Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What a Difference a D Makes

If I've reached one conclusion by watching the Olympic men's hockey tournament, it's that a team can go very, very far on the back of a great defenceman.

As much as I can't stand him, Zdeno Chara has been outstanding for Slovakia. He's playing huge minutes and looking like the defensive beast who won the Norris Trophy last season. I really like Jaro Halak and I think he's played a very large part in Slovakia's surprising advancement to the semifinals, but even the most ardent Halak supporter can't deny Chara's had just as much to do with it. The man is blocking shots, hitting, clearing the goalcrease and launching the forwards' attack with some nice passing. He's also got the cannon from the point which helps the Slovaks' power play potency.

Another example of a team that rallied behind a strong defensive performance is the Swiss. Mark Streit had a brilliant tournament. Unlike Chara, Streit isn't the biggest guy out there, but he might possibly have the biggest heart. He played nearly thirty minutes in losing to the Americans in the quarter-finals, including twelve minutes in the second period alone. At one point the camera showed him on the bench, completely soaked in sweat with his head hanging. The trainer was trying to feed him some Gator Aid, but Streit looked too tired to drink it. That was hardly a surprise. He was strong in his own end and skated miles in leading his team's offensive rush to compensate for its lack of firepower. What he lacked in size, he made up for with hard work and brains, and he made a huge difference in his team's fortunes. Without him, there's no way Switzerland would have had such a strong showing.

I think this is what the Russians were missing last night. They have good defencemen, but nobody stepped up to control the game like Chara and Streit were doing for their teams, and Brian Rafalski has been doing for the US. Markov can do it, but he looked terrible against Canada. I'm convinced he was definitely hurt before the tournament, and he was playing hurt during it. As a result, nobody took charge in the Russians' own end and it hurt their breakout and their defensive coverage. Canada, on the other hand, saw Drew Doughty and Shea Weber step up and take control of their zone. Dan Boyle contributed on the offensive side of things and the defence as a whole outplayed their opponents.

We see it in the NHL too. Gonchar wasn't outstanding for Russia, but he helps the Penguins immeasurably. When he was missing from the lineup last year, the Pens were in tenth place in the conference. On his return, the team went on a great run to make the playoffs and, of course, bring home the Cup. Detroit with Lidstrom in his prime was a champion team. Now that he's aging and less effective, they're on the bubble. Boston won the conference when Chara showed his Norris form, but now they're struggling as the big guy struggles.

A really good defenceman can be the axis on which a game turns. He can prevent goals by shutting down the opposition's best forwards and he can produce them for his own team with strong passing and a good shot. He can dictate the speed at which the games moves and he can set the tone by his play.

This is what the Canadiens now need most desperately. Not a big centre or more offence on the wings or a veteran goalie or a checker or a goon. They need a dynamic, powerful defenceman who can change the flow of a game from his own zone. If there's going to be a trade, I hope it's for a prospect that might become a D like that, or a draft pick that will allow the Habs to pick one, since there's no hope of trading for an established player who fits that role.

Markov can do it when he's healthy, but he's 31 and he's been hurt a lot lately. I think P.K.Subban has potential to be that kind of defenceman, but you can't have too many of them. The Habs need to focus on adding another to the prospect pool. After watching the Games, I'm convinced a great defenceman can win you games you shouldn't win, just as much as a great goalie can. I'm equally sure a team won't go far without one.


Anonymous said...

100 % agree I am a Born Habs Fan and the difference in this team outside of injuries will be the defence movin the puck and keeping the play in the neutral Zine generating time and space for our decent front end to score, We have great goalies and a competitive passing game just need to get the game to opposing end zone - You have a very good Article here that should be posted in Matin's Radar.

redbaron said...

Great post JT -- I'll never join the Brian Burke fan club, but I've gotta admit that if Komi pulls out of his funk, his blue line is going to look pretty fierce, even after he deals Kaberle for a forward or two. Once your D is strong enough that the other team has a tough time scoring, you can worry about scoring yourself.

DB said...

One item that all the defencemen you mention have in common is a high hockey IQ or put another way, the ability to read and react to the play faster than most players. Without it the smaller players like Rafalski, Streit and Neidermayer would not survive in the NHL.

