Take Your Eye Off the Puck: How to Watch Hockey By Knowing Where to Look

Take Your Eye Off the Puck: How to Watch Hockey By Knowing Where to Look

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A guide for sports fans on how to watch and appreciate the game of hockey.

More and more fans are watching the NHL each week, but many of them don't know exactly what they should be watching. How does an offense create shooting lanes for its best sniper? When a center breaks through and splits between two defensemen, which defender is to blame? Why does a goalie look like a Hall of Famer one week and a candidate for the minor leagues the next? This guide for sports fans on how to watch and appreciate the game of hockey takes you inside a coach's mind as he builds a roster or constructs a game plan, to the chaos of the goalie's crease, and deep into the perpetual chess match between offense and defense. Discussing topics such as what to look for when a team goes on the power play and why playing center might be the most grueling job in sports, Take Your Eye Off the Puck shows fans how to get the most out of watching their favorite sport.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781977354105
Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date: 08/14/2018
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Greg Wyshynski is the editor of the popular Puck Daddy blog on Yahoo! Sports. He is an award-winning sportswriter and columnist who specializes in blending humor with insight in covering professional, collegiate, and amateur sports. He is the author of Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History.

Barry Abrams has narrated and produced audiobooks for a variety of publishers. Since 2012, he has also hosted and produced ESPN's In the Gate podcast. Based in Danbury, Connecticut, Barry engineers and calls live webcasts of his son's ice hockey games.

Read an Excerpt

Take Your Eye Off the Puck

How to Watch Hockey by Knowing Where to Look

By Greg Wyshynski

Triumph Books

Copyright © 2015 Greg Wyshynski
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63319-288-1


What the Heck Is Going on out There?

You know what I love about hockey? The speed.

Not just the speed of the skaters, who can glide as fast as 30 mph for the fastest of them. It's the movement of 10 bodies on the ice, the ones coming off the bench, the chasing of the puck to all corners of the rink, and how it all resets in an instant depending on who earns possession, like birds flying in formation.

Baseball, by comparison? Like watching a slug crawl across flypaper. Basketball, by comparison? Like watching a hockey game made up of 250 24-second power plays and penalty kills ... except you only have to watch the last four minutes of each game to feel fulfilled. Football, by comparison? Physicality, frequent changing of personnel ... but a game flow that resembles a clogged ketchup nozzle.

Anyone who has watched a hockey game with two teams trading chances for several minutes knows what's up: there's nothing that approaches the velocity, synchronicity, and unpredictability of the sport. It's controlled chaos at times, machine-like precision at others.

This is something that you can only experience in the arena. (Or the stadium, depending on how much cash the NHL decides on grabbing in a given season with its outdoor games.) Television, given the current tech and its limitations, can't convey everything that makes live hockey so exhilarating.

Case in point: they never have to make the puck glow in the arena so you can locate it. Or give it a comet tail.

For years, I've proffered the theory that there aren't "people who don't like hockey," but rather people who have yet to let the light of hockey into their hearts. And the best way to bring these heathens to our religion of choice is to get them to one of our frozen temples and watch a game live.

But once they get there, they might ask: what the heck is going on?


For decades, the basic setup of a team's forward group has remained static. You have:

The First Line — This is home to your best offensive skill players, the group that's supposed to give opponents fits. Stars, captains, creatures of ego. Usually a Canadian or two. (18-21 minutes in time on ice)

The Second Line — Also home to dynamic offensive players, but frequently ones who can play well defensively, too. Coaches won't hesitate to go power vs. power by putting this group out against another team's top line, because this can be where the team's best defensive center can be found, such as Boston's Patrice Bergeron. It's called the "Second Line" in honor of the time it takes for fans to argue that it's actually the first line based on the stats. (18-21 minutes in time on ice)

