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|Puck battles: Hockey's most underrated non-statistic|
|Written by Justin Bourne|
|Wednesday, 03 November 2010 18:23|
It's easy to overlook which players are winning most "50/50 pucks" because the league doesn't officially record the stat. Within the game, GMs, coaches and other players watch it closely.
For me, writing about puck battles is like Ken Hitchcock talking about skating: He's knowledgeable and aware of its value, he just isn't any good at it personally.
We measure faceoffs, and we note which centerman is particularly proficient at getting his team the biscuit. We currently have no statistical measure to determine who's the best at coming up with pucks in tight quarters.
But coaches damn well notice. Players can easily note which of their teammates come up with the puck most often. Season-ticket holders and fans that watch every game on TV probably have a pretty good idea, too.
Early in the career of the Sedin brothers, they were known as the "Sedin sisters." They would regularly get knocked off the puck, which limited their opportunities.
Early in the career of the Sedin brothers, they were stupidly known throughout Vancouver as the "Sedin sisters" (Get it? Women are inferior). They would regularly get knocked off the puck, which limited their opportunities. There was no way to quantify that deficiency in their game, but it existed, and people noticed. (We made a drinking game out of it, in fact.)
Last year, Henrik Sedin won the Hart Trophy (which, in case you're not much of a follower of the league, is awarded to the league's most valuable player). They matured, gained a little old man strength, and have become proficient at using body position and stick skills to win pucks. Most fans are aware that, given chances (which they now have more of, thanks to winning more puck battles), they can rarely be stopped.
I think there are four crucial components to coming up with 50/50 pucks:
1. Strength. A handy tool to have in this sport I'm told, and part of the reason going down a level seems so easy at first (guys are stronger every level up). After spending more than two seasons in the NHL, Jon Sim scored three goals in his first game back in the AHL Wednesday. He probably felt like Hercules.
2. Cunning: The ability to effectively use your body, read what your opponent wants to do, and find a way to make the puck do the complete opposite of that.
3. Perseverance: Some guys are relentless and just. Won't. Stop. They're just want it so flipping bad. It's all well and good if you're a responsible back-checker, and always pick up the right man, but a coach would rather have a guy that just ends up with the puck and doesn't have to backcheck. The perseverance guy in beer league can eat it, by the way. And last ...
4. Skill: Many guys simply lack the ability to toe-pull the puck around an opponent's skates and immediately fire a laser to their open linemate in front of the net. The Sedins do not lack this particular ability.
Over the course of a hockey season, there are always a few teams that exceed expectations. Last year it was the Coyotes and Sabres, so far this year it's been the Blues and Lightning.
Wisely, hockey analysts evaluate the statistics and try to figure out what's changed.
Some stats inevitably get better when a team wins more puck battles (which can result from many things – a coach who offers up inspiring motivation, new players, confidence). A team's goals for will be higher, its goals against will be lower, and a few players will have much better individual stats. The pundits will quote shots for and against, see the improvements, and note that the defense has shored up and players are pulling the trigger more. The goaltender is probably doing better, too.
All those things have the ability to make incremental differences, there's no denying that. But often those numbers that are usually used to demonstrate why a team has gotten better have been enhanced by this smaller but important component.
When teams overachieve, it's often because they're simply turning 50/50 pucks into 60/40 pucks (or higher).
Photo by Getty Images
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