Some old-school tactics have run their course in the NHL

The Bruins’ Danton Heinen tries to work a pass around Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom in a December game.
The Bruins’ Danton Heinen tries to work a pass around Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom in a December game.Alex Brandon/AP

The play looks dangerous. While shorthanded, when a frantic off-the-glass fling of the puck is regularly encouraged, a penalty killer’s pass to the net-front area can cause the panic level to spike.

The play’s risky appearance, however, belies a usually safe outcome.

“On the power play, when you’re trying to recover the puck, you tend to go to the puck instead of getting over people like you would on a normal forecheck,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “So some of those little plays become available. Then you have the whole rink to clear it.”

Some strategies had been around the NHL for a long time. Coaches instructed their wings to challenge the points. When a defenseman retrieved the puck in his end, his partner was taught to retreat and make himself available for a D-to-D pass. Goalies were supposed to scramble back to their feet after they dropped into the butterfly.

Evolution prompted coaches to scrub these time-tested tactics. Wingers collapse into the slot instead of marking shots from the point. One defenseman holds his ground or protects the net-front area while his partner wheels with the puck around the net to start the breakout. Goalies are taught to stay down on their pads and use tight, controlled pushes to patrol the crease instead of standing up, creating holes, and disrupting the angles of their sightlines.


The old mantra of not exiting the defensive zone up the middle may be the next casualty.

In some ways, it is a traditional rule worth following. A turnover in the middle of defensive zone is usually far costlier than a cough-up on the outside. The best scoring chances take place between the circles. Every defensive-minded coach emphasizes the net-front area as the real estate he wants to gum up with bodies and sticks. Benchings and healthy scratches await the player who commits a lazy turnover in the middle of his end.


Present circumstances, however, have given the sequence — a right-shot defenseman, for example, retrieving the puck on his strong side and bumping the puck to a forward in front of the net — a high rate of success.

Power plays are so rabid about regaining possession that they swarm madly toward the puck instead of thinking critically about where it might end up. The delay of game infraction has introduced some risk to the blind clear off the glass. Forwards on the power play are instinctive about streaking toward the boards to seal off the fling. Defensemen excel at holding the points and preventing pucks from squirting out of the zone.

On the other end, penalty killers are taught to move in tight clusters to encourage support. This puts them in good position to make and receive short passes.

Because of these factors, the quick, accurate, and poised pass to the slot stands a good chance of leading to a safe exit. Perhaps even a shorthanded rush.

“A lot of teams are clogging up the walls,” said Patrice Bergeron. “As soon as there’s a turnover, they get on the wall and try to deny that. So you try and find something else, something different to get the puck out. We’ve tried the middle-ice breakouts. It’s been working pretty well for us. Hopefully we keep it going.”

The shorthanded forwards are critical to make the net-front bump work. If Brandon Carlo engages in a race for the puck, for example, Bergeron could be his middle-ice outlet. At the same time, Bergeron has to read his surroundings. If Bergeron feels an opposing attacker is within his perimeter, he has to inform Carlo of the safer alternatives — clearing it down the ice, looking for another teammate, eating the puck. Only once Bergeron determines he is open can he call for Carlo to execute the net-front pass.


“When the D hears us yelling that we’re open in the middle, communicating is definitely key,” Bergeron said. “You try not to throw it blind in the middle. It’s communication, having the confidence to make those plays. If you feel that the middle’s not open, you let him know that up the wall is going to be the play. Or you just don’t say anything. That’s what it means.”

Coaches always say the goalie is the most important penalty killer. But in a lot of setups, one of the two forwards is a critical presence as the unit’s quarterback. He is used as a safety valve, both if the penalty killers commit a breakdown or if they recover the puck.

“You start throwing pucks off glass, you know what happens,” Cassidy said. “They get up into the crowd. People crowd those areas. I still think it’s the right first option. But if you can use each other — and that’s all communication and chemistry — it just makes everything easier. It is one extra pass. It can become a risk. But that’s where the guy calling for the puck has to have the eyes and ears for the other three guys.”


Gasps and raised eyebrows are common reactions from observers of the shorthanded net-front bump. It can be startling to watch plays that go against conventional methods of thinking.

But sometimes it takes time to adjust to progress.


Bergevin avoids term ‘rebuild’

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin.
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP

Even in Montreal, where the Canadiens own a monopoly on professional sports, it does not make good business sense to tell the truth. If general manager Marc Bergevin acknowledged the reality that 2017-18 is a wash, the Bell Centre stands would empty as quickly as he booted Michel Therrien in favor of Claude Julien.

