fb-pixel Skip to main content

Hockey IQ separates the good players from the great ones

Patrice Bergeron is routinely considered to be one of the smartest players in the NHL.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In his years behind the Bruins’ bench, and then later as a broadcaster and analyst, Gerry Cheevers constantly espoused the virtues of skating.

“Everything comes from skating,” Cheevers, the Hall-of-Fame goalie, held as his mantra. “Sounds basic, but it is the essence of the game.”

Bruce Cassidy, the man in charge of the Boston bench these days, some 34 years after Cheevers held the post, doesn’t disagree. Those who can’t skate, especially in today’s NHL, need not apply.

And right there in lockstep with it, by Cassidy’s eye, is hockey IQ.

“Everyone has different ideas on what they check off as the three biggest assets of a player,” noted Cassidy. “To me, hockey IQ is right there. If it’s not No. 1 . . . I mean there’s skating . . . then IQ is certainly No. 2. The more players you have that have that, the more you can move people around, adjust, do different things, and those are the players who can react on the ice without it being structured.”

Cassidy’s top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak — the NHL’s hottest trio here the first five weeks into the season — is equipped with an abundance of hockey intelligence. Hockey smarts, their blend of intelligence and instinct, may be what separates them from every other top line in today’s game. Skills, too, of course, not the least of which is skating, but also Pastrnak’s sizzling slapper, Bergeron’s puck control and spatial awareness, and Marchand’s stickhandling and slap shot.


Much like Cassidy and Cheevers, Marchand agrees the ability to skate is essential, but it’s only a starting point.

“The biggest thing now in the league, for sure, is skating,” he said. “No question, if you can’t skate, teams aren’t even looking at you. But the one thing I think a lot of people are overlooking now is hockey sense. If you can skate, sure, you’re going to get a look. But if you don’t have hockey sense, hockey IQ, you are not going to play.


“It’s one thing to be able to skate up and down the ice, but if you can’t read the game, and you are missing assignments, and you can’t play defense . . . you might be able to play on a last-place team, but you aren’t going to play on a good team. To be a good player who consistently plays in this league, hockey IQ is probably second . . . and then it’s skills . . . stickhandling and shooting and stuff like that.”

The player bereft of hockey IQ, added Marchand, ultimately isn’t able to make plays.

“Hockey IQ, you either have it or you don’t,” he said. “You can’t teach it. You can either see plays at a high speed or you can’t. It’s why you see so many guys in the minors who have all the skill in the world . . . they can skate like the wind, but they don’t have the mental capability to play in this league. That’s why a small number of guys make it to the NHL and everyone else can’t. It’s more than just skating and shooting and stickhandling. A lot of guys have that. There are plenty of guys in the American League with way more skill, and can skate better than a lot of NHL guys, but they just can’t think the same way.”


Dating back to his arrival as a rookie under then coach Mike Sullivan, Bergeron has been lauded for his hockey smarts. Bergeron and his Team Canada teammate Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh’s superstar center, rank among the smartest players in the game.

“There’s a lot of instinct that goes into playing the game of hockey,” said Bergeron. “When you talk about hockey IQ, I think it’s about positioning, it’s about reading the play and seeing what is going to unfold during any particular play.”

Bergeron credits “a lot of great coaches along the way,” as well as linemates, for helping him develop his mental game. Some of that began to bake in, he thinks, during his childhood playing days in Quebec.

“Yeah, even younger, I think I was always trying to read plays and, you know, playing with my hockey brain, if you want to call it that,” he said. “Not worry too much or think too much, and I think when you stay in it is when you have the best results.”

And what’s a coach to do if a player low on hockey smarts lands on his roster?

“We talk to the GM about trading him,” kidded Cassidy. “One man’s opinion: The two most difficult things to coach are hockey IQ and courage. I mean, they’re inside [a player] or they’re not. You certainly can work on things. I call it the 70 percent rule: You try to get them to do something right at least 70 percent of the time . . . that’s kind of how I try to deal with it.


“But at the end of the day, it is difficult to coach [intelligence]. You’re constantly reminding guys about things that should come naturally, or do come naturally to other players, but that’s the hand you’re dealt with.”


