At a hockey game today, everything is under review.
Look no further than a Bruins game at TD Garden. To capture the on-ice action, NESN has access to 17 cameras, shooting different angles. They’ve got center-ice overheads, wide-angle side views, iso-cams, and ankle cams. There are lenses focused on the stars, the scrubs, the goalies, coaches, and management. If Cam Neely sneezes, it’s probably on film.
All this video has seemingly made everyone a little more sincere. If a player dares to skate into the zone a few snowflakes ahead of the puck, the NHL’s video review system will catch him.
And anyway, hockey’s an honest game, right? All that free-flowing action makes it hard to cheat. It’s a game of quick thinking, not sign stealing. A playbook isn’t much help when Connor McDavid is racing toward you, or David Pastrnak is lining up a slapper. You can’t deflate solid rubber, and if anyone’s banging on a trash can, it’s an overserved fan.
Honest game, right? Not quite.
“I played with an illegal stick my entire career,” offered NESN analyst Andy Brickley.
Brickley, who spent four of his 11 NHL seasons in Boston, wasn’t the only one with a blatant disregard for the NHL’s blade curvature rules (no more than three-quarters of an inch). All players have their name stamped on the top of the stick, and Brickley would tell his apart by circling the “LE” in his surname — for “legal.” His tempting fate only went so far. In the final minutes of a game, or when he was killing a penalty, he would swap his illicit model for something less banana-hooky, to avoid attention.
All in all, fairly benign. But here’s the question: Could an NHL team pull off a true cheating scam?
Video tablets are available for coaches and players to use. In theory, one of those NESN cameras could zoom in on a player watching his shift, or a coach diagramming a play on a whiteboard. The advantage would be momentary, and minor.
A team could ask visiting room attendants to spy on the opponent. That would be risky for the staffers, to say the least. Hidden cameras in the ceiling? Stolen radio signals? Possible, but how much fruit would that bear?
Visiting teams sometimes leave leftover scouting sheets in their dressing room. Those are hardly prizes, one former NHL team employee noted, since “you would really just see what they thought you were doing. If they were personnel reports, it could be motivation. Show it to a player, say, ‘This is what they think of you.’ ”
As it relates to state secrets, there aren’t many Belichickian coaches in the NHL. Bruce Cassidy, one of the league’s more open books, said last summer he divulged to another team’s assistant coach, a longtime friend, how the Bruins teach their defensive-zone coverage. After Columbus swept Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs, Cassidy also checked in with Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who was willing to give his take on the Bruins’ second-round opponent.
“I would do the same for certain coaches. Other guys didn’t that I called,” Cassidy said. “So I think you develop that friendship and which guys are more guarded and which aren’t, you figure it out and off you go.”
Cooper respected the hustle.
“I was open to sharing everything, my thoughts, whether he took them or not,” Cooper said. “If it was a year later and they lost to someone we were going to play, I’d have no problem calling him.
“As for the line, it’s hard to say. Coaches aren’t handing over their playbooks, let’s put it that way. But . . . I don’t think the game is that complex. Philosophies, trends, little things, I don’t think anyone has a problem giving them up. If you study a team long enough, there’s not a lot of tricks. We know the three faceoff plays the [Patrice] Bergeron line is going to run. You just don’t know when they’re going to run them.”
Players are of a similar mind. While Bergeron is reticent to share his secrets of the faceoff circle, younger stars such as Charlie McAvoy confab at summer camps, where they break down video of each other. The NHL’s puck and player tracking system, once implemented, should further level the playing field. The data, should it ever reach the public, could be fascinating to consider.
But the product — seemingly forever thus — could become more standardized, more sanitized, and a little less fun. Let’s entertain ourselves with a few stories, mostly from the rabbit-antenna, pre-surveillance days:
■ From Sports Illustrated: In the 1996 playoffs, when TV timeouts were called by a network producer and not by the league (they now come at the first stoppage after 6:00, 10:00, and 14:00 of a period), the Maple Leafs had a sympathetic broadcaster move his soda cup to the edge of the booth whenever the producer signaled that a TV timeout was imminent. A Toronto staffer in the next booth would radio down to the bench. That allowed the Leafs to ice their best line, knowing it could rest during the timeout. The cup trick didn’t bring the Leafs the Cup. They lost in the first round.
■ Former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman was the Red Auerbach of his time. According to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story from 1998, the Blues were hardly thankful that the Wings painted their locker room before Game 5 of their first-round series the two previous years. The Denver Post reported the Avalanche smelled “noxious fumes” in the visiting room in the 1996 Western Conference finals, and their new replacement bench was a few cheeks shorter than usual.
■ There’s diving and delaying, which takes many forms. Montreal coach Jacques Lemaire was known to toss a coin on the ice if his team was gassed. Tired players test officials’ patience by slowly reporting to the faceoff circle, and goalies can “accidentally” knock the net off its moorings to get a breather during a frenzied stretch of play. In last year’s Boston-Columbus playoff series, Brad Marchand stepped on Cam Atkinson’s stick and cracked it. Had an official noticed, he could have handed Marchand a delay of game penalty.
