One of my favorite elements of hockey are the little nuances that can make or break a play: the quick eye shift to move a defenseman’s stick, the place where players cut their sticks, even the flex, kick points and lie of each stick.
I’m fully aware some people couldn’t care less about those kinds of things, but I love them. One of my favorite subtleties of the game is the handedness of players. At least once per game, I find myself saying, “Oh if he were a (left/right)-handed shot he probably would’ve buried that.” Heck, even Carter Hart decided to survey Team Switzerland during the World Junior Championship.
For Hart, the purpose of the routine is to keep his mind busy so that he isn’t focusing on the pressure, the stage or the stakes. When he was barely facing any rubber against Switzerland, for example, Hart said he tried to focus on something else. So he said he scanned the ice to find which hand Switzerland’s shooters were.
That brings us to today’s topic: handedness. One of my favorite examples of this is Shayne Gostisbehere’s first NHL point. Take a look.
I could watch that clip on an endless loop. Taking the pass on the backhand. Deking the defender into next week with his fancy footwork, and wiring a wrist shot on net.
Much has been made about Gostisbehere playing the left side. While he is more than talented enough to play the right side, his offensive game is best unleashed on the left point. When Ghost is on his forehand, he has the whole ice in front of him. He doesn’t have to create space – like he did in the play above – to get a shot off. It’s similar to Giroux on the halfwall during the power play. He’s there because he can utilize his vision and passing to set up his teammates for scoring chances. The same goes for Voracek on the other halfwall.
The game last week against the Islanders had several examples of handedness working in the Flyers’ favor. Let’s take a look at a few.
During this first highlight, you’ll see Michael Raffl set up Robert Hâgg for a shot. Both are left-handed, but Raffl is the key cog to this set up.
Defensemen are taught to force guys onto their backhand whenever they can. Even the best players in the world can’t dish or shoot with the same consistency on their backhand as their forehand. The point of forcing players to the backhand is to induce a low-risk play.
If Raffl is a right-handed shot, there’s a chance he cuts back up the wall and feeds Hagg for the shot, but it doesn’t have the same chance of success as it does on his forehand. There’s also the possibility of Raffl cutting behind the net and using it as an obstacle for the defender. The handedness of the forward creates several variables as to where the play can go.
Here’s a similar play from the game against the Buffalo Sabres.
This is a look on the power play that I would love to see the Flyers utilize more. One of the reasons it works so well is because Giroux is such a great passer. Another reason is the handedness of the shooter, in this case it’s Couturier. If Couturier is a right-handed shot, Giroux has to wait just a little longer to get him the puck on his forehand. In that short amount of time, the Sabres penalty killers may have been able to close the passing lane or have covered Couturier.
If Giroux was left-handed, it would open up a greater ability to shoot off the rush. He’d already be on his forehand and wouldn’t have to place the puck closer to the defender to get a shot off. A left-handed player would also likely have a greater probability to successfully pass to Konecny crashing the net.
The first thing that caught my eye on this play was Konecny, and not for any bad reasons. If Konecny was a lefty, he would have likely opened up his hips to prepare himself for a shot. While, yes, Konecny is on his forehand, he’s likely going to get a lot more velocity on the shot if he were a lefty.
I want to further this point just to illustrate how much handedness plays a factor in games. Here’s an example from the weekend game against the Blues.
See how Giroux turns his hips and looks for support? He does this nearly every time he enters the zone on left side. This time he spots Sean Couturier streaking down the right side. Giroux brushes the puck over, but Couturier has to open up his hips to receive the pass. (I’m almost certain Giroux placed the puck there on purpose.) Couturier gets off a good shot, but doesn’t score.
Now let’s fast forward to the second period when Couturier and Giroux came down during an odd-man rush.
This time, Giroux and Couturier are on their forehands, and it makes all the difference.
Giroux can sauce a perfect pass to Couturier on the forehand for the tap in goal.
Now let’s take a final look at a failed breakout by the Islanders.
This, in my opinion, is where handedness can really play an effect on the game. Team Canada made a huge deal over handedness when they built the 2014 Men’s Olympic hockey team, and I’m willing to bet it was to jumpstart the offense and prevent turnovers on defense. You’ll see an example below.
Ryan Pulock scoops up the puck and comes up the ice on his offhand. He’s marked by Nolan Patrick and is forced to attempt a breakout pass on his backhand. Wayne Simmonds picks up the loose puck and gets a shot on goal. No, it didn’t end up in the back of the net, but those kinds of plays add up. The more those plays happen, the greater the chance of the red light going on for the wrong team.
Coaches and players talk about the little details of the game all the time, and I’m certain that handedness comes into play at one point or another, especially when creating the lineups. Some fans and media members alike have noted the balance of left and right-handed shots in the Flyers’ system. That’s nothing to brush aside either. It may be a subtle nuance, but it can play a major role in the outcome of a game.
Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images