This summer, Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish unveiled an ambitious plan for next season’s team: three scoring lines and a defensive zone specialty unit. He then signed Luke Gazdic to a two-year extension.
Are these things mutually exclusive?
That Gazdic is a big, scary man is not in dispute. The 6’3”, 240 pound winger fought 15 times last season and took on all comers, and unlike some of Edmonton’s past fighters – Zack Stortini comes to mind – he has the reach and brute strength to stand there and slug it out with opponents:
Even Gazdic’s most grudging critics will generally admit that he fills the fighting part of an enforcer’s role to a tee – he fights everyone, he wins far more often than he loses, and he looks good doing it.
The other thing about Gazdic is that he’s a pretty good skater, something that doesn’t always come with the territory. The combination of big and scary and fast is one that many people love – it’s what made Ben Eager a first round pick, and it’s why Jean-Francois Jacques (60GP, one goal, one point at the time) started 2009-10 lining up with Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff.
But, as the examples of Jacques and Eager show, big and fast isn’t always enough. Like Eager, Gazdic occasionally struggles to put his tools together, and his positional play can be erratic. Even more so than Jacques, Gazdic struggles in the ‘take and make a pass’ department – he isn’t good with the puck at either end of the rink.
Under the old model, it didn’t matter. Gazdic was an “energy line” player, which is code for a unit that’s expected to go out and kill five minutes hitting the depth on the other team, without any expectation of scoring and without much in the way of defensive responsibility.
Under the new model, where does a player who lacks the offensive chops to play on a scoring line and lacks the defensive head to play on a tough minutes unit go?
Sweet Home, Chicago
MacTavish referenced Chicago when he talked about his new-look Oilers, and one of the interesting things about the Blackhawks is their employment of Brandon Bollig. Like Gazdic, Bollig is big (6’2”, 223 pounds) and scary.
Also like Gazdic, Bollig is not blessed with an overabundance of natural skill. He posted four points in 55 AHL games at age 23; Gazdic had 11 in 59. Gazdic posted four points in 67 NHL games at age 24, while at age 25 Bollig was 0-for-43 major league contests.
Last year Bollig played all 82 games for the ‘Hawks, averaged more than 10 minutes per contest, and posted a respectable 50.9 percent Corsi rating coupled with an 18.3 percent zone start. Those are numbers analytics types drool over. For good measure, Bollig also had 14 points, but the big item here is that he was a regular member of a fantastically successful defensive zone specialty unit.
How did they make it work? I was curious, so I went back and watched Bollig’s play in Game 1 between the Blackhawks and the Blues in this spring’s playoffs. It was a triple-overtime affair, and Bollig hit a season-high with 15:30 in total ice time, with the latter reason being why I picked it.
The thing about defensive zone draws is that they’re set plays – there are really only four possible scenarios off a defensive zone draw (well, six if we include scrambled draws) and Bollig’s role was pretty easily to isolate:
- Off won draw to the left of the goalie: Bollig would charge from his starting position in front of the net and out to the left point. Chicago’s usual play was to overwhelm the right side and get out of the zone with possession over there, but if that proved impractical they would typically rim the puck around the board to Bollig, whose sole job was to chip the puck out of the zone.
- Off won draw to the right of the goalie: This is basically the same play, except that instead of charging at full speed to the left point he moved there more slowly. Again, Chicago generally tried to get the puck out the right side of the ice, but with more Blues already over there they made the play to the left more often and again Bollig’s sole job was to chip the puck out as it went by him.
- Off lost draw to the left of the goalie: Bollig would charge at full speed from his starting position in front of the net and directly at the opponent who got the puck off the draw. He booked it, too; there was a false start on one of these and he was at the top of the faceoff circle before he caught himself.
- Off lost draw to the right of the goalie: This seemed to vary based on how quickly the Blues’ left point man moved over. If he moved over quickly, Bollig would wander out in that direction to provide coverage; if he didn’t Bollig would follow Marcus Kruger at top speed to the place the puck was won to.
The big caveat here is that this was only a single game (well, practically two but I digress), but even so the results are suggestive. Bollig succeeded on Chicago’s defensive line because his role was tightly defined and he wasn’t asked to do anything he wasn’t good at. Every big, physical winger is charged with getting in on the forecheck and banging bodies; these set faceoff plays are basically the same thing except with the player charging the point instead of the far boards. As for the breakouts, Chicago preferred a right side exit and possession but they used a left side chip-out often enough to force the opposition to defend both and the beauty of the left side exit is that it didn’t require Bollig to do very much with the puck; all he had to do was take a whack at it.
Of course, even under those carefully controlled conditions there were occasionally problems. Take this crucial defensive zone draw with a little over three minutes left in the third:
Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) will be tasked with getting the puck while Johnny Oduya (27) gives him a passing option. The centre for this play (Ben Smith, 28) will physically battle his opposite following the draw and then shift over to the front of the net in a defensive role. The two wingers (Marcus Kruger, 16 and Brandon Bollig, 52) will move to their respective points, with both eventually falling back to support the play.
Here’s where trouble starts. Smith now has the puck in front of the net, but he has pressure behind him and only one obvious passing option: Bollig. Bollig has time and space, but as we’ve mentioned he isn’t a gifted player with the puck.
Magnus Paajarvi Vladimir Tarasenko (Paajarvi switched to 56 because Tarasenko already had 91; I’m just too used to seeing “91” and thinking “Paajarvi”) gets to Bollig as fast as he can. Bollig can’t make the quick play under pressure and ends up sort of bobbling the puck; by the time he has it back under control the obvious pass to Kruger is too dangerous. Instead, he spins and tries to lob it out of the zone, putting it right on the stick of Alex Pietrangelo on the point. St. Louis gets a dangerous shot off the play.
Still, most draws didn’t end up this way, with the puck more or less forced out the left side of the ice and with Bollig given the responsibility of making a play with it from deep in his own zone. For the most part, Chicago made use of his skills and the line enjoyed considerable success.
Are they better off without Bollig in the role? Stan Bowman seems to think so; he dealt Bollig to Calgary in exchange for a
fourth third round pick at this year’s draft. From a hockey standpoint, he’s probably right; adding someone a little more adept at making plays with the puck is going to help in situations like the one sketched out above. He’s seemingly decided that upgrade is worth the risk of going without an enforcer, and for what it’s worth I think it’s a sensible decision.
Sensible or not, it isn’t a decision Edmonton is ready to make, which is why we’re asking where Gazdic fits in. I think Gazdic fits in pretty much exactly where Bollig did last year – as a winger on the defensive zone line (at least in some games), charged with attacking the point quickly and chipping the puck out of the zone when the Oilers can’t make a breakout with possession up the other side of the ice.
Correction: I neglected to double-check my memory against fact, and I’ve been thinking of Boyd Gordon as a left-handed shot, when of course he’s actually a right-handed shot. This puts the Oilers in a situation where they have both a good left-shooting faceoff man (Matt Hendricks) and a good right-shooting faceoff man (Gordon) and thus are in excellent shape to take a draw at either side of the ice in the defensive zone.
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