■ In 1965, North Providence (R.I.) High coach Dick Ernst used two goalies to stop Cranston East star Joe Cavanagh, who won the opening faceoff, faked the first goalie, and looked up to see another netminder. A one-goalie rule was quickly added, which is now 203 (c) in USA Hockey’s rulebook and 5.3 in the NHL’s. In 1969, Chicago netminder Tony Esposito debuted a pair of goalie pants with a piece of mesh sewn between the legs. At the time, rules didn’t prevent it. Equipment is now strictly examined by NHL goalie supervisor Kay Whitmore, but before his 2006 hire, goalies were sewing extra material into their jerseys. Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Brickley said, had a system that raised his chest protector off his shoulders when he dropped into a butterfly.
■ Auerbach would have liked this one: While visiting NBA teams lodged complaints about their accommodations at the old Boston Garden, particularly at playoff time, they never suffered the fate of goalies in the Buffalo Auditorium. Former Sabres star Danny Gare told Sports Illustrated how a cunning assistant equipment manager used to wait at the Zamboni door behind the opposing team’s net. If a puck was rimmed around the boards, and the netminder went to play the puck, the manager — not a slim fellow — could lean on the door at the right moment to create a ricochet to the high slot, leaving the goalie scrambling. Gare said the Sabres would score a half-dozen goals a year that way.
Hockey, it’s an honest game, as long as you’re not looking closely.
STRIPPED OF HIS DUTIES
Gallant shown door in Vegas
Vegas booted coach Gerard Gallant off The Strip on Wednesday, the Golden Knights telling him to take his Jack Adams Award and call a cab.
What a ride. Some 19 months ago, Gallant had the expansion club in the Stanley Cup Final. Yet he had enough cred to be named this season’s Pacific Division coach at the All-Star Game, an honor that now falls to Arizona’s Rick Tocchet.
Tocchet, mind you, is one of just two Pacific coaches (Travis Green, Vancouver) who were on the job before last season. Both started early in the 2017 offseason. League-wide, 20 of their peers have since been hired for NHL gigs. Seven coaches have been turfed this season, five for performance reasons.
Vegas was playing below its high expectations (24-19-6) when Gallant was guillotined, a few percentage points out of a wild-card spot in a weak Pacific. Like Peter DeBoer (San Jose) and Peter Laviolette (Nashville), Gallant was mostly a victim of goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury (.907 save percentage) has been subpar, and ex-Bruins prospect Malcolm Subban (.898) hasn’t been NHL-caliber.
Though the Knights were 13th in goal scoring (3.04 per game) and 15th in goals allowed (3.02), their underlying metrics were excellent. Only Tampa Bay had better numbers in generating quality shots and scoring chances.
Gallant must have loved to see Vegas replace him with DeBoer, whom he called a “clown” amid a heated first-round series with San Jose last spring. DeBoer is a capable hand, but it’ll be interesting to see how much influence new general manager Kelly McCrimmon exerts. He was a successful coach in the WHL before joining the Knights as assistant to now-president George McPhee last May.
One obvious destination for Gallant, who reportedly had one year left on his deal: Detroit, where his old linemate Steve Yzerman runs the show. Jeff Blashill, anchoring the Red Wings to the bottom of the sea (12-32-3 as of Friday), may not be the long-term answer. Yzerman would certainly consider Gallant, who from 1986-90 averaged 37 goals and 236 PIMs a season while working Yzerman’s wing. Ah, old-time hockey.
Of the seven underperforming clubs that swung the ax during last season, only the eventual Cup champion Blues made the playoffs, and it took Craig Berube a few months to get the engine humming after his mid-November hire. The Kings, Blackhawks, Oilers, Flyers, Ducks, and Senators didn’t qualify, and of those, everyone but the Senators (22-37-5 when they pink-slipped Guy Boucher in March) probably believed they were out of it.
Sometimes management has no other cards to play. Trades are difficult to make, and roster overhauls are nearly impossible midstream. Desperation leads to disaster when other GMs smell blood.
This feels like Vegas needlessly slicing its own hand. Perhaps it’ll end up being a magic trick.
Difficult break for Hamilton
Brutal turn for Dougie Hamilton, who was having a Norris Trophy-caliber season in Carolina when he broke his fibula on Thursday. Teammate Jaccob Slavin will replace him at the All-Star Game, which would have been Hamilton’s first.
Hamilton, shipped out of Boston before reaching restricted free agent status in 2015, has one year left on a deal that pays $5.75 million annually. By any measure, he’s become a stud.
At the time of injury, Hamilton’s 40 points ranked fourth among defensemen, and his 14 goals were tied for second. His advanced numbers were spectacular: second among defensemen in Corsi For percentage (shot attempts for and against when a player is on the ice), first in expected goals for percentage (essentially, quality shots for and against), and second in scoring chance percentage. When Hamilton was on the ice, Carolina was making opponents sweat.
