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In Defence of the Shootout

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs


Wayne Karl is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. With a specialty in sports and sports business, particularly hockey. Karl publishes Hockey Business Report, a newsletter for the hockey industry. His freelance credits include The Hockey News, The Toronto Sun, The Globe and Mail and other publications. 


(TORONTO) -- You gotta give credit where it's due.

Just about everyone and their grandmother was patting Tomas Kaberle on the back after his performance on Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens, scoring three goals in regulation and another in the shootout during the Leafs' 5-4 victory.

Kyle Wellwood might be getting more chances in the shootout after scoring on Saturday.
(Graig Abel Photography)

But at least some of the credit must go to Leafs coach Paul Maurice.

During its broadcast of the game, Hockey Night in Canada reported that Kaberle's achievement was the first hat-trick by a Leaf defenceman since Ian Turnbull in 1977. But on Oct. 10, 1981, Borje Salming scored his first and only career hat trick at Maple Leaf Gardens against the Chicago Blackhawks.

(Even that might not be the most recent time. Jim Korn, who played left wing and defence for the Leafs from 1981-82 to 1984-84, scored three goals at home against the New Jersey Devils on March 7, 1984. And Gary Leeman, who recorded four hat tricks from 1986 to 1990, spent some time on the blueline, though we're not sure if he did in any of the games in question.)

Digressions into Leaf blueline history notwithstanding, Kaberle's accomplishment is rare indeed, and Maurice further denoted the occasion by tapping Kaberle as the first to go in the shootout after regulation and overtime ended in a 4-4 draw.

The defencemen promptly and confidently undressed Habs goalie David Aebischer with a deft display of stickhandling that would leave even the most accomplished scorers and experienced forwards impressed.

Think it was a no-brainer for Maurice to send Kaberle to centre ice to start the post-OT festivities? Think again.

The Leafs had just given up a two-goal lead in the third period, and going off the board to select a defencemen - even one with an apparent hot hand that night - to start the shootout was a bold and risky move by Maurice.

NHL coaches rarely appoint defencemen to participate in the shootout. Indeed, only three of the top 30 shootout performers in the NHL are defencemen. Yes we're only a dozen or so games into the season, and reading too much into shootout stats may be risky business even at the best of times. But clearly, coaches prefer forwards for this assignment.

Why?

All three d-men of the top 30 shootout artists are batting 1.000 in their breakaway attempts - Sergei Zubov of the Dallas Stars, the Leafs Kaberle, based purely on Saturday's marker, and Petteri Nummelin of the Minnesota Wild - are all 1 for 1.

Leaf captain and Maurice shootout favourite Mats Sundin, with two goals in five attempts, has a shootout percentage of 40%, lowest among players listed in the top 30. Darcy Tucker, who has scored just once in five attempts, is firing at just 20 per cent.

As of today, no other players in the league have as many shootout attempts as Sundin and Tucker, so it might well be time for Maurice to choose some new blood for these showdowns.

Brian Duff, highlighted this in his dispatch on October 23 the Leafs' losing record in shootouts and the players who failed to execute. Why not, he suggested, give John Pohl, Bates Battaglia or even Chad Kilger a chance?

Let's take the idea even further. In the new NHL, with the emphasis on skill and speed, it makes absolutely as much sense to give a shootout chance to the likes of Kaberle, Ian White or even Bryan McCabe as it does to a defensive specialist such as Kilger just because he's a forward.

Defencemen are used to carrying or moving the puck in high pressure situations, they have good vision of the ice, and some, like Kaberle proved for all to see (and until he did it who would have thought?), can dangle with the best of them.

Interestingly, Maurice's other shootout selections in Montreal on Saturday - Sundin, Tucker, Alex Steen, Matt Stajan and Alex Ponikarovsky - all forwards, all missed, until Toronto's final shooter Kyle Wellwood scored what proved to be the winner.

Something tells me Maurice made note of this fact, and will keep it in mind for future reference.

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