HomeHomeUpon Further Review: Mobile defencemen and the return of the net-front menace

Upon Further Review: Mobile defencemen and the return of the net-front menace

I recently came across a phenomenal segment of sports talk television, a 10-minute video where a host, a few former players-turned-analysts, and another savvy analyst/media personality broke down a trend in the NFL. It’s linked below if you care to take the time, but the nut of it is this: defensive linemen were once gigantic men whose role was primarily to be “space eaters,” meaning running the ball up the aptly-named “gut” was futile. The position evolved, though, and those players have become more athletic and versatile (to get to the quarterback and defend from sideline to sideline), meaning they also traded in some size for that mobility. Despite still being giants, many are in fact smaller.

That was the trend for years, which brings us to today, where they’ve gotten so “small” (some are just wee little fellas at like 270 pounds now instead of 350), that teams are having remarkable success just pounding the ball down their throat, straight at them, and saying “you’re not big enough to stop the direct run anymore.”

Yards per pass completion are at their lowest level in 90 years, while yards per rush are at their highest level in NFL history, at 4.5 per carry.

This is the video here if you want to take the time.

Within it, Mina Kimes shares this stat board, which shows how yards per carry are up on power and counter runs (and she notes verbally that success rates are way up too, not just per carry).

Screen Shot 2022 11 16 at 2.44.38 PM

OK. So that’s a lot of NFL talk, I realize. But I was struck by a comparison we’ve seen in the NHL, and how it’s spurred about an evolution in what today constitutes effective offence on the ice.

Because, really, we’ve seen the same changes in the NHL as what’s discussed above, have we not? D-men are far less likely to be guys like Darien Hatcher or Craig Ludwig or Marty McSorely or Bryan Marchment or even the recently retired Zdeno Chara. Many of the biggest D-men in the NHL today can barely be described as mean, whether you’re talking about Victor Hedman or Colton Parayko or Tyler Myers or Dougie Hamilton or up-and-coming types like Owen Power.

Aside from the comportment of many of today’s big defenders, is that “big” is no longer as prioritized from the position, for similar reasons to what NFL defences aimed to become. Below is the average height and weight of every D-man who’s played a single NHL game over the previous 15 seasons. While it’s not perfectly linear, if you focus on weight you can clearly see the evolution in size with today’s D-men being, on average, some nine pounds lighter than the average guy 15 years ago.

Screen Shot 2022 11 16 at 2.47.27 PM

What we’ve asked players to be on the back-end has changed entirely. If you can’t skate, you can’t keep up in today’s lightning-fast version of hockey and aren’t of use to NHL teams. There used to be a couple butchers on every team’s bottom pair who just retreated to protect the front of their net, and were no threat to jump into the play when it went back the other way. They often weren’t great with the puck, and you might get to skate around those guys and score (which is why that archetype is out of the league), but you usually took your lumps in the process. In that era going “around” was much preferred to going “through.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs – who I spend a lot of time on and will be using as our example here – have the complete opposite for a third pair right now, in a couple of small-ish young guys, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. They can skate and pass and read the play … but it doesn’t seem overly frightening to stand beside them at the net-front waiting for offence to unfold. That’s an observation not a criticisim – they’re good players any team in the league would be happy to have. They just undeniably play a certain style.

And that gets to a greater point I’m here making today. It isn’t just the Leafs who have D-men like that, but in general, because of the evolution of the defensive position, it has now become a hugely valuable tool to metaphorically pound the ball down the middle at opponents. In hockey terms, that means drive the net, go to the net, stay at the net, live at the net. That’s not how today’s D want to play, which should perk up the ears of offences everywhere.

It’s not just that D-men aren’t as big or mean that allows that, it’s also that the rules make it much harder to defend there. Defenders can’t take a free hand off their stick to wrap you up, they can’t slash you on the hands, and they can’t hook an opposing forward in the slightest. You used to go park there and just wear lumber across your lumbar until you were lumps. The rules and the roles of D-men today have made it so you can stand there now.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are currently 20th in the NHL in goals for per game (2.9), but in the month of November they’re up to 3.3, having scored eight times in their past two games. One of the improvements there seems to be Michael Bunting re-committing himself to the dirty work and playing at the net front, to go along with some other forwards doing a better job getting there as well (this is a bigger point about the Leafs to be made some other day – they do miss Zach Hyman and Ondrej Kase types that did that, but they’re definitely most dangerous when they remember to stop on the blue paint rather than skate through it).