The Third Line — This is the traditional "checking line," playing against one of the opponent's top two lines. Here is where you'll find centers who are faceoff specialists and wingers who grind like Miley Cyrus — one of whom is usually a solid scorer who doesn't fit into the top six, but picks up the trash left behind by his tenacious linemates. (14-17 minutes in time on ice)

The Fourth Line — Your home for muckers, meatheads, and misanthropes. This is the "energy line" that features checking pests and brawlers, whose task is to cry havoc, let slip the dogs of war, and collect penalty minutes. But for all the circus music they can orchestrate, a strong fourth line can frequently be an X-factor in a given playoff series. (6-11 minutes of ice time)

Teams roll three defensive pairings, which stack up thusly:

The First Pairing — Your best two-way, stud defenseman, capable of eating up minutes, shutting down foes, and contributing to the offense. Sometimes paired with the team's second-best defenseman; more often paired with a defenseman who makes up for his shortcomings, e.g., a stay-at-home player to help the offensively active star defenseman. (22-26 minutes of ice time)

The Second Pairing — Your next-best defensemen. Perhaps home to that offensive whiz who isn't quite "first pairing" solid on the defensive front. Perhaps home to two depth defensemen who have better shut-down credentials than the top pairing. Regardless, like the big dogs, they see special teams time, too. (19-22 minutes of ice time)

The Third Pairing — Usually a pairing with some glaring deficiency, like size, skating ability, or a lack of experience. The fifth defenseman leads an exciting life, because he might have a new friend every other night, depending on the coach's decisions. Things you'll hear about them: "Well, of course they scored against the third pairing" or "Great effort, despite being the third pairing." (15-18 minutes of ice time) Now, how do we arrive at the different combinations of players at forward and on defense?

Sometimes it'll come down to handedness. If a forward group has a dynamic right winger, it might look to pair a left-handed center with him because it's naturally easier for him to get that winger the puck. Ditto a right-handed center and a left winger, although it should be said that right-handed centers are rarer in the league. Of the top 60 centers in the 2013–14 season, only 21 were right-handed.

On defense, handedness is much more of a factor in creating pairings. Defensemen who play in an off-hand position — a right-handed defenseman playing left defense, for example — face a number of challenges in adjustment, from keeping the puck in the zone to effectively passing to their defensive partners.

For that reason, teams will specifically trade for a defenseman who is left-handed if they have a surplus of righties, and vice versa. One of the reasons the St. Louis Blues acquired Jay Bouwmeester in 2013, for example, was because he was a top-pairing lefty. They did it again after the following season in acquiring Carl Gunnarsson for Roman Polak. "As I say, to get a left-handed defenseman, you rob Peter to pay Paul. We have to give up a right-handed defenseman and a quality person," said Blues GM Doug Armstrong.

Robbing Peter! That's how important a left-handed defenseman is.

But most of the time, the combinations at forward and on defense have everything to do with time-tested chemistry. Some players' styles just mesh, whether it's a winger who can dig the puck to a sniping center or a small playmaking pivot whose hulking winger protects him; or, on defense, if a puck-moving defender is allowed to freelance thanks to his rock-solid pylon, er, "defensive defenseman," who is responsible in his own zone.

(Or if the average-to-mediocre center is friends off the ice with Phil Kessel. That too.)

Most coaches in the NHL design their forward groups by twos: pairing two players who have solid chemistry, usually a center and a winger, and then adding whatever type of player might best help them excel. For years, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz had such chemistry, as the former's playmaking ability combined well with the latter's speed and ability to generate offense off the rush. To round out their line, the Pittsburgh Penguins would match them with a big-bodied grinder like Pascal Dupuis, who could create space for both of them.

And a trio like that will stay together through thick and thin. Unless, of course, they're coached by Michel Therrien, in which case their line will be broken up if they go scoreless on, like, two straight shifts.


NHL rules mandate that the players' bench must be 24 feet long and be able to accommodate 14 players, with protective glass tall enough to separate the animals from the zoo patrons. They also mandate that the doors to the players' bench must "swing inward" rather than out into the path of speeding players, and the fact this needs to be stated in the official rulebook is glorious validation of hockey's traditional disregard for knee ligaments.

