Gap, angle, challenge: A defenseman’s guide to mastering the rink inside the rink
For NHL-size men who move at Formula 1 speed, the dimensions of their office space are not very big. It does not take long for an 85-foot-wide rink to feel like the Red Line at rush hour. Decisions require rapid thinking. Time and space are not common commodities.
Now imagine that width being reduced by almost half.
The next time you watch the Bruins’ defensemen, notice how closely they come together as they begin their gap-up procedures. Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy practically clang their right and left skates when they gather into formation to defend against danger. This is how they’re taught to play.
The Bruins want their defensemen to think inside the faceoff dots. By staying within these boundaries, they can limit dangerous advances to the flanks of the rink. From there, good NHL goalies laugh off sharp-angle shots. An offensive play made along the walls does not lead to as much harm as one taking place inside the circles.
“If you’re protecting the middle of the ice, it’s easier to push guys around to the outside,” said Kevan Miller. “If you get stretched, then seams open up in the middle. That’s when you get quality scoring chances. That literally starts from the dot lines in the offensive zone. It’s true to the whole rink. Even if you’re in the offensive zone, you want to start between the dots when they’re transitioning out of the zone. It forces guys wide. It forces the play outside the dots. Consequently, they get less chances, less good quality opportunities, good shots. When you get chasing outside the dots, that’s when seams open and things start to open up.”
Bruins assistant coach Kevin Dean, who is in charge of the defense, likes his charges to play in what he calls the rink inside the rink. There are 44 feet in width between the dots for Dean’s defensemen to patrol.
“That’s where most of the action happens,” Dean said. “That’s where most of the breakdowns happen. That’s where most of the plays are made. Stay inside the dots, make your plays, and try not to get pasted on the wall.”
The defensemen are free to eliminate plays along the boards, at the blue line, or behind the net when they have proper support from their forwards. But for the most part, defensemen are best served starting their parries clustered inside the dot lines, the imaginary vertical markings that run from one set of faceoff circles to the other. It allows them to be positioned to complete two dissimilar tasks that are like patting your head with one hand while rubbing your stomach with the other: gapping up and killing a rush, then turning to retrieve the puck.
For example, if a forward goes on the offensive with the puck, Dean’s defensemen should keep a tight gap from inside the dot lines, ceding the outside ice to the attacker. When it’s time for a confrontation, the defensemen, with backchecking support, should transition from inside to the outside. They perform this exercise with three checkpoints as guidance: gap, angle, challenge.
In a perfect world, there are two outcomes. The defenseman either blunts the rush or forces the attacker to dump the puck into the zone. If the latter takes place, the defenseman is well placed to carry his confrontational momentum into a turn, skate forward, and chase down the puck. It’s more efficient than being face-to-face with the puck carrier, stopping the rush, then needing a rapid 180-degree turn to go into retrieval mode.
Like most things in hockey, all this is easier said than done.
Even with regular repetitions, defensemen, especially those playing their weak sides, can have trouble setting up inside the dot lines. It’s why coaches beg their general managers to provide them equal supply of left- and right-shot defensemen.
Consider the right-shot Miller, who started 2017-18 as McAvoy’s left-side partner. Adam McQuaid’s broken leg put Miller back in the right-side mix. But the coaches have still deployed Miller on his weak side, most lately to shelter Rob O’Gara and Matt Grzelcyk from difficult matchups.
When he’s on his strong side, it’s second nature for Miller to initiate ingrained footwork to disengage from the wall and position himself inside the right-flank dot line.
“We’re creatures of habit,” Miller said. “I’ve been playing the right side my whole life. Getting off the wall, it’s a crossover to the left, find your gap, and you find your angle. After doing that for so long, then you’re on your left side and you find yourself doing the same thing on the left, now you’re not in between the dots. So you’ve just got to be cognizant of that.”
It’s also tempting for defensemen playing their off side to hug the wall more closely. Consider when Miller is paired with Brandon Carlo. If Carlo has the puck and wants to go D-to-D, Miller’s natural tendency is to post up along the left boards. If he’s tight against the boards, he’s in better position to shoulder-check and get a more panoramic view, possibly of an opponent slamming down the wall. If Miller is off the wall, his sightline over his left shoulder is limited.
