It was the early Soviet teams that taught us how defencemen and forwards don’t necessarily come from different planets.
While North American lineups spoke of defensive “pairings” and forward “lines” — still do – the Soviets changed lines, attacked, as five-man units, whirling, passing as a group, almost never dumping the puck and chasing it.
This comes to mind as we watch the young Ottawa Senators go through hockey 101 sessions under new head coach Paul MacLean, forwards and defencemen trying to find cohesion without tripping over each other. Until the Winnipeg Jets arrived on Thursday with their own set of growth problems, the Senators have struggled with scoring, but especially defending.
As a hockey reporter and hockey parent, I’ve learned over the years that the blame for a goal against starts from the blue paint and works its way north. First, the goalie, then the defence, and only as an afterthought are the forwards considered culprits in the shame-filled, minus-world of goals against.
Usually, it’s not that simple. Mistakes happen all over the ice, leading to goals, for and against. Working together, talking through plays in the defensive zone can result in a clean breakout or a breakdown that can ignite a red light over the shoulder of a startled goaltender.
“I can’t do it by myself,” Senators goaltender Craig Anderson reminded us this week. His numbers concur.
Nobody around here knows the nuances of defensive zone hits and misses better than Chris Phillips, who is 48 games shy of 1,000 NHL games played, all of them in a Senators uniform. Phillips has evolved from a young developing defenceman alongside Wade Redden, to a shutdown guy with Anton Volchenkov, and now serves as mentor to a new wave of young defencemen, led by the freewheeling Erik Karlsson.
The challenges only start with Ottawa’s green D, not to be confused with the soothing qualities of green tea. As if they didn’t enough to worry about in their newbie NHL careers, the Senators D-corps also has to contend with raw, inexperienced centres, who play an under-appreciated but key role in controlling play in the defensive zone.
In years, past, the Senators had veteran defensive minded centres like Shaun Van Allen, Todd White, Antoine Vermette, Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly, each with hundreds of games of experience in the league.
And now? After top centre Jason Spezza, the games played reads like this from Thursday’s lineup: Peter Regin, 145 GP (but departed in the first period with a shoulder injury), Stephane Da Costa, 10 GP, Mika Zibanejad, 6 GP.
Defencemen count on a forward down low, usually the centre, helping to negotiate short, quick passes that ease the puck out of the zone.
”It always comes down to communication,” Phillips says. “And so, you throw the goalie in there too — it’s four guys down low, being each other’s eyes, letting them know what’s open and what play to make.
“Once you have the puck, then it’s everybody’s responsibility to want the puck. To get open. And that’s what makes the game easier. Lots of times you can make a great play, or maybe beat your guy but if nobody gets open or is supporting then you’re kind of stuck on an island and feeling all that pressure again.”
The earlier and deeper the centre retreats, the better position he is in to rush up ice. Think Scott Gomez, picking up the puck behind his net.
Not that Ottawa’s defensive group doesn’t have issues based on personnel, but there are other factors, such as having puck possession and an offensive push, like the Senators had three or four years ago.
“It doesn’t matter who you have back there, you could have six all-star defencemen, if you are continually playing in your own end there’s going to be mistakes, things are going to happen, and ultimately, the puck is probably going to end up in the back of the net,” Phillips says.
Something else to consider with a rebuilding club.
HE SAID IT
Big Dustin Byfuglien, who opened the scoring against Ottawa with a slapshot from the point, wanders so freely it’s hard to tell if he’s playing forward or defence, his chosen position.
“Byfuglien is a really special player, we don’t mind him roving, if it’s a controlled rove,” said Jets head coach Claude Noel.
“He’s a smart player, has a high hockey IQ,” Noel says. “So we allow him to do that just as long as he’s productive. He can create a lot of turnovers.”
LONELY AT THE TOP
When Jets rookie Mark Scheifele scored his first career NHL goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he couldn’t find a teammate to hug. Both Evander Kane and Byfuglien were scrambling for the puck for posterity.
“It looked like I was celebrating on my own, because him (Kane) and Buff were both trying to get it,” Scheifele said. “I was just kind of sitting there alone.”
Like the Senators’ Zibanejad, also 18, Scheifele isn’t sure if he’ll survive the nine-game threshold, but that goal will soften his return to the OHL Barrie Colts if that’s how it plays out.