Blocking It Out
For the Thrashers, blocking shots is a case of mind over matter.
The blocked shot isn't the most glamorous of statistical categories.
The stat is so short on panache that it wasn't even kept until the 1998-99 season, and wasn't kept officially at all during the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons.
|Ron Hainsey blocks a shot at the side of the net versus Montreal.|
Think about it. These guys voluntarily stand or maneuver to get in front of a hard-rubber puck, which routinely travels at 100 miles per hour — Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara recently hit a record 105.9 MPH slapshot at All-Star Weekend and Thrashers defenseman Dustin Byfuglien wasn't far behind at 102.4 MPH — without the benefit of the approximately 30 pounds of equipment that a goaltender wears. Someone who does that has to be committed — or certainly should be.
Atlanta Thrashers Head Coach Craig Ramsay agrees — about players BEING committed, not needing to be. His certainly are.
Through Tuesday night's games the Thrashers are fourth in the League with 443 blocked shots and have four players in the League's top 20 — Brent Sopel is sixth with 125, Ron Hainsey is seventh with 122, johnny Oduya is 13th with 100, and Toby Enstrom is tied for 16th with 107. The Thrashers are the only team in the NHL with more than two players in the top 20 in blocked shots, never mind four players.
"First and foremost [shot-blocking] takes courage and a type of willingness to step in front because it hurts," said Ramsay, who stood in front of plenty of heavy shooters in his 14 years with the Buffalo Sabres. "Secondly, it's anticipation, where a puck is going and what [the shooter's] going to do with it so that you have the correct angle, that you're actually in the shooting lane. You have to keep so many things on your mind. You have to be in a passing seam but a shooting lane. Then you've got to step out and do it. I think once you do it and you find out that it's not life-threatening, it becomes easier and easier to get that job done."
You'd think that players having so many things on their mind would be a good thing, as it would keep them from thinking about what they're actually doing when moving in front of a blast from the point. You would be wrong.
This is not only an act of bravery. It is thought out with a method to the perceived madness.
"You have to want to do it. You have to want to get hurt," said Sopel. "It's all positional. You have to know where you are, you have to know where the net is, you have to know what's around you. It's read and react."
"I think it's something that you think about," agreed defenseman Johnny Oduya, who had an impressive eight blocked shots on Dec. 30 against Boston. "It's something that you want to do and then it kind of depends on the situation. But at times you try not to throw yourself at pucks, just be in lanes. It's something we're working on."
And shot-blocking really is something that can be worked on as a learned skill.
"You can improve it for sure. You can get better at it," said Ramsay, who called Jim Schoenfeld, Mike Ramsey and Bill Hajt among the best he played with. "It is about anticipation. We talk about where the puck is going so that you're in position to do it. If you get committed to locking on to someone then you're not going to be ready to block a shot. You have to understand the nuances of what's going on in your end so that you're in position to step out and block it.
"It's hard to practice," he continued. "Teams have tried with soft pucks. they've tried with a lot of things. I believe it's seeing how good shot-blockers do it, how good players do it, watching them, learning from them, watching video, seeing where guys were when they blocked it, how they put themselves out there and when it comes down to, that's just up to your courage level."
"Obviously, you don't just sit there and block shots," said Sopel, who calls former Vancouver teammate Murray Baron the best he played with. "You have to know your surroundings. You can work on your reacting in certain situations and reading the plays."
Shot-blocking is not just a defenseman thing. Forwards can, and do get involve. Right wing Chris Thorburn admits he's improved his shot-blocking by watching.
"I've learned from guys on the team, Sopel, even from coach, because there's obviously a technique to do that," said Thorburn, who leads Atlanta's forwards, is second among NHL right wings and is 9th among all NHL forwards with 50 blocks. "Just how to go down and block a shot, how to protect yourself. I try to be in the least vulnerable position to get hit by the puck. then there's the equipment aspects to it- sneaky parts like where to put extra padding and stuff like that. I've taken a lot from them as far as how to do it, what to wear and it's been working out well.
|Forward Chris Thorburn shows off his shot-blocking technique.|
"Not that you can completely protect yourself," he added, with a laugh. "There are areas that will always be left vulnerable, like the top of the knees, the side of the knee, in between your elbow pad and your shoulder pad, there's a crease there where there's no padding. So just little areas where the puck seems to find it. They're annoying injuries. Every time you think you have a lot of gear on, but the puck is small and it seems to find a piece of meat."
Of course, even areas that are protected don't guarantee complete safety. Enstrom had to pass on All-Star Weekend and has missed six games since a shot broke his finger.
But that's the risk you take. In Enstrom's case, it's an occupational hazard. For what it's worth, putting limbs and unprotected areas on the line have the gratitude of the goalie, you know, the guy who DOES have the equipment.
"I feel really comfortable playing behind those guys," said goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. "You know every night they're going to put a great effort in. They're going to play hard every shift. They help me a lot with the blocked shots. It's every single game we get a lot of blocked shots. I get a lot of great help from the guys."
And even though if there is the occasional wacky re-direction, Pavelec would never discourage his defensemen from getting in front of a shot.
"Absolutely not," said Pavelec. "When they decide to block the shot. If they try to block a shot and they don't, it's my job to stop the puck. Sometimes it goes a different way than you'd want. That's hockey. So it's hard to say, 'Don't block the shots.' They try so hard and Most of the time the guys do a great job and block a lot of shots."
Ramsay encourages his skaters as well.
"We're looking for guys that put themselves on the line," he said. "Desperation, that's become our new word, I guess. If we're going to be successful it's because we're desperate to get that job done. This is saying to the team, 'I'm willing to put myself on the line.' It's about being up, stand up and making kick saves. It hurts but it's worth it."