Just look at the difference it’s made for Toronto recently.

On Hockey Night in Canada, Pierre Engvall ties the game up after a good shift where the Leafs got to the net, stayed there and battled. But what sticks out to me most is how even after some net-front battling, Bunting climbs back to the inside of the pile, which frees up Engvall on the backside. Keep your eye on 58 in front:

jb tor net goal 3

After some battling he ends up here:

Screen Shot 2022 11 16 at 3.05.38 PM

But he climbs back in, which takes the Canucks’ attention and leaves Engvall unmarked to just shoot it in the net.

Screen Shot 2022 11 16 at 3.06.39 PM

Bunting ends up flat on his back, which we also saw on Tuesday night, when Mitch Marner was the net-front guy who helped the Leafs open the scoring in Pittsburgh.

The Leafs are far-and-away the most active team at north-south passes this season (“S” is for “successful passes below”), but it typically hasn’t resulted in much offence because of a lack of net-front guy:

Screen Shot 2022 11 16 at 3.07.49 PM

When they play like that, and have someone in front, it can look like this. The puck goes high, and Marner – hardly a Patric Hornqvist-styled net-front specialist – goes to the dirty area, and it makes all the difference:

jb tor net goal 2

Because Marner decides to go net-front here, he forces two Penguins defenders to make a coverage choice:

Screen Shot 2022 11 16 at 3.12.02 PM

Both decide to take the guy in the most dangerous spot, right by the crease:

Now, it’s worth noting, this is bad defence by the Penguins. But because Marner goes there, it messed them up for a second, and now look at the issues. You’ve got crease congestion, a goalie looking around a pile, and a forward with a clean shot from the high slot. (I should note, I can’t believe John Tavares didn’t give the puck back to Jordie Benn, who jumps by his guy, but it is Jordie Benn and Tavares scored so y’know, no further questions your honour.)

Screen Shot 2022 11 16 at 3.14.06 PM

There was more of the same on the fourth goal. Bunting is allowed to stand in front, and eventually, to get on the favourable side of the pile against Kris Letang:

jb tor net goal 1

The puck goes north, and Bunting heads to the net:

Screen Shot 2022 11 16 at 3.16.09 PM

Pontus Holmberg goes through the middle – like our NFL running backs today – rather than around the pile, and it attracts the attention of the Pittsburgh defence:

Screen Shot 2022 11 16 at 3.17.46 PM

A moment later, Bunting fairly easily boxes out Letang to tip one home:

Screen Shot 2022 11 16 at 3.18.42 PM

As positional play evolves, NHL teams (and all professional sports teams) often see it happening and react by saying “Well we need some of that too!” If it’s mobile D-men that are effective in today’s game, teams aspire to go out and get themselves more mobile defenders.

But it would be worth them also asking, “If our opponents are going to be more mobile, how do we combat that?” And the answers are either to be the best of the mobile teams – the mobiliest moblers who ever mobled – or you can play a game that is not the preferred style of mobile guys, where your forwards go and park it and battle them and make them move you.

To bring it all full circle, you run the ball down their throats, then you do the NBA “too small” gesture as you’re celebrating yet another goal. The blue paint still won’t be fun to stand in, but if the opposing teams don’t have space-eaters who can move guys, you may as well challenge them nose-to-nose and, at worst, see what that opens up for your teammates around you.

.acf-block-preview .br-related-links-wrapper {
display: grid;
grid-template-columns: repeat(2, 1fr);
gap: 20px;

.acf-block-preview .br-related-links-wrapper a {
pointer-events: none;
cursor: default;
text-decoration: none;
color: black;

Source link



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Popular

Recent Comments