Today’s Daily Cup of Joe is part 2 of 2 on young blue line phenoms Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Part 2 will focus on the constant adjustment game at the NHL level and also areas for improvement/growth. If you missed it, I highly recommend reading part 1 which detailed the keys to their success and focused more on what they are doing well which is in fact the bigger part of the story.
Adjusting to the NHL’s adjustments
There is now roughly a full season worth of NHL game tape for both players, and most teams/players having seen them multiple times in action in real games. In addition, their run time playing together as a pairing and also against elite forward lines as a top pairing is 30+ games. The broader NHL has what it needs to scout both players individually and as a unit and to adjust to what they do/do not do well. And so starts the game of cat and mouse with opponents making adjustments to better attack them, and Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce making adjustments to better defend.
Changing forecheck attack
One of the things that both Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have done well pretty much from whent they arrived at the NHL level is to be quick retrieving loose pucks and dump ins and then be just as quick making short passes to move the puck to a forward still in the offensive zone but not as deep. The basic idea is to quickly change the target for any forecheck or pressure before it even arrives, get the puck 1 layer farther player-wise from the front of the net they are defending in case something goes wrong and also get the puck moving north-south as quickly as possible.
Important to note is that this use of short D-to-F passes in the defensive zone is a staple of Bill Peters’ system and permeates every area of play. The area where it is used most effectively and frequently is on the penalty kill. In the event that the opposing power play navigates the road block at the blue line, the Hurricanes’ approach to getting pucks out of the defensive zone is rapid retrieval and then players (often but not always forwards) supporting the puck by making themselves available for quick, short, simple passes. Right about the time, the opposing team is looking to pressure the puck it moves. By the time they can adjust it is gone. In the case of the power play it is dumped out of the zone or quickly moved to a third stick (which is how the Hurricanes are generating so many odd man rushes shorthanded). At even strength, the objective is obviously not to dump the puck down the ice but rather to get it to a player who has time and space to carry and/or move the puck before pressured.
Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce are probably the leaders in terms of understanding and deploying Bill Peters’ system for transitioning from retrieving pucks in their own end to moving north-south. That is obviously a good thing, and regardless of what other teams do to adjust and combat this, it will still be a valuable tool going forward.
But opponents are adjusting in a way that will force adjustments from Slavin and Pesce. Increasingly on the forecheck, opponents are not trying to get to Slavin or Pesce with the puck. Instead, oftentimes they are identifying, paying attention to and jumping the short passing lanes that the defensemen are using. In addition, my hunch is that forecheckers are starting to, with some success, call for the puck as if they are a Hurricanes forward. I say this because I noted 3 times in recent games where Jaccob Slavin inexplicably either passed or turned from either behind or at the side of the net and either passed or started to pass to a dangerous place without a Hurricanes player being where he was turning to.
The adjustments are twofold. First and foremost, both players need to be careful that they do not make the “I assume he is open” pass and try to gain a split second by skipping the important quick check to verify that the passing lane is in fact open and obviously at the same time make sure it is in fact a team mate and not an impostor sitting where they expect to make that pass. Second, both players will benefit from reading or maybe more often helping each other verbally know when the forecheck is going to the puck versus instead pulling up slightly on the forecheck to try to jump 1 of the short passing lanes. Both players will also benefit from varying their game just a little bit in terms of retrieving and keeping pucks a little longer versus the quick passes that have maybe become just a little bit too predictable. If they can successfully read/communicate when the pressure is not there, it could actually help with generating more offense (see below) if they can carry without pressure, get a couple strides up the ice and force the defense to back up.
Anticipating aggressiveness in the neutral zone and at the blue line
As noted in part 1, one of both young defensemen’s strengths is the timing, aggressiveness and courage to step up on players to take away time and space and engage the puck before the offensive player can dictate play. In today’s NHL where top players are so incredibly skilled and can beat even decent defense if they have time, the ability to take away time and space that Slavin and Pesce possess is a huge positive. Make no mistake about that.
But at the same time, Pesce specifically has been victimized 1-on-1 on multiple occasions recently with a common theme being Pesce lunging and reaching a bit instead of playing through the player and puck such that even if the attack fails he still gets a piece of the player physically to slow them down. I have not noticed this as much with Slavin, but he too is aggressive stepping up on pucks. The adjustment for Brett Pesce is simply attention to detail on making sure when he steps up he plays straight through the middle of the player he is attacking.
With minor adjustments to the adjustments by Slavin and Pesce, they should continue to excel defensively.
Another step up offensively
The other area for improvement is offensively. I really think taking 1 more step up offensively especially 5-on-5 is the last step between where the Slavin/Pesce pairing is right now and a truly elite level. In today’s NHL in which offense is so hard to come by, virtually all of the top defensemen defend well obviously, but they also bring the ability to boost the offense from the back end.
The positive is that I think both players have the natural skill set and potential to be much more than a shutdown defender. Both players skate well and also think the game fast. As an interesting contrast, right now I see Jaccob Slavin as the more advanced player offensively with the puck on his stick and Brett Pesce as the more advanced offensive player without the puck on his stick. Increasingly, Slavin is handling the puck in his own end with his head up and the ability to look past the first layer of passing options and defense. Once the puck is departed, I think Pesce is somewhat farther along in terms of figuring out where/how/when to join the rush, which lane to fill and how to make passing lanes to himself where a scoring chance exists.
The single greatest skill that drives offense from the back end at 5-on-5 is the ability to very quickly move the puck from the defensive or neutral zone when winning it. When the puck changes teams it is all about who can most quickly from defense to offense or vice versa. For a defenseman, step 1 is obviously winning the puck but how quickly a defenseman can assess options and exploit openings before the other team adjusts to defense is what drives or does not drive scoring chances off the rush, offensive zone entries with puck possession speed and many other things that are favorable for scoring.
In his last 21 games, Brett Pesce’s scoring pace is 28 points over 82 games which exceeds his roughly 15-point pace in the first quarter-ish of the season. Slavin’s increasing pace is even more impressive. He has 10 points in his last 21 games for roughly a 20 points full season pace. That after a roughly 23-point pace in the first quarter of the season.
The trajectory for both Slavin and Pesce continues to be upward, but there is still another level for both to reach offensively to truly become the kind of top pairing defensemen that drive offense and wins. In addition, the young duo is just entering their first phase of having opponents adjust to their tendencies and what they do well which will not require drastic changes to their play but will require minor adjustments and more importantly continuing to tighten up details in their games.
Here is hoping that neither player gets content to soon and that both keep pushing upward to even higher levels.