When rookies audition at the NHL level, one of the things that I always watch for in the first few games is things that a player does really well. Having a well-rounded game is important to stick in the NHL, but most NHL players who rise above the ‘capable’ level have an area or two where they excel.
So that got me to thinking about standout skills for the current Hurricanes’ roster. Here are a few that I came up with.
Distributing the puck from the side of the net. Lindholm has played well of late at the center position, but even so his skill set is not so much that of a player who carries through the middle of the rink and distributes for scoring chances off the rush. But one thing that Lindholm does incredibly well is make passing plays from a stationary position at the side of the net. He has made a good number of passes on the power play from there throughout the season. And with greater ability to play from the side of the net at even strength, he was started to log similar assists in 5-on-5 play. Both Skinner and Di Giuseppe have scored from slot on Lindholm passes from behind the end line.
Shooting from any which random position. Jeff Skinner obviously has multiple tools in his scoring tool bag to reach 30 goals multiple times, but I think the one thing that he does arguably better than anyone in hockey is get pucks on net incredibly quickly in odd situations. He regularly scores goals where odd caroms, rebounds, deflections or whatever find his vicinity in the offensive zone. Whereas most players try to work quickly through a three-step process of gathering the puck, preparing to shoot and then finally shooting, Skinner very often just skips the first two steps. He has a crazy ability to just quickly put a shot on net without bothering to control the puck first or in any way adjust his positioning to shoot the puck. Quite regularly, replays of Skinner goals shows him contorted in some odd way to torque his body behind a shot from some random position. The benefit of doing this is quite often these shots get on net either before the goalie can get into position to defend it or sometimes even just before goalie expects it/is ready.
Handling the puck. There are other goalies in the NHL who also do this very well, but I think Ward is underrated in this regard simply because it is a skill set that he developed over time and not one that was so much part of his original arsenal. What he does really well is identify exactly where to feed the puck on a pass and more often than not put it right there. For a defenseman receiving a puck on the end wall with forecheckers coming in a hurry, two or three feet can often make all of the difference in the world. A pass a small bit in front of defenseman and on his stick enables him to start moving forward before the forechecker is on him whereas a pass that is off by just two or three feet sees the defenseman have to hand the puck in his skates, give up all momentum and invest whatever time he does have before the forechecker arrives just corralling the puck and bracing for a hit.
Reacting and covering 15-20 feet in a hurry. Jaccob Slavin has above average straight line speed too, but I think more valuable is his quickness reacting and covering a small amount of ice in a hurry. This skill shows up in his ability to retrieve loose pucks, in his ability to quickly close gaps on an opponent with the puck and in other ways too. That quickness is also critical to his ability to aggressively contest pucks/players in the neutral zone and that defensive blue line which is arguably his greatest strength. His quickness both enables him to take away time and space in a hurry but equally importantly sometimes to recover when he makes a mistake. Because of his quickness recovering, Slavin’s ratio of ‘times it goes badly’ per judgement error in the neutral zone or at the defensive blue line has to be among the lowest in the NHL.
Converting 40/60 situations quickly into 50/50 pucks and then ultimately winning them. I feel like I could come up with 3-4 of these for Jordan Staal, all related to winning and keeping pucks which is why he is such a solid two-way forward. But one skill that stands out time and again is Staal’s ability to take a situation where he has a modest disadvantage in terms of winning a lose puck or a puck on the boards and quickly changing that to a 50/50 puck that he ultimately wins. Staal has a few tools/tricks in this regard, but I the biggest one is figuring out quickly how to get piece of a player with an advantage by leaning into them, tying up their stick, taking an angle to finish a check or whatever else. The result is that he slows the puck battle down enough such that he can get into it. And at the point where no one really has an advantage position-wise, Staal’s size, strength and reach wins out more often than not.
Providing meaningful comments during in-game interviews. Coaches and players in today’s NHL are trained to spit out simple, oftentimes meaningless answers in interviews such that the majority of interviews are sound bites that are incredibly light on real content. In-game stuff tends to be even more ‘repeat the cliches’ most times. And doing a 60-second interview with a coach on the bench during the game is ripe for being even more cliche and meaningless than even the rest of it. But seemingly against all odds, Mike Maniscalco’s check ins with Rod Brind’Amour during the game quite often offer something and offer 10X the minimum level of insight and richness than I would expect from these segments.
Feeling and understanding the pulse of a game and recognizing when something needs to change. Especially early in the season, Justin Williams who is far from being an NHL pugilist or agitator had a knack for stirring things up regularly. In a span of a couple games that saw the Hurricanes flat, he managed to get his gloves off and come close to getting in fights. He had other instances where he tried to stir things up after the whistle. Were he a temperamental rookie one might chalk these sorts of things up to emotion. But in my opinion, these things were much more calculated from Williams. My read is that from years of experience on multiple good things that he could simply sense when the energy level just was not there. As such, he did his best to try to pump some adrenaline into the situation.
Stepping into holes on the secondary rush to create high-quality shooting opportunities. With his goal on Tuesday, Noah Hanifin reached 10 goals for the 2017-18 season which is solid offensive contribution from a defenseman. One might figure that a good chunk of Hanifin’s scoring has come on the power play as is normal for scoring defensemen, but in fact Hanifin has only one power play goal to go with nine even strength tallies. The catalyst has been his speed which gives him the ability to catch and join the play from behind and his growing confidence and ability to figure out when and where to join the play to make himself available to receive a pass and a good scoring chance as part of a secondary rush. His gliding speed is such that he is rarely too far behind the play, and his skating ability gives him the ability to jump up into the play from there with a few strong strides.
Playing positionally sound hockey. Victor Rask’s sound defensive play is what enabled him to jump into the NHL early. His scoring ability was never high-end even at lower levels, but in preseason and then also in the front part of his rookie season, Rask showed an incredibly mature ability to be sound defensively. Much like Josef Vasicek similarly bursting onto the NHL scene early, Rask’s offense was a question mark, but he made it clear early on that he was not the type of young center who would kill you with costly defensive lapses. That starting point remains the core of Rask’s game to this day. Rask’s 2017-18 scoring woes are the current headline-grabber for him, but he has not deviated from his generally sound two-way play in gambling for goals. Despite being light offensively, Rask maintains an even plus/minus rating which ranks behind only the dynamic duo of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen at the forward position. Though more offense is necessary for a top 9 forward role, the sound two-way play of Victor Rask largely remains intact and offers a foundation to build upon.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on the player strengths that I highlighted above?
2) Who has more for these or other players? I had a few more ideas but ran out of time and left a few very good players untouched.