to spend as little time in the defensive zone and create a battle for the puck in less dangerous areas of the ice.

With speed and aggressiveness being adopted everywhere, the D-to-D formation is a dial-up option in a broadband league. Its decline is not as stark as that of fighting. But the sport's emphasis on speed has required coaches to develop new techniques and teach their players to break years-old habits. As such, it's encouraged defensemen to be more creative.


"You see D's going back and trying to wheel with the puck or trying to make escape moves," the Bruins' Adam McQuaid said. "As opposed to your standard, 'Straight back, this is your side of the ice, go back for your partner.' It's not as clear-cut as it used to be. Guys are joining the rush. Guys are standing up. Guys are doing different things. It's not just your standard, 'Oh, you're a defenseman, you're going to skate backwards from the blue line, inside the dots, all the way back, stay on your side, get in front of the net.' "

The shift has taken place because of how most teams apply a 2-1-2 forecheck. They slam two forwards down hard on both defensemen. The third forward is an important player in the middle, trained to read off what his two forechecking teammates force opponents to do.

The two defensemen are coached to pinch down the walls.

‘It’s not as clear-cut as it used to be,’ Adam McQuaid said of the D-to-D pass.Matt Slocum

It wasn't always this way. When teams were using a 1-2-2 forecheck, D-to-D was usually the most efficient breakout method. A sharp first pass trapped F1 up the ice. Before F2 could close, the defenseman receiving the pass from his partner could beat his advance with multiple options. He could keep the puck on his side by sending it up to the wing posting up on the wall. The center curling down low was a good second option. If the weak-side wing remained wide instead of shifting to the middle as additional support, he would be a threat going the other way to reel in a long-distance cross-ice bomb.


The two-man forecheck, however, is the primary reason in D-to-D's decline. Defensemen are being taught to deny entries at the blue line instead of hanging back inside the dots. So when the puck goes behind them, backtracking defensemen have more distance to cover than before. When a defenseman retrieves the puck, a forechecker is in both his face and that of his partner.

So coaches are placing more responsibility in the hands of the puck-retrieving defenseman. With communication help from his partner, the first defenseman usually has the green light to skate the puck out of danger instead of thinking pass first. The standard move has become to wheel and look for options after turning the net.

This has encouraged the other partner to head to the net-front area instead of staying wide as a D-to-D outlet. The net-front defenseman serves two purposes.

First, if his partner commits a turnover, the net-front man is in good position to help blunt a counterattack. Second, he is an option to receive the puck.

If the puck-carrying defenseman meets resistance from F1 after wheeling, he can pass to the strong-side wing. The opposing strong-side defenseman will then pinch down the wall to check the wing. In that instance, the wing can use the net-front defenseman as an outlet.

"The onus is more on the guy going back on the puck now," Miller said. "Your partner reads off that guy. It's what we've been trying to do — let the guy going back on the puck make the reads, find the option, and make the best decision."


This shift in play benefits mobile, creative defensemen. Stay-at-homers are not as comfortable nor have as much experience in wheeling with the puck and making rapid reads. It makes puck-movers such as Ottawa's Erik Karlsson even more valuable because of their ability to initiate solo breakouts.

The point of this evolution is to counter the defensive-zone time an aggressive forecheck can produce. In other words, it's common sense.

"It sounds so simple," Miller said. "But it's not the easiest thing to do."


Penguins’ Sheary appears settled in

Through 23 games, Conor Sheary has eight goals and 10 assists.Nick Wass

Conor Sheary entered this season as a third-year pro, ring-winner, and trusted linemate of Sidney Crosby. As such, Sheary wasn't fighting for a roster spot as much as he was carving out a position among Pittsburgh's go-to players.

"Last year, you come into camp and you're trying to make the team," said the Melrose native. "This year, you're coming into camp and trying to stick. It's a little different mind-set. It puts your mind more at ease a little bit."