But the closer Miller is to the wall, the harder it becomes for him to reposition himself inside the dot lines. In such cases, the best maneuver is a middle ground.
All of this demands rapid processing and even faster movement. It is yet more proof that hockey is the hardest game in sports.
Man-to-man hurting Oilers
Todd McLellan is a good coach. He was the boss of a San Jose club that qualified for the playoffs for six straight seasons. After a bumpy first season in Edmonton, McLellan led the Oilers to the second round last year. Before the season started, he coached Connor McDavid as part of the Under-23 entry in the World Cup of Hockey.
So the chances that McLellan suddenly lost his smarts are slim. Coaches explore every minute detail when their teams struggle.
The fix that could help the plummeting Oilers, however, may be too big to make.
The Oilers play man-to-man instead of zone defense in their end. Some coaches prefer man-to-man because of its simplicity: You pick your opponent and stay with him.
But the trouble with the free-falling Oilers is their man-to-man setup has them constantly chasing in the defensive zone instead of occupying space. They are so worried about shadowing their assignments that they leave the danger areas open with no safeguards in place. This was clear on Nov. 21 against St. Louis, when the Blues laid an 8-3 thrashing on the Flying McDavids.
Part of the issue is the personnel on Edmonton’s blue line. Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, and Darnell Nurse are their top three defensemen. Good players, but not worthy of top-pairing status on a high-end team. Kris Russell, Matt Benning, and Eric Gryba are depth defensemen. General manager Peter Chiarelli has been trying to fix the defense since his 2015-16 arrival. That he ceded Taylor Hall for Larsson indicates the challenge in acquiring go-to defensemen instead of the draft-and-develop approach.
Edmonton’s defensemen are either worse than expected, not understanding where they’re supposed to go, or not receiving enough help from their forwards. Good man-to-man teams such as Nashville know where to go once breakdowns take place. The Oilers are so busy looking over their shoulders and second-guessing their coverage reads that they’re in danger of allowing goals every time the puck crosses the blue line.
One of the downsides of man-to-man is how few redundancies are left when things go south. The nature of zone defense is the existence of secondary and tertiary layers of protection to stand between the puck and the net.
“With man-to-man, it’s hard when you beat a guy, which sometimes happens in this league,” the Bruins’ Riley Nash said drily. “There’s so many good players. It’s like a domino effect on who covers, who’s next in line. Or do you just let them go to the net? If it’s played right, I think it can work. A lot of teams are doing it. But when there’s a little bit of miscommunication, as with any defense, there’s going to be holes.”
Without these layers, the Oilers are leaning heavily on Cam Talbot. The goalie is not bailing them out like he did last year. Against the Blues, Talbot found himself on the bench after letting in a long-distance Dmitri Jaskin floater in the first period.
Last year, as a 73-game workhorse, Talbot posted save percentages of .919 (overall), .927 (even strength), and .801 (high danger during five-on-five play). This season, through 20 appearances, Talbot’s respective save percentages had dipped to .900, .914, and .790: not good enough. If and when Talbot regresses to his previous career standards, the Oilers will not be as leaky. It should give them more chances to go on the attack and allow McDavid to express his prodigious talent.
The most efficient way to repair their shortcomings would be to switch to zone defense. It is nearly impossible to do mid-flight. It would have been more effective to introduce a new system in training camp. Now it’s too late.
Gibbons a big score for Devils
Through 21 games, it wasn’t Taylor Hall or Adam Henrique leading the Devils in goals. That would be Braintree’s Brian Gibbons, who had punched in 10. Gibbons, who is earning the NHL’s minimum wage of $650,000, has been one of the league’s sharpest investments so far.
“I know Gibbons from the American Hockey League. I know he has talent,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “But I don’t think anyone thought he’d have  goals.”
Cassidy, an eight-year coaching veteran in the AHL, had plenty of time to become familiar with Gibbons’s game. The undrafted forward signed with Pittsburgh following his four-year Boston College career. Gibbons spent his first two full pro seasons in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate. In 2013-14, he appeared in 41 games for the Penguins, scoring five goals and 12 assists.
But after Pittsburgh declined to extend his contract, Columbus signed Gibbons in 2014. He appeared in one more game for Springfield, the Blue Jackets’ farm club, than he did for Columbus.
