Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville searches for elusive third man in shootouts
SAN JOSE, Calif. — With a rivalry game and a crucial point in the standings riding on one shot, one breakaway opportunity, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville could have sent Marian Hossa, one of the world’s most talented offensive players, over the boards for the fourth round of the shootout at Vancouver on Friday night. Or he could have picked Viktor Stalberg, who scored 22 goals last season. Or Brandon Saad, or Michael Frolik, or any number of guys with offensive pedigrees.
But Quenneville chose Nick Leddy, a defenseman with eight career goals in 137 games.
“To be honest, I was pretty surprised, too,” Leddy said.
Leddy rang one off the outside of the pipe — unable to match the goal just scored by his former University of Minnesota teammate Jordan Schroeder, a similarly unlikely choice by Canucks coach Alain Vigneault — and the Hawks missed out on that second point. But nobody on the Hawks’ bench questioned the decision.
“He scores pretty much every time in practice,” teammate Patrick Kane said.
The shootout is a strange, inexplicable and downright fluky aspect of the modern NHL. And never has it meant so much, with every point carrying so much weight in the compressed, 48-game post-lockout schedule. The Hawks hardly practice at all these days. But when they do, the shootout’s often a part of it. It’s just that important.
“It’s going to come down to it,” Viktor Stalberg said. “A couple of playoff spots are going to come down to shootout points, for sure.”
It’s an awful lot of significance to attach to an awfully quirky part of the game. Few teams have the skill depth that the Hawks do, yet Quenneville has been searching for years for a third shooter to follow Jonathan Toews and Kane, two of the more prolific shootout artists in league history. Toews scores at a 48.9 percent clip (23-of-47), while Kane — who beat the Flames with the lone goal in the shootout on Saturday — scores at a 41.4 percent rate (24-of-58).
Hossa, meanwhile, is just 14-of-44 (31.8 percent) in his career. Patrick Sharp is a mere 8-of-41 (19.5 percent). Stalberg is 2-of-7, Frolik is 2-of-13. Defenseman Brent Seabrook, meanwhile, is perfect — 1-of-1.
Through Sunday’s games, NHL shooters scored only 34.3 percent of the time this season (21-of-61).
“There’s a lot of fourth-line guys that are really good at shootouts, and there’s a lot of top-line guys that aren’t good on shootouts,” said Dave Bolland, who’s 1-of-9 in his career but who “would love” to get back in the mix and who likely will return to the lineup Tuesday against the San Jose Sharks after suffering a “bad bruise” at Vancouver. “It’s just a weird thing.”
Everyone approaches it differently, too. Kane — famous for slowing down and using his incomparable hands to deke the goalie more than a dozen times in seconds — likes to have a move in his head, and see if the goalie lets him make it. Sometimes, like against Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff — against whom he chose not to slow it down, just to keep the rest of the league on its toes — it works. Other times, he has to improvise.
“Going second, I get to see what Johnny does and I’ll read off the replay what the goalie does,” Kane said. “I saw he poke-checked on Johnny, so I thought I’d be able to pull it after a move and slide it between his legs. It ended up working out.”
Kane cited his slowdown shootout goal against Minnesota last season — and a similar YouTube sensation goal he scored in Switzerland during the lockout — as his all-time favorites. The goal is simply to beat the goalie, but he admitted that if he can leave his teammates and fan in awe with a jaw-dropping move, all the better.
Of course, most players can’t do what Kane can do. Bolland doesn’t have a go-to move. Stalberg likes to come in fast and take a wrister. Leddy rears back and fires away, usually glove side.
“My hands don’t move that quick, like Kaner’s,” Leddy said. “With his hands, he can do that. With mine, I just stick to shooting.”
Coaches and players spend a lot of time watching video of their own shootout attempts, as well as those of opposing goalies. They look for tendencies to exploit — does he go low too early, is he weak on the glove side, does he struggle moving laterally, etc.
Then again, sometimes it’s better to leave the faceoff dot with a clear head, and do what comes naturally.
“You probably get a little bit of overload,” Bolland said. “You maybe get too much in your head and you might screw up. Could be a little too much information.”
So Quenneville will keep searching for that third guy, basing his picks off the most recent practice, off goaltender matchups, off hunches and feels. Sometimes even as a reward for a strong game. Saad was third on his list at Calgary, if it came to that. Hossa — 0-for-6 over the last two seasons — is likely to get another crack at it, too.
And yes, occasionally guys like Leddy will get a shot, too. The shootouts are too frequent, the points too important, to leave any option unconsidered.
“It’s a fun part of the game for the fans and for us,” Stalberg said. “We like watching what guys like Kaner can do with the puck as much as anyone. People think it’s really easy to score on a breakaway. But it’s really not.”