On October 6, after a 10-1 drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan asked for more physicality from his players.
Physical play has been a point of contention for years in Pittsburgh as superstar veterans Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and especially Sidney Crosby have been the victims of some “liberties” dished out by opposing players who have little retribution to fear based on the Penguins roster.
Fans haven’t quite been satisfied with the contributions of protection players such as Tom Sestito, and the addition of Ryan Reaves for the 2017-18 season opens the conversation even wider. Although Reaves has been pretty good so far, the Penguins won two Stanley Cups in a row and counting with those types of players contributing minute bit parts on the journey.
So if that isn’t the kind of toughness the Penguins rely on, what kind of physicality is Sullivan asking for? Substituting the word “physicality” with the words “compete” and “body position” might give you the answer.
The game against Chicago really wasn’t that bad as far as the Penguins creating their own chances and having the puck. The Blackhawks just simply weren’t slowed down at all by any sort of physical contact. I don’t mean hitting. I mean body positioning.
Someone like Carl Hagelin seems lost so far. It’s because he’s not engaging. To create separation from an opponent, you first have to come together. That’s why in every foot race as a kid someone would always jokingly push off the person you’re racing against. It’s why basketball and soccer players post up, leaning into the opponent with their back. It helps you control where your opponent can move, and what your opponent can reach with the hands or stick.
It’s why football quarterbacks want their top receivers in one on one coverage so they can battle for position and control the defender. The quarterback always gets the credit for putting the ball “where only the receiver could get it”, but that magic spot the defender can’t reach is only created by the positioning and desire of the receiver to keep that defender away from that spot.
We always think of using your body and being physical on the defensive side of the puck. This tweet I put out a while ago is a great example of an NHL defenseman doing everything right with physicality, not in terms of hitting but just by pure compete and positioning:
But this kind of physicality is just as important on offense. Watch Partic Hornqvist‘s recent goal against the Florida Panthers:
One notable thing about Conor Sheary is how he reminds me of Crosby. It’s not his hands or his moves. It’s his strength. It’s how he keeps low and fends off anyone trying to get in his way. He craves the feeling of someone on him so he can win the battle and explode away. Crosby is famous for fending off players riding his back, using his body positioning and lower body strength to make even the best checkers look like they need to hit the gym. But if he didn’t engage in the physicality with them, he wouldn’t be able to use his strength to his advantage. What’s the point of being the strongest lower body player in the game if you never engage?
To demonstrate the point, here’s a video shot by John Moore of some Nova Scotian NHLers practicing in Halifax during the off season. James Sheppard, Zack Sill, Brad Marchand, and Crosby are all working on puck protection. Notice how little body checking there is. It’s just brute strength and intelligent body placement. The most important detail in this video is this: notice how not one single battle is won until one of these players pushes off the other and explodes away. Spoiler alert: it’s not the guy without the puck that does this in most cases. It’s the guy WITH the puck.
This is the physicality Mike Sullivan needs on both offense and “defense”.