Ranking the next generation
The Flames and Maple Leafs — each with 57 points as of Friday, tied for ninth in the NHL’s overall standings — are seemingly the best hopes to end Canada’s Stanley Cup drought (circa: 1993). A better bet: Alexis Lafreniere, the Rimouski Oceanic winger, becomes Canada’s first top overall pick since Connor McDavid in 2015.
Lafreniere, a brilliant offensive winger in the QMJHL, was ranked No. 1 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. The midseason rankings — a list of players with mostly 2001-02 birthdates, if you’d like to feel old — had four OHL players in the top five. Following Lafreniere: center Quinton Byfield (Sudbury), defenseman Jamie Drysdale (Erie), and centers Cole Perfetti (Saginaw) and Marco Rossi (Ottawa). German winger Tim Stuetzel is the top international skater. He plays for Mannheim, the club the Bruins will meet next preseason.
The highest-ranked American players are Wisconsin center Dylan Holloway, at No. 10, followed by National Team Development Program defenseman Jake Sanderson. A bit of a reloading year for the Under-18s, who placed eight first-rounders last year, including Bruins draftee John Beecher (30th overall), now of Michigan.
UConn defenseman Yan Kuznetsov, No. 29 among North American skaters, is No. 1 among Hockey East skaters. Kuznetsov, from Russia, is one of the youngest players in college hockey (he turns 18 on March 9). The top Massachusetts high school player is St. Mark’s defenseman Ian Moore, a Princeton commit from Concord.
This All-Star idea is worth a shot
Not certain it will make for good TV, but the NHL put forth one of its best All-Star ideas in years with its Topgolf-style target shooting competition. Players will stand on a platform in the lower bowl of St. Louis’s Enterprise Center and fling pucks at a variety of targets on the ice. Their shots will travel over the fans, who will be protected by a net. “I’m having a hard time picturing that,” said Patrice Bergeron, age 34.
But Jake DeBrusk, 11 years younger and a citizen of social media land, was the target audience. “It’s like Dude Perfect,” he said, referring to the Dallas-based YouTubers who have gained a following of millions with their long-distance trick shots.
For Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, it brought back memories of goofing off after practice, when they’d be standing in the concourse and pretend they were shooting ducks.
“Would I watch it? I’d watch it,” he said. “If it sucks, it sucks.”
Best believe it’ll be more fun than watching players trying to cram rink-wide saucer passes into tiny targets. That segment has been eliminated, as has the puck control relay. In recent years, that obstacle course forced players to scoop the puck and slide it through a target with slots at various heights. Uh, sure. After a few failures, some would sheepishly surrender, grab the puck with their gloved hand, and shove it through.
The fastest skater, accuracy shooting (defending champ: David Pastrnak), save streak, and hardest shot remain. Also new this year: an elite women’s three-on-three game, USA vs. Canada. We know they’ll bring it. Let’s hope that inspires the men to raise the stakes a bit during the main event.
It’s a hole new stick for DeBrusk
I thought DeBrusk might be trying to pad his stats last Monday in Philadelphia. After sending Anders Bjork into the zone, he lingered on the ice near the benches as Bjork muscled his way down the slot and scored. DeBrusk said he wasn’t trying to ensure the plus-1 by hanging out. Claude Giroux hit him, then held him up by asking him about the hole in his stick.
Yes, the hole.
DeBrusk is one of a handful of pros who this past week began testing Bauer’s new ADV line, which has to be the first NHL stick with a cutout strip in the blade. Giroux noticed it because DeBrusk covers about half his blade with tape.
Less material means a lighter stick, reasons Tyson Teplitsky, Bauer’s lead stick guru. He says the blade is a blend of two pieces: stiffer stuff above the hole for stability, and a more flexible lower section meant to provide a slingshot effect.
“If you get it in the sweet spot, this thing [expletive] rips,” said DeBrusk, who first tested it last summer and eagerly awaited delivery of a game-ready model.
The retail version is due in February — if you’ve got an extra $359.
Top-two centers are hard to find, but Washington might regret re-upping Nicklas Backstrom for $9.2 million a pop through age 38. Backstrom, who negotiated the deal himself, saved on agent’s fees . . . All the best to Casey Cizikas. The Islanders grinder, who last week took a David Pastrnak slapper below the belt, noted he’s “good now. I’ve never gone through anything like that.” . . . The annual predraft scouting combine and interview process, which runs June 1-6 in Buffalo, will remain in that city for the next three years. It has been there since 2015 . . . Have heard nothing but good reports from Providence about Jack Studnicka, trying to turn himself into an NHL-caliber pivot. “Does everything right,” one staffer said. “Rink rat. Around all the time. He’s not worried about being down here.” . . . Between Oct. 15 and Friday, the Bruins had been in fifth place in NHL points percentage or higher every day. In that time, they sat below third for 15 days, not including the three-day holiday break . . . Brad Marchand made hockey headlines when he duffed a puck during a shootout attempt in Philadelphia. After firing a blank on a breakaway Thursday against the Penguins, Marchand put out an APB on Twitter: “ATTENTION,” he wrote. “Hands have been lost or stolen, if found please return to TD Garden, thanks.” A little levity goes a long way.