A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s skating. I compared his stride to that of Paul Byron, one of the best skaters in the NHL, in order to pinpoint what the Finnish centreman still has to improve in his form.
But Game 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers illustrated why skating is only part of the performance equation. Byron can easily outrace Kotkaniemi, yet it’s the younger of the two who ended up generating the most controlled zone entries against the Philadelphia Flyers — and by a wide margin.
Here are the individual Zone Entry stats for Habs' players from Game 1 vs PHI. pic.twitter.com/nsWB6c48od— Mikael Nahabedian (@hunterofstats) August 13, 2020
If we look at Mikael Nahabedian’s tracked stats — a great ressource in these playoffs — since the start of the qualifying round, the same trend continues. One might expect to see Byron drive transition play more than Kotkaniemi as the winger has the natural speed advantage, but the centreman has moved the puck across the offensive blue-line in controlled ways more effectively. In his attempts to do the same past the defensive blue line, Kotkaniemi has been more successful than his diminutive teammate.
In transition, skating habits and patterns, deception, and handling abilities are just as important, if not moreso, than speed, acceleration, and agility. A player who comes in on the right path, at the right speed, and manipulates defenders by altering those two variables will have a much better chance at breaking through a set defensive trap than one who sprints straight ahead to try and slip through it.
In other words, Kotkaniemi surpasses Byron in the mental aspect of skating and transition play, which is why he managed to find a trail through the Flyers’ defence on Wednesday.
Let’s take a look at a few zone entries from Kotkaniemi. In the first one, the centreman skates inside space in the wide lane. Jonathan Drouin glides in his direction, likely expecting a dump-in, but Kotkaniemi keeps a deceptive stance with the puck. He shuffles it while looking cross-ice and slows down, giving the impression that he will, in fact, rim the disc down the zone.
But the down-shift and the look-off were a ploy to maintain a wide gap with the defender and get the necessary space to enter the zone. As soon as he did, Kotkaniemi accelerated down the wall and forced the defender to pivot to match his course. As soon as the opponent lunged for the puck, the forward initiated a cut-back.
This is where his skating failed him, however, as his lack of knee-bend prior to a hard brake prevented him from completing the manoeuvre. Kotkaniemi fell down and lost the puck. Fortunately, it made its way to Brett Kulak at the point.
In this sequence, the centreman didn’t have much of a choice of skating routes. The Flyers had locked the middle of the ice and Drouin forced a wide lane entry by coming to meet his centreman, surrounding the pair with defenders. Still, Kotkaniemi ended up creating an entry with deception and a change of speed.
In the second clip, Kotkaniemi receives the puck in the wide lane. There, he has the necessary open ice to change corridors. He sees Joel Armia driving mid-ice and decides to enter from that point, as he knows that the momentum of his teammate will push back the defenders slightly. Kotkaniemi cuts across the surface and sneaks the puck inside the blue line. By opening up his stance and shifting his weight on the heel of his right skate, he freezes the nearest defenders and manoeuvres around him. The sequence ends with a spin-pass from the centreman toward Drouin coming off the bench.
In this play, Kotkaniemi picked the best possible path to enter the zone by reading the movement of his teammate. He slowed down and let the backward momentum of the defenders create the necessary space to slip across the blue-line, and then used his superior handling ability to evade opponents.
Even if he can attack at double the speed, Byron lacks the rush instincts of Kotkaniemi. Below, he gets the puck with space in the middle of the ice, but he doesn’t use that space. Instead of picking up speed and attracting defenders to himself or changing lanes and displacing the defensive trap, instead of creating a mini two-on-one with Phillip Danault on his wing, Byron passes the puck early to his teammate, placing him in a difficult position as defenders have time to adjust and counter the entry attempt.
Byron then gets the puck back in a position where he could make use of skating. By down-shifting, faking a turn, and then accelerating the other way, he could free himself to attack up ice, but he defers. He makes a drop-pass to his defenceman that doesn’t contribute to advancing the play.
Lastly, when Artturi Lehkonen receives a pass in the middle, Byron, instead of exploiting to the open wide lane to enter the zone, skates right to his teammate. Lehkonen is forced to dangle him to keep possession.
Byron possesses other strengths in transition that make up for his lack of rush creativity or manipulation. For example, he’s particularly useful as a stretch forward in breakout situations. However, as Kotkaniemi grows and develops, it’s likely that he ends up a consistently better rushing threat than Byron, despite the gap in skating between the two players. That’s not only because the young centerman will close that gap slightly by continuing to add strength, but because once he puts all his skills together, his ability to pick the best route, to change speed, to hide his play, and to manipulate defenders will allow him to move the puck from zone to zone more effectively.
When he won’t be able to carry the puck up-ice himself, creative passes like the one below should allow him to still contribute to controlled zone exits and entries.