It’s why, during a midseason news conference, Bergevin sprinted away from the term “rebuild.”

“I prefer reset,” Bergevin told reporters.

Regardless of the word used to describe what should happen next, it would be in Bergevin’s best interest to initiate it sooner rather than later. The Canadiens restarted their post-break segment with an 18-20-4 record. They are engaged in a dogfight with Florida, Detroit, and Ottawa among lousy Atlantic Division teams. Only the perpetually terrible Sabres stand between the Flab Four and the division’s basement.

The playoffs are simply unattainable for the Canadiens and their miserable company. They trail the Bruins by 13 points, a deficit that projects to be impossible to close. Both of the wild-card spots will be out of reach. The slots will be headed to the Metropolitan Division, where five clubs (both New York teams, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Carolina) are all closer to the two-slot cutoff than their Atlantic counterparts.

“In a perfect world, would I love to add a piece to help the team? Of course,” Bergevin said. “But to sacrifice the future and be taking major risks for the organization long term, I’m not ready to do that. For a short-term solution, there’s nobody out there I’m aware of who could come in and turn this thing around. For parts of the season, I really liked the way we played. Even game to game, I like the way we played. But we’ve been very inconsistent in our play. That’s put us in the position we are today.”


Montreal has some future assets, including Hockey East goalies Hayden Hawkey (Providence) and Cayden Primeau (Northeastern). Victor Mete may not be ready for full-time NHL placement despite his 27-game varsity run. But the 19-year-old defenseman has shown enough promise to merit a return to Montreal following his World Junior Championship assignment.

What Montreal needs is more draft kicks at the can to fatten up their prospects stockpile, even if Bergevin isn’t around to announce their names. His tenure has not led to the degree of traction the Canadiens deserve: no first-line center, no franchise defenseman, and two declining assets in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, the latter being a result of the former.

The scarcity of down-the-middle presence prompted Bergevin and Julien to play Jonathan Drouin, the sublimely skilled wing, out of position at center. Naturally, it has not been an easy transition for the 22-year-old (5-14—19 in 37 games). Neither Patrick Kane nor Johnny Gaudreau, similarly talented wingmen, would find instant success at center, either. But Galchenyuk’s shortcomings and Bergevin’s inability to find alternatives have left the Canadiens with no better choice.

Nobody will help Bergevin acquire a top-two center. It’s why the draft, especially with more than seven picks per class, will be Montreal’s best way to address its need. Picks such as Ryan Donato, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Trent Frederic are giving the Bruins hope that the eventual departures of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci will not be as painful as they currently seem. The Canadiens have to follow a similar template, even if it means dealing today players such as Pacioretty and Galchenyuk for tomorrow.


Ways to spice up All-Star Game

Forty-four players will participate in the All-Star Game, which will take place in Tampa on Jan. 28. The skills competition will be the day before. 

The last two All-Star weekends in Los Angeles and Nashville have been good efforts in rebooting the gathering. The players are letting down their guards. The league is not as serious as it was in the past about making it a hockey-centric weekend.

But it can go further. Some much-needed improvements:

■  Full silliness during the skills competition. Last year’s contests included a challenge relay, accuracy shot, fastest skater, hardest shot, and shootout. Yawn. Some of the players’ most athletic and entertaining achievements have nothing to do with hockey. They are arguably more spirited during their games of two-touch before warm-ups. Some suggestions: Ping-Pong, soccer, and golf shots on the ice. They can even use their sticks for the latter.

■  Ex-teammate reunions. Nobody will remember which of the four teams representing the divisions emerges with a win. What would be more memorable would be three periods of juggled rosters using different criteria. The first period could be major junior players against college alums. The second could have All-Stars playing different positions: Jonathan Quick as a center, Alex Ovechkin in net, P.K. Subban calling out line combinations behind the bench. The third period could be former teammates playing on the same team. Think of the fun Brad Marchand and ex-Bruin Tyler Seguin would have skating with Kris Letang, one of the left wing’s former QMJHL teammates. Or old buddies Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin riding with ex-Boston College Eagle Johnny Gaudreau.

■  Microphones on every player. It’s both uncomfortable and dishonest listening to the TV professionals sing about how the All-Star Game is the greatest invention since the Zamboni. The weekend’s soundtrack should be turned over to its participants. Viewers could hear both the praise and chirps that are sure to be flowing through the event.

