There’s a price to pay for occupying space in front of the net in the National Hockey League.
During this summer’s NHL Awards Show, Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf revealed what many already pondered and hoped to be true. When asked if he really told his teammates, “Go to the net and I’ll make you rich,” Getzlaf told reporters it’s something he regularly does.
That high-trafficked space in front of the crease is one of the dirtiest areas on the 200-by-85 foot sheet of ice. And for 26-year-old Bruin Milan Lucic, the price is paid regularly. The burly left winger could even borrow and perhaps tweak Getzlaf’s motto: Find me in front of the net, and I’ll make you rich.
David Krejci can confirm the validity of this sentiment. This offseason, Krejci signed a 6-year extension that will pay him more than $43 million. Krejci is a top center in the league, whose success has been buoyed by Lucic playing to his left. The hulking, skilled winger has been a staple for Krejci during his Bruin’s tenure: No other skater has played as many minutes with Krejci as Lucic, and it’s not a very close competition. Yet this is more about Lucic, and his propensity and effectiveness at crashing the crease. It’s a thankless job, so Krejci should send Lucic a nice card from time to time, or at the very least extend him and ‘IOU.’
How Lucic gets there
A 6-foot-4, 220 pound linebacker on skates, Lucic isn’t exactly going to avoid the periphery of his opponents. With his size, and the added attention applied to him because of his talent, Lucic is anything but invisible on the ice. Yet the bruising winger still manages to force his way into that dangerous area directly above the crease.
Imagine trying to stop that frame when it’s aimed straight at you, barreling its way toward the crease. On the goal below, as Lucic does in some instances, he finds his way to the front of the net off the rush, a difficult area of the game for anyone trying to funnel him away from the space above the blue paint.
This play begins with the Bruins winning the puck back in their own end, and Lucic and Jarome iginla breaking out two-on-three. Matt Moulson is in Lucic’s hip pocket, while Iginla, slightly ahead, is still looking at two Sabres defensemen.
As Lucic and Iginla continue through the neutral zone, Buffalo remains in great position to defend against the rush. Iginla sends the puck back to Lucic, who is still being hounded by Moulson. Meanwhile, the gap between Buffalo and the Bruins transition should keep the play in front of them, and non-threatening.
When Lucic sends the puck back to Iginla, a bit of separation is created on the right side because both Sabres skaters are drifting toward Lucic. But even so, Iginla has an outside lane, which can be limited to an off-angle shot if played correctly. Lucic, however, already has his sights on the open ice ahead of the play, and that net-front area that’s prime to be crashed.
Iginla carries the puck down to the top of the circle, and Buffalo is doing whatever it can to force him into taking a shot from the off-angle. On the outside, Christian Ehrhoff’s posture is completely playing the pass, from the positioning of his stick, to how his hips are turned around to face Iginla. In the middle, Mark Pysyk is doing anything he can to impede Lucic’s path, creating not-so-subtle interference, and using his body to force Lucic away from the front.
Lucic is a bully. He regularly forces his way into spaces on the ice where the defense is making a point to keep him out. So despite Pysyk’s best effort’s, Lucic manages to sneak his stick around the defenseman, keeping it square on the ice, and giving Iginla a target for a cross-ice pass. Iginla puts the puck where it needs to be, and Lucic does just enough to get to where he needs to be to deflect home the feed.
Finding his way to the front of the net off the rush is one thing. Without the time to get set, it’s difficult for a team to do much about it, but in an even strength, offensive zone situation, Lucic still manages to float his way to the front of the net, and make a difference there.
The Bruins have possession in Dallas’s zone to start this sequence, and Lucic is up above the dots. He sends a cross-ice pass to Dennis Seidenberg, but is still nowhere near the net front.
As Seidenberg gets into a shooting position, and Dallas shifts its focus toward the point, Lucic sees his opportunity, and creeps in off the half wall.
Even as Vernon Fiddler locates Lucic in front, it’s an arduous task for any defenseman to do anything by that point. Fiddler tries to get body position on Lucic, and force him to re-adjust, but isn’t successful in doing so.
This next segment is why Lucic is so lethal as soon as he finds his way down low. The puck makes its way to Dougie Hamilton back at the point, and Lucic is able to use his strength to turn with the play, while still maintaining his position on Fiddler. He uses his right leg to stay inside of the defenseman, while he uses his upper body strength to ensure his hands will still be in a scoring position.
And a split second later, Lucic uses that upper body strength to create separation between himself and Fiddler, shedding the defenseman, and opening up space to redirect the puck.
How Good is Lucic In Front?
The raw numbers indicate that Lucic is above average league-wide when it comes to shooting percentage in that net-front area.
A new, fantastic resource for hockey statistics, War on Ice, tracks how well teams and players shoot from different spots in the offensive zone. It’s hockey’s version of a heat map, which the site has termed a “hextally.” Looking at Lucic’s hextally strictly for shooting percentage, it reveals how efficient he is in front of the net.
That dark green area above the crease on the first chart indicates Lucic is most successful on shot attempts from that zone. It may not come as a huge surprise, because it’s obviously an area where quality shots are generated. But that second chart is what indicates Lucic is better than the league average on those attempts—about 6% better.
As the Bruins attempt to again rule the Atlantic Division, and navigate the Eastern Conference, expect Lucic to continue to crash the net, and look for the Bruins to find him in those moments.