After four years comes a free ride

The Penguins’ John Marino has been a solid defenseman through the first 14 games of his rookie season.Keith Srakocic/AP/Associated Press

The Penguins, dismissed by the Bruins, 6-4, on Monday in one of the season’s most entertaining games thus far, look like they have a solid third-pairing fit in defenseman John Marino, the ex-Harvard back liner from North Easton. He has been logging solid minutes, usually paired with Jack Johnson, once the No. 3 pick (Carolina) in the ’05 draft.

Marino came cheap, new GM Ken Holland able only to wring a sixth-round pick (2021) out of the Pens. Marino, originally drafted by the Oilers in the sixth round in 2015 (No. 154), decided after last season that he would leave Harvard after three seasons. He also decided he didn’t want to play for the Oilers, who, for all their recent playoff DNQs, have a fairly deep six pack behind the blue line.

Because he opted for a season in the USHL (Tri-City) prior to entering Harvard in the fall of 2016, Marino had the requisite four years of amateur hockey (USHL/ECAC) on his resume, allowing him to declare unrestricted free agency this past August. Blake Wheeler followed a similar path (USHL, UMinn) prior to signing with the Bruins. Jimmy Vesey, now with Buffalo, declared UFA after getting his degree at Harvard in the spring of 2016, ultimately leading to his $7.5M two-year deal with the Rangers.


Overall, it is surprising that more NCAA kids don’t exploit the four-year path to UFA that the CBA offers them (at least until the Lords of the Boards one day claw it back at the bargaining table). Most of the more talented kids who’ve been drafted opt to turn pro after a year or two of college, obligating them to sign with the club that drafted them. Rather than take the minimal risk of getting hurt in school, they opt to sign, grabbing the dough and eschewing their degrees. In many cases, particularly among the kids drafted in the later rounds, they’d be more prudent to play the four years, grow their bodies and their game, get their degrees, and put themselves out to bid come August.

In Marino’s case, his rights were dealt to Pittsburgh and he decided to sign there (two years/$3.5M total) rather than test the market. He is not related to the Revere-born billionaire Roger Marino, one of the co-founders of EMC in Hopkinton, who paid some $40 million for the Penguins in ’97, then eagerly sold it to Mario Lemieux and friends in 1999 — prior to the NHL finally winning cost-certainty with the lost season of 2004-05 that led to the salary cap.

The Penguins today play in a sparkling downtown arena, the franchise easily worth upward of $1 billion. The Seattle franchise (Original No. 32) is coming aboard of an expansion fee of $650 million.


Spooner has been man on the move

Former Bruin Ryan Spooner is now playing in the KHL.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Ryan “Suitcase” Spooner has moved on to his second team, KHL Minsk Dynamo, after a very brief stay in Lugano, where GM Hnat Domenichelli over the summer was touting the ex-Bruin forward as a potential offensive threat for his Swiss squad.

Once considered a building block of the future here, Spooner, 27, suited up for only two games (0-0—0) in Lugano, where he had become one of coach Sami Kapanen’s nightly scratches. In the end, the sides mutually dissolved the contract.

“It didn’t seem right to block his career,” said Domenichelli, further noting Spooner’s professionalism throughout his drive-thru stay in the bucolic city.

Now in Belarus, wedged between Ukraine and Lithuania, Spooner is seeing a little more action under Toronto-born coach Craig Woodcroft. Headed into the weekend, Spoons stood 0-2—2 (albeit with a minus-5) in five games.

The Minsk roster includes a smattering of North Americans, including other NHL short-timers Drew Shore, Shane Price, and Stefan Elliott. The franchise goaltender, for his third season there, is ex-Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth.

Spooner, chosen 45th overall by the Bruins in the 2010 draft, had a good fit here, particularly with Bruce Cassidy, his fellow Ottawa son, behind the bench. Cassidy knew when and how to use him, but then came the chance to add Rick Nash at the February 2018 trade deadline and GM Don Sweeney folded him into the deal with the Rangers.

Over the summer of ’18, the smitten Blueshirts then promptly extended Spooner for two years at $4M per, then couldn’t wait to dish him away to the Oilers, who later the same season moved him on to the Canucks. Noticing a trend here?

Spooner now is playing for his sixth team (including the AHL Bakersfield Condors) since being dealt for Nash. For this season and next, he is pocketing a $1.3M, the combined funds of the Rangers and Canucks, who ultimately bought out that final season of his deal.