Players with obvious physical skills get scouts, GMs and fans excited, but they often end up being disappointments if they have a low hockey IQ. Think of Phaneuf, Shawn Belle, and Cam Barker (Yes Phaneuf and Barker are good players, but neither have lived up to expectations).

Determining if a young player has an NHL level hockey IQ is probably the hardest job for scouts. They can measure size, speed, strength and other physical attributes, but they can't use a stop-watch, scale or measuring tape to determine a player's hockey IQ. As a result, some highly rated prospects disappoint while lower ranked prospects become stars.

Anonymous said...

Pierre Gauthier who is our pro scout and GM decided Streit would never become a full time defenseman. Gainey agreed and let him go as a UFA instead of renewing his contract at a bargain rate. Now Gauthier is our man in charge with Gainey his advisor. MERDE.

Anonymous said...

So you're sayin that Harvey, Bouchard, the big three, Cheli...that guys like that who can think and change the flow of a game are important? I thought that only the goaltender was important in Montreal?

I wouldn't keep my fingers crossed if I were you. I have a real bad feeling about this Gauthier/Boivin thing. They already moved a chunk of future for 20 games of present. Subban is marketable in other places than Montreal.

DKerr said...


To echo a thought DB posted, the first defensemen I recall dictating tempo was Mark Howe in Philly. Not the biggest guy, so you didn't notice his physical presence (Larry Robinson's board breaking check overshadowed his hockey IQ), but he sure positively influenced the game for his team and logged a boatload of minutes. That is what made Lidstrom such a force. Lidstrom amazed me at the point, his ability to receive bouncing pucks with a PK guy coming at him, so calm and controlled - he really made their 2 way game click. Those guys usually don't get traded, unless cash is an issue. Agree the more of those types you have, the better!

Anonymous said...

I've always believed that teams should build from the blueline out. By that measure, the current Habs are pretty dodgy. And markov ain't getting any younger.

As for Streit - look, I agree that that was a huge mistake, but the guy was awful in his own end with us. They gambled that he had finished developing and would always be that player. Turns out he had more room to grow. It's never an exact science; and I recall near-unanimity among Habs fans that the Isles were morons to sign him to that deal, so don't count me among the 20-20 hindsight crowd.

J.T. said...

@DB: Completely agree on the hockey IQ factor. However, I do believe you CAN scout it. It's just that sometimes scouts don't classify it as highly as size or skating ability or the ability to lay a huge hit. Look at Shawn Belle, for example. He's a great skater with size, but he panics with the puck under pressure. Still, he was a first-rounder in a great draft. Hal Gill had scouts drooling over his size, even though he handles the puck like a teenager with his first bra clasp and he skates like he's wearing concrete boots. Then you've got a guy like Streit, who's an extremely smart player, but his lack of size played a role in keeping him out of the draft for years. Of course, in the NHL you don't want a roster full of 5'7" defencemen, but I'd always take the 6'0" smart player over the 6'5" dumb one.

@anon: I didn't cast any hindsight on the Streit move here. Even though I was on record for wanting to sign him early in his last year in Montreal, when he reportedly was looking for about two million per, I don't see a point in rehashing departed players. My point was his performance in the Olympics, which was stellar.

DB said...

I agree that hockey IQ can be scouted, however, I think it is much harder to accurately assess hockey IQ than it is to assess physical skills like skating.

When scouts see junior players they have a pretty good idea about whether a player can skate and shoot at an NHL level. They also can see how well a player can read the play and then respond with the correct move. What they can't easily tell is whether the player can read and react correctly when the speed of the game is increased to the NHL level. To me this is what hockey IQ is all about - the ability to quickly read and react to the play.

V said...

I really liked Streit when he was here... he's Swiss, what's not to like.

Loved his offence, heart and felt he was not very strong defensively. Have noticed whenever we play the Isles he is still very weak defensively. Sorry he is gone but not devastated.

Agree with the article JT. When winning, the Habs have always had a stand-out defenceman. And it doesn't have to be a hall of famer like Robinson, Harvey or Savard... I guy that I felt fit the bill very nicely was Eric Dejardins and I was devastated when he was traded. I don't think we have had anyone that brings the combination of attributes he did since he left (and my memory is not that good), including Markov.

HabsProf said...

Didn't we have some guy named McDonough in our fold once? What ever happened to him? (Note: tongue planted firmly in cheek.)