When Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli evaluates the skill set of Matt Lashoff, he sees a 21-year-old prospect who has some of the skating, vision, and stickhandling required of successful, puck-moving NHL defensemen.
What Lashoff has yet to master, however, is a skill that can take defensemen years to develop: the underappreciated art of puck retrieval.
Lashoff, brought up to Boston on emergency recall when Zdeno Chara went down with an upper-body injury, was sent back to Providence Thursday. Lashoff is hoping that his next promotion to Boston becomes permanent, and he acknowledges that focusing on puck retrieval might help him stay.
"It's probably something that's ignored," Chiarelli said of the puck-fetching instruction defensemen receive at lower levels. "They incorporate it into their drills. But it's not something that's stressed."
Therefore, it's not surprising that only a handful of NHLers are considered elite at turning, sprinting into their zone, retrieving pucks, and starting the breakout.
Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer makes it look seamless. Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom has few peers. San Jose's Brian Campbell is considered a one-man breakout whose departure from Buffalo has left the Sabres struggling to move pucks crisply from defense to offense. Washington's Mike Green is an up-and-coming puck mover who could be one of the league's brightest stars if he continues to develop.
On the Bruins' roster, Chara has proven to be the most effective retriever this season, although Andrew Ference isn't far behind and Dennis Wideman has shown improvement.
"It's hard to do," said Chiarelli. "It's hard to go back there at full speed and gather the puck, especially when it's on the boards or sitting on the wall, without breaking a stride. Then you have to turn up the ice and make a play."
As challenging as the skill may be, it's one Boston defensemen have to manage if the Bruins want to succeed during the stretch run. Because of the way the Bruins gum up the neutral zone, opposing clubs looking for operating room often chip pucks past the traffic. That forces the Boston blue liners to turn and go back for it. If they hesitate or make the wrong play, a forechecker can cause turnovers and create scoring chances.
Here are some of the steps a defenseman going back for a puck must take: Make a quick turn and sprint for the puck. Take a peek over the shoulder to read the forecheck and determine where your partner has set up. Listen to the goalie, who can see the forechecker coming and yell out instructions ("hard" and "reverse" are two of the buzzwords a netminder might shout). Settle the puck, which might still be rolling. Keep the puck on the stick blade while fending off a check by turning away from the hit. Dish the puck to your partner if the forechecking heat is too strong. Start the breakout with a crisp pass to a winger on the wall or the center in open ice, or carry the puck out. Or, in a last-ditch effort, rim the puck along the boards, hoping there's enough steam behind it to clear the zone.
Got all that?
"It's something the better-skilled players can just do," Chiarelli said. "They're good at it.
"Some D have trouble. Someone who's really improved on it is Wideman. He doesn't get pancaked as much this year. He would stop his feet from moving and wait for the other guy. He's not doing that as much.
"Somebody who's struggled at it but is getting better is Mark Stuart. When he goes around, he stops moving his feet, plants, gets the puck, then glides. Once he's got the puck, then a guy can catch up and hammer him if he's stopped."
For his part, Lashoff has been starting from the beginning: going back with greater purpose to gain that extra split-second, but also reading the play and having an idea of what he'll do before he arrives at the puck.
"The last time I got sent down, I sat back and thought about why," said Lashoff. "I really looked at it and what I need to do better. The main thing was going back for the puck a lot quicker, getting that extra step, and getting back so I have more time to make my plays. It's something I've consciously worked at.
"It's tough to get a tag as an offensive guy. I don't want that. Before, people would say, 'Go back for the puck,' and I'd say, 'OK, I'm going back hard.' But I wasn't realizing the sense of what it was. If I concentrate on going back, once I get the puck, I think my hockey sense will take over."
Blow-by-blow analysisWhen Milan Lucic considers his 13 big-league fights this season, the Bruins rookie doesn't have any trouble picking out his three favorites: an Oct. 18 win over Tampa Bay's Nick Tarnasky; a Dec. 15 victory over Columbus's Jared Boll; and a March 8 beatdown of Washington's Matt Bradley.
Last week, Lucic took a few minutes to look over his bouts (available at hockeyfights.com) and explain what went on during each one.
Against Tarnasky, Lucic overwhelmed the forward with a series of quick rights before scoring the takedown: "Only because it's the first home game. It's the first shift as a Bruin at TD Banknorth Garden. It's one where I asked him to fight. It's 0-0, I'm trying to get the momentum going. Obviously, it was pretty entertaining."
Against Boll, Lucic connected with several big-time rights, then popped the youngster with a few lefts while grabbing his jersey: "This one I liked because I don't like him. We had a heated battle that started in the [Memorial Cup] last year. I saw him come off. As soon as I got on, I asked him to fight right away.
"This dates back to the Mem Cup, when nothing really happened but he was calling me some names I didn't like. I really wanted to get at him. It was another one where we were just throwing. With getting some good rights in, I also got in some good lefts."
Against Bradley, Lucic lined up with the forward for the opening faceoff, removed his helmet, and started with a series of straights and uppercuts: "I asked him to fight. He's already agreed to it, and you can hear how the crowd's getting into it.
"I have no clue if he's a righty or a lefty. But I know he's willing. I know I'm going to go in there, throw, and try to get our crowd and our players into it. We're playing desperate at this point."
Ovechkin getting results with off-the-wall approachJust as Wayne Gretzky found a certain patch of frozen real estate that he preferred - the Great One's skills came to life behind the net - Washington's Alex Ovechkin has discovered a space where he likes to operate: the left-side wall.
"He likes to roam high and stretch and back your D up to make more space for his guys to move the puck," said coach Claude Julien after his Bruins snapped Ovechkin's eight-game scoring streak last Sunday. "We were very alert to make sure we didn't let him get behind us.
"At the same time, our other guys did a great job in the neutral zone of taking away their speed that they normally get when Ovechkin stretches your D out. I thought we did a good job that way."
When the Capitals kick off their breakout, Ovechkin can often be found in motion against the boards, tiptoeing behind defensemen as he waits for long-distance passes.
Ovechkin, who leads the league with 60 goals, positions himself along the wall, and signals with the blade of his stick where he wants his defensemen to pass the puck.
If he holds it to his right, Ovechkin plans to stay against the wall and wants the puck on the outside, where he can take a pass and zoom in for an off-wing shot. If Ovechkin opens up his blade to his left, it indicates he's ready to cut into the middle.
"He likes to be in full stride," said an NHL assistant coach. "He doesn't like the puck when he's standing still."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.