Provided you're not watching a superhuman freak like Erik Karlsson or Alex Ovechkin, the average shift of an NHL skater is going to last between 45 and 50 seconds. A top-pairing NHL defenseman plays between 26 and 30 shifts per night, while a top-line NHL forward will have between 23 and 26 shifts per game, with the acknowledgement that some trend higher or lower.

All of this is to say that the bench area sees more action than a subway turnstile, only with slightly fewer weirdos.

Players have to be within five feet of the bench, and not engaged in the play when changing, before a teammate can hop on to replace him, or else they run the risk of earning a "too many men on the ice" penalty — provided the officials actually see it. (But of course we all do, when a TV analyst inevitably circles six or seven players on his monitor to shame the refs.)

Keep in mind that if a puck hits either player making a change accidentally, it's not a penalty. That's a very common misconception, especially for fans at the game screaming bloody murder over a rule they've never read.

Also important: the NHL rulebook actually states that a player has to change at the bench and use "no other exit." A darn shame for the home team, which should totally be allowed to use the Zamboni door to get off the ice during exhausting penalty kills. Let's make home-ice advantage an actual advantage beyond raucous fans and familiar bedding.

Head coaches typically manage the forwards. You'll see him tap a few players on the shoulders, getting them ready for their next shift, and then have another line on deck. When there's a chance for a change — if a team controls the puck or has it deep into the opposition's zone — there's a replacement for each player who leaves the ice. Center for center, wingers for wingers, each player immediately knowing his role for the next shift. Frequently, the players will call out each other's names so both know who is replacing whom.

Working in concert with the head coach is an assistant coach in charge of changing the defense. Sometimes, the defense pairings will be influenced by the forwards being sent out, e.g., having the top pairing playing with the top offensive line. And sometimes the pairings will be determined by whom the opponents put over the boards, as you always want your best shutdown defenseman to face the other team's top line, and have that D-man frequently paired with a team's best checking line.

Here's where things can get a little O.C.D. for coaches: line matching.

"I never liked playing for those coaches. Kind of annoying," recalled former NHL winger turned broadcaster Mike Johnson.

A coach will set up the next three lines after the one that's on the ice. But then, seeing what the other team puts out on the fly, he'll tell players at the very last second that it's their turn to hit the ice, even if they're not the next line in the rotation. That's because the opposing coach has done something — put out his top line, put out his bruising fourth line — to influence the line match.

For some coaches, this is the perfect system through which to defeat an opponent. For most observers, it's a handy way to unbalance your players' ice time to their detriment. Because in a league where the margins of victory are this slim, stapling the hindquarters of offensive players to the bench in lieu of overplaying a checking line is an express train to second-guessing.


So that's what happens at the benches. But once the lines are deployed, there are a few things to keep an eye on as you watch the game, in the arena or on TV. We'll expand on some of these in later chapters, but for now:

Time on Ice

In general, the average shift length for an NHL player is around 45 seconds; it was 44.24 in the 2013–14 season. This stands in contrast with shift lengths even a decade ago, which were 7 percent longer, according to the blog Arctic Ice Hockey. Go back to the free-wheeling 1980s, and the shift length was upwards of 60 seconds. But fret not about the players' health — being that it was the 1980s, their bodies weren't taxed with playing any defense.

That's one of the keys for players: how much heavy lifting are they doing on each shift? The Detroit Red Wings would attempt to keep players like Henrik Zetterberg at around 40-second shifts in order to maintain their stamina for later in the game.

Keep an eye on which players have been out there the longest, but also what they've been doing: a defensive player running around in his own zone as an offense passes the puck around is going to be gassed at some point. If nothing else, you'll appreciate when a defensive player makes a Herculean effort to clear the puck before gliding over to the bench, winded.