Sheary, a four-year player at UMass Amherst, played all of his rookie season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The left-shot forward started last season in the AHL again. He will never return to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Through 23 games, Sheary has eight goals and 10 assists while averaging 15:00 of ice time. Sheary was excellent in Pittsburgh's 4-3 overtime win over the Bruins on Wednesday. The left wing helped set up Justin Schultz's goal by speeding through the neutral zone with the puck, gaining the zone by avoiding a Noel Acciari check, and dishing it to Crosby. Because of Sheary's approach, Crosby had time to spot Schultz joining the rush.


Sheary nearly gave the Penguins a regulation win in the final minute. He raced past Adam McQuaid to create a breakaway that Tuukka Rask turned back with a desperate pad stop.

The 24-year-old Sheary, who played for Mike Sullivan in the AHL, has become a trusted player for his coach, partly because he knows how to play with Crosby.

It's not easy to ride shotgun with Pittsburgh's ace center. Crosby plays at such a high pace and is so creative with the puck that he does things some linemates don't anticipate. During the World Cup of Hockey, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand clicked with Crosby because their hockey sense allowed them to read off the high-tempo center.

Sheary may not be as skilled as Bergeron and Marchand. But he processes the game with similar clarity.

"High hockey IQ," Sullivan said of Sheary. "He sees the ice very well. He's a good playmaker. He's brave. For a guy who's undersized like he is, he's not afraid to go to the traffic areas and the battle areas to hunt for loose pucks, and he has the skill set to take advantage of it.

"One of the reasons we've kept him with Sid as long as we have is because we like his ability to play the give-and-go game below the hash marks and in the traffic areas. It takes a certain level of courage to play in those areas. Conor has that."

Sheary has won the trust of his coach and center. He's no longer worried about returning to the AHL. Sheary's next step is to continue amplifying his game in all situations.

"I'd like to stay in the top six," Sheary said. "So I want to keep working toward that and make sure I don't get too comfortable, but also play my game. You can always improve."


Flames are hot behind ex-Bruins

Dougie Hamilton is Calgary’s No. 3 scorer with six goals and 11 assists.Derek Leung

On Nov. 23, the Flames were parked in 12th place in the Western Conference. Brian Elliott, their second choice to firm up their goaltending after Ben Bishop, was not doing much to solidify the position. Johnny Gaudreau was out, courtesy of a broken finger suffered eight days earlier. It was looking like a lost season.

But that night, the Flames scored a 2-0 win over Columbus. Since then, the Flames have rolled off a 7-2-1 record. They have vaulted over Colorado, Nashville, Winnipeg, Dallas, and Los Angeles to occupy the first wild-card spot.

The Flames are back from the dead, with two ex-Bruins playing major roles in their turnaround.

There was never any doubting Dougie Hamilton's talent, not when he was mysteriously seeing 15 minutes of ice time or playing behind Deryk Engelland. Hamilton, however, couldn't gain the trust of his coach, presumably because of his flickering battle level in the defensive zone.

Hamilton, most recently paired with Mark Giordano, has been an offensive catalyst. The right-side defenseman whipped two pucks past Michael Hutchinson in Calgary's 6-2 win over Winnipeg Dec. 10. Hamilton is Calgary's No. 3 scorer with six goals and 11 assists while being a positive possession player.

The 23-year-old is continuing to progress on the development curve he launched in Boston, one that was halted upon his premature trade to Calgary.

While Hamilton's performance is no surprise, Chad Johnson's emergence has been unexpected. Johnson was a dependable backup to Tuukka Rask in 2013-14. Since then, it's been a trouble spot for the Bruins, who have seen Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson, and Anton Khudobin fight for traction behind Rask.

The Flames signed Johnson to fill the same role behind Elliott. Neither goalie has performed as Calgary projected. Elliott (3-9-1, 3.31 goals-against average, .885 save percentage) has fought to match the numbers he posted in St. Louis (23-8-6, 2.07 GAA, .930 save percentage last year). Johnson, meanwhile, has been Rask-like while stealing Elliott's job. In 19 starts, Johnson was 13-5-1 with a 2.12 GAA and a .928 save percentage.

