Goal scorers. . .Because in the end, it’s all about out-scoring your opponent.
There’s been a lot of chatter on a few players scattered throughout the league as the NHL rounded the quarter mark and it’s not a coincidence that two key players are goal scorers at polar extremes, one struggling, one lighting it up.
The third, a pivot, who added scoring punch to his playmaking ability, proves more valuable as a playmaker that reverts to goal-scoring instincts when he’s struggling.
Goal scoring is not easy. The NHL was averaging 2.7 goals-per-team entering Sunday’s games. Defensive structure can be implemented, and usually is by good coaches/strategists.
Scoring goals wins games, and sometimes those that can score in bunches are given some slack for not having a most rounded defensive game.
Scoring requires presence in dirty areas, quick, hard bursts, effort to battle through traffic and defense in front, while driving to the net. Speed pushes defenses back and often backchecking from a forward in deep isn’t always as diligent as those playing higher in the zone.
Defensive acumen matures with experience, rounding out once flashy and lightning quick skills and drop in production as a result. While they are at their best, natural scorers have to exploit that ability.
The Senators pivot earned his reputation as a playmaker being the set up man for Dany Heatley. As his scoring touch emerged, he contributed to the dip in Heatley’s production by taking advantage of scoring chances on his own. The Wild winger scored 50 goals in consecutive seasons, all while Spezza’s goal production increased. Soon, instances where Heatley would have normally received a pass were less frequent, leading Spezza to a more assertive shooting stance, or drive it in on goal himself.
When he’s struggling, he reverts to that goal scoring mentality, overhandling the puck and neglecting distribution options, spends more time along the wall as a playmaker and more of an inside presence when scoring.
The Senators were on a 4-7 run during Spezza’s funk as (11-0-5-5), when he broke out scoring his 200th career goal, his second of the game versus Carolina. Breaking the funk was a burst of speed around the defenseman while fighting off a forechecker up the middle, driving to the goal.
High risk area shenanigans have decreased, although still there, while he likes to carry the puck. Helping him to break droughts is the ability to use the space afforded behind players that gravitate to him, using his long reach and quick stickhandling to move the puck to teammates, then getting to the net.
As a veteran scorer on a young, rebuilding club, he’s going to be relied upon for much of the Senators scoring punch; finding ways out of slumps will be vital.
The Leafs sniper and NHL point leader has been commended for his upgraded defensive play, but while there’s some truth, defense hasn’t contributed to a hot start.
Backchecking and playing a rounded game makes him more dangerous, with Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak – inserted due to the injury to Tim Connolly – attacking as a unit with speed, driving defenses back, and adapting some of the chemistry with creative passing plays.
With Kessel and Lupul, more diligent on the back check and defensive positioning, the entire line gets up ice with speed in transition, pushing back the defense and into the offensive zone generating scoring chances through a better forechecking effort below the red line, or ensuing chaos in slot scrambles.
One change in his game that hasn’t been explored enough is more relevant.
He’s no longer just skating down the right wing, crossing the line, with a quick shoulder fake and inside drift for a better angle to unleash his lethal wrist shot. Now, the space afforded by a group attack highlights an underrated passing ability and renewed forecheck with Bozak being the defensive mind on the line.
Set plays on long stretch passes gets him behind the defense – normally around the right wing – while his one-on-one approach includes more shiftiness, driving back defenseman and taking advantage of the change in positioning for the shot.
It’s a positive overall cycle where diligent defense is leading to productive offensive output, where both events breed confidence and it’s up to the players to build on momentum.
He tends to revert back to the predictable Kessel when struggling, overhandling the puck and as a goal scorer, there’s bound to be droughts along the way; it’s the nature of the type of player. If he keeps contributing on the entire sheet of ice, along with the forechecking ability of Lupul and defensive smarts of Bozak, Kessel can finish high in the scoring ranks by season’s end, even if he can’t hold on to the top spot.
Predictability is a goal-scorers kryptonite, as this next player may have realized in a tumultuous season.
The Russian’s production has dropped considerably with projections in the 30 goal range and questions surround The Great 8?
Production aside, he’s averaging 54 seconds per shift, going from 64 seconds in 2008-09, to a high of 66 seconds in 2009-10, 59 in 2010-11.
Chatter revolving around a rift with coach, Bruce Boudreau must have some influence and could be evident in the shortened shifts. Instead of showing the enthusiasm to stay on the ice to stretch shifts into the 60+ range, he’s going to the bench.
The rift is no longer an issue as the Capitals relieved the coach of his duties, replacing him with a capable replacement in Dale Hunter, ex-coach of the Ontario Hockey League, London Knights.
Teams have prepared and executed a better game plan to contain the 26-year old, working for the most part as he finds less room to maneuver, along with struggling at times to generate initial momentum.
Couple the loss of space with frustration leads to aggressive responses to common contact for a player of his status naturally attracting a heightened attention than other players.
Highlight reel streaks down the right wing used to put defensemen on their heels and back them up, but that respect is less common. Also a good passer, he’s shown reluctance to fire away at times, another sign of frustration and confidence.
In 2010-11 he improved his ability to attract attention, then use space created to get the puck to teammates. Linemates presence in that space, led to broken plays, or scrambles with forechecking pressure.
His penalty minutes have dropped, while playing on the edge is what made him dangerous in the first place. He’s curbed some of the reckless play, as Don Cherry alluded to on Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada. Not to say he isn’t intense, just with a little of the edge taken off.
One positive change would be to take him off the point on the power play and move him back down low. He works hard, running best at high RPMs. To get back to previous levels, he will have to find ways to use his explosive acceleration, top speed and ability to execute at that speed.
New coach, new beginnings and for the sake of the Great 8, new results.