November 30, 2010
Hockey coaches rave about players who "play the right way."
That's a vague phrase that encompasses responsible (and un-fun) plays like not flying out of the D-zone before your team gets solid possession, finishing checks and getting pucks deep.
One of the most important and equally un-fun pieces of doing it the right way as a forward is "getting low" for your defensemen on breakouts. But like the aforementioned plays, it has its advantages -- the lower you get, the more speed you can generate while moving up ice, the better you can see the play in front of you, and the more teammates you have to move the puck to (amongst other things).
You have to be a viable option that provides support, otherwise you make yourself less dangerous offensively, and a defensive liability.
Those terms, not-so-coincidentally, precisely describe what Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) has been this season for the New Jersey Devils. (November stats: 1 goal, 3 assists, minus-7, no points in nearly two weeks. He's a fantasy hockey owner's living nightmare.)
He never seems to have any speed going - his legs simply aren't churning like we know they can, and it's because he's so far ahead of the play that he never needs to take any strides - he'd go offside if he actually dug in for a couple. By being those extra four or five feet ahead of where he should be on breakouts, he's not only made himself a non-option, he's made himself tough to play with for his linemates.
How many times this year has he brought the crowd to their feet with a pure rush? Two or three? You can't scare people with a rush if you never touch the puck before crossing the center red line.
Offensive players tend to have a one-track mind -- if you catch them playing defense, it's only because they know they need the puck to score. Because of that inclination, we're drawn towards the opposing goal like a moth to a flame, and we get sucked into an area of the ice where the gap between us and the defensemen is small. We essentially do their work for them.
Somehow, we've convinced ourselves that this is a good idea.
Forwards have to override this hunger and be responsible -- if you don't, it's a direct recipe for prolonging a slump. You want to score so bad you start to float even more, and eventually you find yourself on top of the defenders and so utterly covered you're like a Toronto Maple Leafs trade rumor.
An Aston Martin like Kovalchuk needs a little room to show what he can do, and he keeps trying to show his stuff on a 20-foot racetrack.
If he actually got low for and headed up ice with his linemates, he could make defenders make some decisions other than the ones they have these days, which are: should I wait until he gets the puck to poke it off his stick, or just deny him the puck entirely?
He couldn't be making it easier for them right now.
Even on neutral zone breakouts, if you come back to nearly level with your d-man, you're able to wind it up a bit and cause problems. Right now, the only thing he's causing are headaches for his coach. John MacLean needs to highlight this issue for Kovy on video so he can get it straightened away, and help this offense like a player of his stature can.
It comes with confidence. The more you question your offensive output the more you leak in the wrong direction, which only serves to exacerbate the problem.
He's not lazy. It just seems like the guy is never taking a hard stride because he wants to score so badly.
He's cheating offensively, and it's hurting both the team and his stats.