As for those forwards who remain on the ice for too long, we'll pass the mic to venerable blogger Tyler Dellow:

"Being on the ice after a minute is sort of like being in a bar after 1:00 am — there's no guarantee that something bad will happen, it's possible that something good will happen, but the odds are slanted heavily in favor of something bad."

The Star Chamber

Hockey isn't like basketball, where you see stars going head-to-head off the dribble. The Crosby vs. Ovechkin banner headlines on NHL.com are fun and all, but if you tallied up the time the two are actually on the ice together, it's roughly smaller than the Wicked Witch of the East's screen time before Dorothy dropped a house on her.

Instead, watch how teams decide to defend players like Ovechkin and Crosby. Which defensive pairings they throw out there on the reg. Which forwards are assigned to shadow them. And then watch the star player's line changes, and what sort of matchups his coach is trying to secure. How many shifts begin in the offensive zone? How many are in the defensive zone?

When Crosby faces the Montreal Canadiens, they make sure both center Tomas Plekanec and defenseman P.K. Subban are shadowing him. When Crosby plays the New York Rangers, they simply want to get defenseman Marc Staal to defend against him. And by "defend" we mean "vigorously cross-check him in the back of the head without any repercussions."

As we mentioned earlier, it's a chess match within the game for many coaches, and the star players are the kings among pawns.

Zone Starts

One of the great innovations in advanced stats is tracking zone starts, which tell us plenty about how a team uses a player, and the confidence that player has earned.

The offensive zone is where you'll glean the most.

Rookies, for example, are often protected with a large amount of starts in the attacking zone, mostly because the defensive side of the game has a hell of a learning curve in the NHL but also to maximize their offensive chances and bolster their confidence. In the 2014–15 season, David Pastrnak was an 18-year-old rookie sensation for the Boston Bruins, scoring 27 points in 46 games. The percentage of his shifts that began in the offensive zone: 47.4 percent, the highest for any player with at least 300 minutes played.

The same protection can be found for some defensemen who are either dynamic offensively or struggle a bit in their own end. Brian Campbell, a great offensive defenseman, started 40.7 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone and just 26 percent in the defensive zone in 2014–15; so often did his partner, rookie teenager Aaron Ekblad, thereby protecting him as well.

It works the other way, too. Forwards with the highest percentage of defensive zone starts are likely also ones with rather high faceoff-winning percentages, moderate to low ice time, and the scoring prowess to match. That's why it's always more impressive when a player posts an outstanding offensive season when starting most of his shifts in the D-zone — look no further than Phil Kessel in 2013–14, who tallied 54 points at 5-on-5 despite starting 37.3 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. Which, of course, spoke to the Toronto Maple Leafs' ridiculous inability to get out of their own zone at times. Thanks, Randy Carlyle!

Breakouts and Entries

How a team gets out of its zone and how it enters the opposing zone are like bread slices around a BBQ sandwich: they're pretty much going to determine whether you've got something cohesive or tremendously sloppy (but potentially delicious).

When a team enters the attacking zone, it can chip-and-chase, dump-and-chase, or attempt to set up around the blue line. How much room an opposing defense surrenders at the line, and how smart the offensive team is with the puck, can make or break scoring chances.

When a team leaves its own zone, it's trying to organize in order to break down an opponent's forechecking system.


Excerpted from Take Your Eye Off the Puck by Greg Wyshynski. Copyright © 2015 Greg Wyshynski. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Jeremy Roenick,
1. What the Heck Is Going on out There?,
2. Forwards and Systems Overload,
3. The Art of Goal-Scoring,
4. The Defensemen,
5. Very Special Teams,
6. Weapons of Choice,
7. Goalies (aka Killjoys),
8. The Nasty Bits,
9. A Day in the Life of a Player,
10. The Management,
11. Inside the Draft,
12. Fancy Stats,
13. The Hockey Glossary,
14. The Future,
About the Author,

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