D-men now need quick feet, mind

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

MONTREAL -- When the NHL decided to embark on this new path to the offensive promised land, the first casualties at the side of the road were expected to be the goalies.

Poor guys.

New, smaller equipment.

Restrictions on where they could handle the puck.

Poor goalies: Smaller equipment; inflated stats.

Maybe, but the true victims so far, caught in the collateral damage of the NHL's new unobstructed path to offensive nirvana are the defencemen. How is a player like Senators defenceman Anton Volchenkov supposed to stop a guy like Montreal's Alexei Kovalev down low?

The answer last night is he doesn't. The principal weapons of the NHL defenceman, the hook with the stick and the grab with the free hand, have been eliminated.

So there is a harried Volchenkov scurrying after Kovalev behind the Montreal net, a step behind. Volchenkov perhaps pursues Kovalev too aggressively into the corner, Kovalev switches back on him and a pass is made in front. Montreal captain Saku Koivu makes it 1-0.

Said a scout: "These guys should go watch a good industrial league to learn how to play with these rules. Those guys are ex-junior players playing those non-body contact leagues where it's all about positioning, skating and having a quick stick."

One of the fears in the new NHL is the physical play that gives hockey a good part of its appeal will be diminished.

Put yourself in Volchenkov's skates for a minute: What is the higher percentage play? Go into the corner with Kovalev? Under the old rules, Volchenkov could have put the stick into him and wrapped him up.

Now? There's almost no way a defenceman wins against Kovalev coming out of the corner, so the smart play is to sit back, keep a cushion, and let him come to you while you block him out from coming to the net.

'YOU'RE BEAT'

"Now you're sort of in a zone coverage," said Senators defenceman Chris Phillips. "You want to put him in a position where he has to go through you so you don't take a penalty. As soon as you lose a step or he gets outside you, you're beat.

"Playing our position is a lot harder than it was."

Body position and fundamentals take on even added importance for defencemen.

"We're just going to have to work with them every day," said Senators coach Bryan Murray. "And we're going to have keep demanding that our forwards be in great (defensive) position."

The little things become bigger.

Near the end of the second period, Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson breaks in on Montreal defenceman Francis Bouillon -- 1-on-1.

"Bouillon takes a swipe at the puck with his stick and Alfredsson sees a chance," said the scout. "He brings the puck to Bouillon's feet and shoots it through his legs. If Bouillon just keeps his stick in front of him like you learn in minor hockey, Alfredsson can't make that play."

If the rules continue to be called this way, the qualities scouts look for in defenceman will be re-ordered.

"Already, it's changing what we look for in defencemen," said one NHL scout watching last night's game. "The two most important qualities now are quick feet," he said, and tapping his temple: "A quick mind."

Added another scout: "We were always looking for the guy who is 6-3, 6-4, but now if there isn't going to be the physical confrontations, what difference if the guy is 5-11?"

One other area where the defencemen are being hung out to dry: A forechecker cannot be held up any more so they are hurtling in there.

Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock made the point the other day defenceman are going to start letting the forward get in their first on purpose and turn the tables on them.

The defencemen need to take it out on somebody.


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