Johnson posted three shutouts in November. Calgary's last goalie to blank three teams in one month was Fred Brathwaite in December 1999.

This may not be an aberration. The 30-year-old Johnson did not play poorly when he appeared in a career-high 45 games last season for Buffalo, going 22-16-4 with a 2.36 GAA and a .920 save percentage. Before that, Johnson was stuck behind aces such as Rask and Henrik Lundqvist. So far this season, Johnson is making the most of an unexpected opportunity.

Tough stretch for Lundqvist

Henrik Lundqvist is 13-8 in 21 starts this season.Brandon Wade

Lundqvist was in an unusual position. One of the generation's best goalies was on the bench for four straight games for the Rangers, the longest the workhorse has ever served as the No. 2. Then on Thursday, in his first game back, Lundqvist was smoked by Dallas's Cody Eakin when he left his crease to play the puck. Lundqvist had to miss more than five minutes of play while undergoing concussion protocol, but returned to see his 27-save shutout through. It had been a sensitive time for Lundqvist. All of his coaches, including Alain Vigneault, have given the ace the work he needs to stay atop his game. But Vigneault believed it was the right move to ride Antti Raanta for four straight starts in which the backup went 3-1-0 with a 0.75 GAA and a .966 save percentage. There will be a time when the 34-year-old Lundqvist loses his starting job for good. That time has yet to come.

Not built for battle

The Rangers were already on the power play on Thursday when Eakin bowled over Lundqvist. Eakin was tagged with a five-minute charging major and a game misconduct for wiping out the goalie. A day later, the Department of Player Safety required Eakin's presence for a phone hearing. The Rangers' man-up situation partly explains why they weren't frothing at the mouth to exact revenge on the Dallas center. But also consider the personnel the Rangers had on the ice when Eakin sent Lundqvist flying: J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey, Rick Nash, and Brady Skjei. It's the way most teams are built now, emphasizing three-zone play instead of muscle. Entering the game, Chris Kreider led all Rangers with a lowly 17 penalty minutes. It wasn't long ago that such a goalie wipeout would have triggered a 10-bell melee. But that's when there were surlier players on the payroll. The league is more peaceful now. That's not necessarily a good thing.

No rush to extend Pastrnak

David Pastrnak is second in the league in goals with 19.Barry Chin

There is no debate about the type of extension due to David Pastrnak. The 20-year-old is in line for a long-term contract, not the two-year bridge deal once considered the safer play. The NHL's No. 2 goal scorer is giving the Bruins enough data that term of five or six seasons at north of $6 million annually will be a secure investment. That doesn't mean it has to get done now. On Sept. 11, 2012, before the start of the lockout, the Bruins sprinted to sign Tyler Seguin to a six-year, $34.5 million extension. In retrospect, the Bruins got both the term and price right. But signing Seguin to a long-term, megabucks deal before the start of his third NHL season was premature. That year, Seguin was not as motivated as he could have been to perform at his peak. Right now, Pastrnak is playing like he wants long-term security. There is nothing wrong with keeping such a carrot in play.

Loose pucks

Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr has visited TD Garden twice in the last month. The Wild are likely to be among the teams keeping watch on Ryan Spooner, whose performance has not been in line with his skill . . . Artemi Panarin shares a place with Patrick Kane atop Chicago's scoring list with 13 goals and 19 assists in 32 games. This is Panarin's last year on his entry-level contract. Bread Man, indeed.

Holding steady

David Pastrnak's goal binge could turn into something the Bruins haven't had since the 2008-09 season — a point-per-game player. However, Boston doesn't own the longest current drought when it comes to that measure. That dubious honor goes to the Blues, who have Vladimir Tarasenko on a 1-ppg pace this season. (Player must have played at least half of their team's games; streaks include 2012-13 season that was shortened to 48 games.)

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.