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Chicago Sun Times
Chicago Sun-Times
21 Oct 2023

NextImg:How Blackhawks defensemen work on moving puck safely, quickly in transition

Before every game, young Blackhawks defenseman Alex Vlasic carefully studies the team-prepared info sheets that break down the forechecking system used by that night’s opponent.

Does the opponent run a “one-hard” or “two-hard” forecheck? Does their forecheck have a second layer behind the one or two men who pressure first? What kind of trap do they set up in the neutral zone? The better Vlasic understands the answers to those questions, the better sense he’ll have of what he should do in every situation during the game.

With three rookies — Vlasic, Kevin Korchinski and Wyatt Kaiser — in the defensive corps, the Hawks have spent a lot of time practicing not only their defensive coverage (in their box-plus-one coverage scheme) but also moving the puck. After all, defensive stops don’t matter much if the Hawks fail to exit the zone safely and with puck possession.

Coach Luke Richardson and assistant coach Kevin Dean have emphasized a few key points, including instinctively knowing what play to make in any given situation and then making that play swiftly.

“[Sometimes our defensemen] make a move one-on-one, but they’re not sure what they’re going to do after [that] and then it closes back in on them,” Richardson said. “In this league, you have to have your first and second play in your pocket. If you don’t, you need your airmail or off-the-glass [clearance] into the neutral zone as a backup.”

Richardson and Dean have also stressed the importance of staying on one’s forehand whenever possible, since backhand passes are often slower, less accurate and easier to intercept.

Throughout camp and regular season so far, the Hawks’ defense has indeed looked better at transitioning the puck than they did last season.

Those three rookies’ high-end skating ability certainly helps. Veteran defenseman Connor Murphy has seen how their speed simplifies the entire process of retrieving dump-ins, gathering control and getting the puck out across the blue line.

“The biggest thing is motion,” Murphy said. “If you’re moving, you’re getting to a puck quicker and you’re giving yourself extra time and space to be able to look and find a play.

“A lot of times, there’s not really a play open right away. The challenge for us is sometimes we [start] looking, wanting a play to be there, and we get stationary. To move your feet a little bit, to open up some passing lanes, is important.”

Fellow veteran Seth Jones has given the rookies similar advice about the importance of fast decision-making and sending the puck vertically rather than horizontally whenever under duress.

Passive passes to one’s defensive partner are occasionally necessary, but they often don’t accomplish much. During camp, Jones mentioned a funny mantra he first heard as a rookie: “‘D’ to ‘D’ to ‘D’ to out of the playoffs.”

“There’s a lot of guys that can stick-lift you from behind, and they’re never out of a play,” Jones said more recently. “The quicker you move it, you don’t get caught with the puck.”

In Vlasic’s case, the aforementioned lessons all came together beautifully last week when setting up Corey Perry’s breakaway goal against the Maple Leafs.

After gathering the puck behind the Hawks’ net, Vlasic’s first idea was to bank it off the glass and simply relieve pressure. But when he saw a Leafs defenseman pinch down the wall in anticipation of him doing so, he decided to attempt a “a Hail Mary saucer pass” down the middle that hit Perry in stride.

Vlasic admitted he probably wouldn’t have had the confidence or savviness to try that in previous seasons. But now he does.

“Something I’m working on is finding the opportunities that I can move it up quickly and [identifying] other opportunities it’s best to hold onto it,” he said.