The Coyotes have been very interesting to watch this season. And for once, the interest isn't driven by the chaos that seems to envelop the organization.
They're 5-2 under new coach Dave Tippett. Where Tippett is system oriented, previous coach Wayne Gretzky preferred a more freeform coaching style . Or rather, "style."
One huge difference between the coaching philosophies is Tippett's use of defensemen in the offense. Defenseman Ed Jovanovski has three goals, where last season, under Gretzky, he finished with just nine.
If your defensemen aren’t involved ... I'm not talking about leading the rush, I’m talking about them finding opportunities to get people pucks at the net, on the power play they have to be involved, that’s the way it is right now.
It’s hard to score goals, and if you’re just going to rely on your forwards to score, you’re not going to get enough. So our defensemen, we’ve pushed them to make sure that they’re active in the offense, that they’re active on the offensive blue line but still defend very well.
More and more coaches are leaning on their defensemen to kick-in some offense. Over in New York, Michael Del Zotto has four goals, more than most of their forwards. And how much of Washington's march to the playoffs was driven by the work of defenseman Mike Green?
Tippett, and coaches like Tippett, have learned that goalies are just too big. You can't get anything past them—even while hanging out around the crease. The only players on the ice who can see daylight between the goalie and the net are the defensemen, who are behind the action. Smart coaches are capitalizing, telling their blue-liners it's OK to join the play. And they're seeing that active defensemen lead to wins.
Of course, the increasing importance of the offensive defenseman raises some interesting questions—like what happens when you lose one? The Penguins are going to be without Sergei Gonchar for six weeks as he rehabs a broken wrist. Last season, the Penguins were fine without Gonchar, while he suffered a dislocated shoulder, but the Penguins are losing an important offensive option that took a lot of pressure off of the forwards in the offensive zone.
Coaches around the league are trying to figure out ways to conquer these roving d-men. One thing I'm looking forward to is when coaches start keeping that third forward high in the defensive zone, waiting to turn a mishandled puck into a breakway. In fact, if this trend continues, the action will get further and further away from the net, until eventually players will be lined up along center ice, taking turns trying to score.
But until then, it's nice to see coaches thinking offense and not safety. It's nice to see players getting the green light to follow their instincts. And it's nice to see all of that paying off.