Seabrook takes a seat

Last Wednesday, Brent Seabrook scored Chicago’s only goal in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota. He was credited with one shot and two missed attempts in 15:20 of ice time. It was 15:20 more than Seabrook played the night before against Ottawa, when the alternate captain was a healthy scratch for the Blackhawks’ 8-2 beatdown of the Senators. Nobody can question Seabrook’s résumé. He can wear Stanley Cup rings on three of his fingers. He struck gold with Team Canada in the 2010 Olympics. But at 32 years old and with 965 games of tread off his NHL tires, Seabrook is well past the sweet spot of his career. His contract says otherwise. Seabrook, once in lockstep with Duncan Keith, is in the second season of an eight-year, $55 million albatross of a deal. It is an untradeable contract — literally because it contains a no-movement clause, and figuratively because no team would touch it. General manager Stan Bowman is doing his best to rebuild around his core. His latest deal was taking a chance on Anthony Duclair, a 22-year-old forward who fizzled in Arizona. Next up could be signing Northeastern’s Dylan Sikura. Seabrook’s anchor, however, is one deal Bowman would like to have back.

Was Hanifin the right call?

Noah Hanifin (left) has seven goals this season.
Noah Hanifin (left) has seven goals this season.Karl B DeBlaker/AP

Noah Hanifin is a first-time All-Star, which illustrates how the Norwood native has expanded his game from when he entered the league as an 18-year-old in 2015-16. Through 42 games, Hanifin has seven goals and 14 assists for 21 points, the most among Carolina’s blue liners. The ex-BC Eagle is Tampa-bound partly because of the NHL’s rule that every team must have at least one representative. In the Metropolitan Division, John Carlson, Nick Leddy, and Shayne Gostisbehere are more deserving of All-Star consideration. But even on Carolina’s roster, there’s an argument for Justin Faulk or Jaccob Slavin earning the nod before Hanifin. 

Predators re-up Irwin

Nashville’s defense revolves around Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. With all that talent on their top two pairings, the Predators don’t need much from their depth defensemen aside from reliable shifts. Matt Irwin has done that to the point where Nashville signed the former UMass Amherst defenseman to a two-year, $1.35 million extension on Jan. 9. Irwin does not play the game with Subban-like panache. The Predators don’t need that from Irwin. Through 31 games, the left-shot defenseman was averaging 13:33 of ice time while scoring two goals and five assists. It remains a curiosity why the Bruins buried Irwin in 2015-16 after just two rough games. The limited window was not representative of his performance.

Decision pending on van Riemsdyk

James van Riemsdyk submitted a doozy in Toronto’s 4-3 loss to Ottawa last Wednesday. The former University of New Hampshire wing ripped off 18 shot attempts, the most of any player in one game this season. Eleven of van Riemsdyk’s shots landed on net. His one-man output, while riding on a line with Tyler Bozak and Mitch Marner, showed how dominant the left wing can be. Van Riemsdyk’s performance also reminded the Maple Leafs of their upcoming challenge: whether to re-sign the pending free agent, trade him while owning a playoff position, or let him walk for nothing after the season. Based on his history and age (29 by July 1), van Riemsdyk could target the $6.25 million payout Alexander Radulov scored with Dallas as a baseline. It’s a reasonable asking price, but one that could be beyond Toronto’s budget, considering the raise due to William Nylander after this season and the paydays Marner and Auston Matthews will land after 2018-19. 

Loose pucks

According to TSN, Buffalo’s asking price for UFA-to-be Evander Kane is a first-round pick, prospect, and a conditional selection. It is a bounty for a player who could sign elsewhere on July 1. Few teams would cede such a package unless they plan to pursue an extension for Kane. That shrinks the market considerably, given the left wing’s spotty off-ice history . . . There are two reasons opponents are terrified of Pittsburgh in the second half. In the first half, the Penguins had extraordinarily bad fortune during five-on-five play. They shot at 5.45 percent and stopped pucks at a .902 clip, dead last in both categories. If you believe such luck will continue, you are undoubtedly suffering from too much Primanti’s.

Through 42 games, Claude Giroux had 52 points. Last season, he needed all 82 games to score 58 points. Giroux has been very good at left wing, but he’s also benefited from skating with Sean Couturier, who’s been playing without his defense-first leash.

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.