No line from BC to the big time

Adam Samuelsson, the 6-foot-6-inch, 235-pound son of former NHL defenseman/villain Ulf Samuelsson, continues his, shall we say, unorthodox path in hopes of following his old man’s footprints to the NHL.

The junior Samuelsson, 5 inches taller than his dad, made his OHL debut Friday night against Niagara, just days after signing with Sudbury. The Wolves owned his rights, dating to the OHL’s 2016 draft.

Samuelsson was never drafted by an NHL club, in part due to his lack of requisite giddy-up. Just over a year ago, he reported to Boston College as a freshman. His stay at the Heights lasted but seven games (0-0—0) before he shipped off to USHL Sioux City (not to be confused with the late, great Hilltop dining room). He put up modest numbers for the remainder of last season. This season, he again wasn’t producing much (0-5—5 in 10 games) before shipping over to northern Ontario. Now he has to hope the OHL grind helps him earn a pro look.

Ulf, now 55, recently hooked on as a consultant with the expansion franchise in Seattle, where old pal Ron Francis (teammate in Hartford and Pittsburgh) is the GM. More recently, he had a two-year hitch (2017-19) as an assistant coach with the Blackhawks.

It’s very long ago now, but Samuelsson, then with the Penguins, was the guy who put the wrecking ball to Cam Neely’s career with a cheap shot in the 1991 playoffs — a hit that led to a bloody/bony mass (myositis ossificans) forming in Neely’s thigh and contributing to his early retirement at age 31 in the summer of ’96.


They were quite the 1-2 punch

David Pastrnak still leads the NHL in scoring with 31 points in 16 games.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand stood 1-2 in league scoring early last week. If they can keep on keepin’ on, they’ll be the first Black-and-Gold couplet to lead the league in scoring since 1974-75, when Bobby Orr (135 points) and Phil Esposito (127) led the field. Orr and Espo were the game’s top two scorers in five of six seasons, 1969-70 through ’74-75. In two of those seasons, the Bruins had the top four scorers. To wit: Esposito (152), Orr (139), John Bucyk (106), and Ken Hodge (105) in 1970-71; Esposito (145), Orr (122), Hodge (105), and Wayne Cashman (89) in 1973-74 . . . Former Cornell forward Cole Bardreau (Class of ’15) scored the game-winner to lead the Islanders last week to their 10th consecutive win, and he did it on a penalty shot that also provided him with his first career goal (a feat accomplished only six other times over the last 84 years). Bardreau, who grew up outside Rochester, N.Y., spent four years in the minors for the Flyers and never got a call to Philly. Now it looks like he may have a fit on Barry Trotz’s fourth line with Jonathan Ross and first-round pick Oliver Wahlstrom, the first-round pick (No. 11/2018) who turned pro last spring after only one season at BC . . . Looks like Tom Wilson has modified his act with the Capitals now that he’s mixing in regularly as one of DC’s top six forwards. Through his first 16 games, the menacing 6-4 Wilson logged only 14 penalty minutes, less than half the career average he brought into the new season after rolling up 934 PIMs in 454 games. The Capitals are here Nov. 16 and Wilson most likely will ride on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom or second line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana . . . Fine story in The Athletic last week by Buffalo-based John Vogl, who tracked down ex-Sabre Ville Leino in Finland. Leino, an embarrassing bust in Buff after signing there in 2011 for six years/$27 million, now runs his own successful clothing line, Billebeino, in Finland. While sidelined by injury in Buffalo, Leino began to draw and one of his first paintings now serves as the company’s brick-shaped logo. Had it not been for the hard times, concedes Leino, his now booming business likely never would have taken root . . . Hockey, and the entire private school community, lost a great friend Oct. 30 with the passing of former Noble and Greenough coach Richard T. Flood. “Floodo” coached hockey for 20-plus years at Nobles, prior to becoming headmaster of the Salisbury (Conn.) School. His indelible touch on the game continues on in son Sam, executive producer and president of sports at NBC and the NBC Sports Network. A memorial service will be held Nov. 30, 2 p.m., at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Jamestown, R.I. . . . Ex-Bruins back liner Mike Milbury, ever pugnacious as part of NBC’s hockey broadcast team, will be the keynote speaker at the Ace Bailey Foundation’s annual Face Off for Ace bash March 11 at the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge. For more info, visit acebailey.org.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.