In subsequent stops with the Rangers and Devils, Gibbons nearly became an AHL fixture. In 2015-16, he played in 63 games for Hartford, followed up by a 72-game stretch in Albany last year.
Even though he is on a two-way deal, Gibbons is performing like he wants no part of an AHL return.
“I enjoyed my time in the American League,” Gibbons said. “Had a lot of fun. Met really good guys. It’s good hockey, competitive. You’re still earning a living. I enjoyed the AHL. But the NHL, this is where everyone wants to be.”
Gibbons is 29. By his age, it’s easy for players of his profile to become career AHLers or choose to seek their fortunes in Europe. Some of his former teammates belong to this category, such as Carter Camper, Ryan Bourque, and Sean Collins.
But Gibbons is sticking up top this year. He’s always skated well and exhibited good stick skills, leading back to his Chestnut Hill days alongside Nathan Gerbe, Cam Atkinson, and Joe Whitney. Like his former college teammates, the 5-foot-8-inch, 175-pound Gibbons did not fit the typical NHL template. But coaches always have room for thinkers like Gibbons, who has shown a knack this season for being in the right place at the right time.
On Wednesday against his hometown team, Gibbons helped the Devils gain a point by tying the game in the third period. When Damon Severson settled the puck at the right point, Gibbons found a soft spot in the Bruins’ down-low coverage. He tipped Severson’s shot into the net for his 10th strike, doubling his previous NHL career best.
“Brian Gibbons has been very consistent,” said Devils coach John Hynes, who’s been using the left-shot forward as his No. 2 right wing next to Henrique and Nico Hischier. “He’s a high hockey IQ guy. Great compete level. Been very consistent. Can play with whoever we put him with. He’s been good. I think you see a guy who’s been real determined this year. Very focused. Very consistent. It’s nice to see him compete at the level he is, because now you get a chance to see his skill and hockey sense come out.”
Montreal may make more moves
In theory, a smart, quick, and experienced forward such as Torrey Mitchell would have no issues getting on Claude Julien’s good side. But the former University of Vermont forward went scoreless in 11 appearances before the Canadiens swapped him to Los Angeles on Thursday for a conditional 2018 fifth-round pick. It could be the start of a series of transactions for the scuffling Canadiens. The next pieces could be of bigger stature unless Montreal finds some traction. Captain Max Pacioretty, signed for $4.5 million annually through 2019, would be the big-name draw on the market.
Ward hosts Sturm
Old friend Marco Sturm, currently GM and coach of Germany’s national team, attended the Boston-New Jersey game on Wednesday as a guest of Devils assistant coach Geoff Ward. Sturm has been considering players for the upcoming Olympics. The NHL’s nonparticipation has somewhat leveled the field, but Germany has a tall task starting against Finland and Sweden in group play. As for Sturm’s ties to Ward, they enjoyed a player-coach relationship in Boston. Last spring, Ward was Sturm’s assistant at the World Championship. Ward made his mark in Germany in 2014-15 as coach of Adler Mannheim, which won the Deutsche Eishockey Liga title. Ward’s assistant that year was Jay Leach, now in his first year behind the Providence bench. Even globally, hockey is a small world.
Wideman to the bench
Old friend Dennis Wideman, facing no NHL takers after his Calgary contract expired, resurfaced on Wednesday as an assistant coach with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. Wideman was never a great skater. But his hockey sense allowed the right-shot defenseman to log 815 NHL games, in which he scored 99 goals and 288 assists. Wideman’s task will be to pass on his wisdom to juniors.
When it came to raiding Columbus, the Golden Knights had good options in William Karlsson and Josh Anderson. They took Karlsson, the left-shot forward who’s scored 10 goals and eight assists in 20 games. Anderson, meanwhile, has eight goals and three assists in 20 games. Karlsson has the higher offensive ceiling . . . One of the best qualities of Hischier, 2017’s top overall selection, is his battle level. The 18-year-old is still slight at 175 pounds. But he has a Jeff Skinner-like fearlessness of being strong on pucks in close quarters . . . Eddie Lack, once in the mix to be Vancouver’s starter, has seemingly flamed out of the NHL after being placed on waivers by Calgary on Thursday. Lack also went south in Carolina, his previous stop. He is 29 years old . . . Black Friday, once known as the day for shopping deals, will hereby be repurposed for the date the Sabres are annually eliminated from playoff discussion.