Whenever the Colorado Avalanche have trouble scoring, pundits start advising the young stars to KISS — keep it simple, stupid. Ok, no one calls them stupid, and it’s not just pundits but coaches and fellow players.
However, I wonder, is advising exciting young players such as Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon to play basic hockey really the best use of their talents? Isn’t that a little like advising a world-renowned plastic surgeon to use small stitches? Of course she’s going to do so — along with the other 1,000 techniques that make her great.
And of course Duchene and MacKinnon are going to play basic hockey — it’s in there with all their deking, dangling and just plain exciting play.
Nathan MacKinnon is one of the speediest forwards in the NHL. He can also dangle. Remember when he broke a couple Minnesota Wild players’ ankles in the 2014 playoffs? No? Here it is:
Matt Duchene, of course, is famous for both his spin-o-rama behind the net and his breakaways. Matt Duchene on a breakaway is a beautiful sight to see:
However, according the Avalanche color analystPeter McNab
b, most goals in the NHL these days are scored on rebounds or just banging the puck in rather than pretty plays. It makes sense in a way. If players become too enamored of their play, they might fail to notice a bang-in shot. Or they might not bother taking it.
I’m not going to lie — that doesn’t sit perfectly well with me.
Every hockey player at the NHL level can skate above proficiently. He can maneuver the puck with his stick. He can consistently shoot the puck at the net. All NHL players can do these things in game-time situations — you don’t get to the NHL without doing a lot of those things in games.
What separates the elite players is they can do those things at an exceedingly high level against NHL-level opponents.
So, while both Matt Duchene and Patrick Bordeleau can skate, dangle and shoot, only Duchene can do so beautifully against NHL opponents. (Trust me that Bordeleau can do it — I’ve watched him alone in practice.)
That means that, for 99% of the players in the NHL — or at least 90% anyway — keeping it simple means he’s less likely to turn the puck over or trumpet what his play is with his body language.
For players of MacKinnon’s and Duchene’s caliber, isn’t that different, though?
Goalies and defensemen keep getting better and better. It’s unlikely the great Gordie Howe would have been able to score regularly against the likes of Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur in their heyday. Wayne Gretzky himself may have found it difficult to score all of his 894 goals in this low-scoring NHL.
The technology has gotten better and better. I don’t know if any NHL teams implement it, but it’s possible to have real-time tablets at every locker stall so players can watch film of what just happened in the previous period. Padding has changed, and so have players’ attitudes towards their fitness and training.
The players in the NHL of today are the fittest athletes with the most information possible.
That’s where creativity comes into play. For a third or fourth liner, it’s enough for him to take his skill and knowledge and make the ugly plays. If he tries a spin-o-rama or a toe-drag, opponents are going to be able to defend him. Much better he stick to simple plays.
Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon are hockey artists. The skill and knowledge is deeply ingrained in them. They see the game in a way that’s different from 90% of the NHLers — and 99.9999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% of any hockey player. And 100% differently from viewers.
Coupled with this different vision is their innate ability to play the puck numerous ways. They have it in them to deke, to dangle, to toe-drag with the best of them. It’s not that they don’t want to bang the puck in — it’s almost as if it’s against their very make up.
During the off-season, I wrote a post about the top six ugly goals by the Colorado Avalanche. Matt Duchene almost didn’t make the cut because the majority of his 21 goals were Just So Pretty. (He finally made it in because he banked a shot off of former teammate Paul Stastny, and I like the poetry of that goal.)
It’s not as if Duchene wasn’t shooting the puck — he was second only to Gabriel Landeskog on the team for shots on net. It’s just innate for him to score pretty goals.
MacKinnon is the same way. Right now he seems to be working on perfecting his wraparound. His one goal of the season thus far was a backhand that most players could barely get on net, much less into it.
So, does it make sense suggest Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon go against their very nature and attempt ugly goals? Well, obviously they should go for it if the situation presents itself. However, I suspect either one of them can make it look pretty in the end.
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