Back in the day, players tried to avoid stepping in front of a slapshot because the equipment was so hideous.
“I was as good as there was of looking like I wanted to block a shot only to never get hit,” said Bruce Boudreau, the Wild coach, in his normal deadpan manner.
These days, it’s the complete opposite. Players are willing to courageously step in front of most any shot no matter the velocity.
In a few games, Boudreau has bemoaned the Wild’s inability to gets shots through. Against Toronto, the Wild had 20 shots blocked, against the Islanders 23.
There has been a pack-the-middle strategy in the NHL for years, but it has gotten worse with the advancement in equipment.
Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, only half tongue-in-cheek, said all shot blockers that players wear for protection should be illegal.
“Now guys even have pads on the back of their gloves, so guys are leaving their feet all the time,” said Suter, the only Wild defenseman not to wear foot protection. “I was joking with [GM Chuck Fletcher] that we shouldn’t be allowed to leave our feet to shot block. It should be a penalty if you do.
“Obviously you want to protect guys and you don’t want guys out with broken feet or broken hands, so I get the shot blockers, but it takes away from the scoring because guys are fearless.”
Rick Bronwell, one of the Wild’s assistant equipment managers, is the team shot blocker guru. He custom-makes protection out of three materials — Kydex, which is car dashboard stuff; Surlyn, which he describes as a “rubbery plastic that’s more flexible;” and Lexan, a polycarbonate used to make plexiglass.
Christian Folin wears that, while others, such as Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella, use the Kydex. Some wear it over the boot, some inside to protect the navicular and malleolus bones, the two bones that break most often when hit by high-flying vulcanized rubber.
Besides seven Wild defensemen, forwards Zac Dalpe and Erik Haula wear foot protection. Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund wear VH skates that have carbon fiber built in. Haula has missed five games in a row with a foot injury. He wears a full wrap made of Surlyn, but the puck nailed him just under the protection, showing nothing’s foolproof. Zach Parise, who doesn’t wear protection, missed Saturday’s game with a foot injury.
Believe it or not, as big a topic as this has been, the Wild has actually blocked more shots than its opponents (109 to 99). In a win over Los Angeles, the Wild blocked 25. Through Thursday’s games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Wild was tied for 16th in shot attempts that were blocked (99) and ranked 24th (or, seventh-lowest) in average shots blocked per game (12.4).
Still, Boudreau wants his players to do a better job of getting shots through. In consecutive games last week against the Islanders and Boston, Scandella had 10 shots blocked.
Scandella was injured Thursday against Buffalo, but at the morning skate, Boudreau gave the defenseman a physics lesson.
“If you see a guy right there, it’s not going to go through them, I don’t care how hard your shot is,” Boudreau said. “So don’t just bury your head and put it into a guy’s leg. I tell them all to just shoot it around them.
“If you have to get it behind their net because there’s no clear shot, boom. It’s incumbent on him to get the puck by the first guy. Of Scandy’s six blocked shots [against the Islanders], four of them, it was the first guy blocking it. It can’t happen.”
Boudreau doesn’t buy into Suter’s theory that players should be penalized if they leave their feet. How do you legislate that?
“But,” Boudreau said, “if you want them not to block any shots, don’t give them the chest protectors, the back protectors, the feet protectors. It’s like all steel, all Kevlar. Make them play without anything on their stomach and just little shin pads.
“You’ll see the blockings go down. I got hit in practice the other day and I thought my knee was going to fall off, and it was just a little wrist shot.”
Got an enforcer
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau rehashed the screaming match he had with former Colorado coach Patrick Roy on opening night in 2013. At the end of a blowout loss for the Ducks, Roy began barking at Anaheim’s Corey Perry. When Boudreau came to his defense, Roy started yapping at Boudreau and nearly toppled the glass partition.
“I was scared stiff, man,” Boudreau said. “I had no clue what was going on. If you ever YouTube that, Corey Perry is squirting a water bottle on him the whole time, just egging him on, squirting it, squirting it, so he snapped. All I saw was the white in his eyes.”
Boudreau added with a laugh, “That’s why we hired Scott Stevens [as a Wild assistant]. Anybody comes after us, [I’m] just throwing him in the way.”
Is it in the water?
Seeing youngsters Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jack Eichel soar into the NHL at an elite level has St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock’s curiosity kicking in.
“Part of me is wondering what’s going on that’s allowing kids to play like this,” Hitchcock said. “How are these kids being taught so they look so comfortable on the ice? They’re not overwhelmed by anything, they look equal to players or sometimes a step ahead. Something’s going on in the teaching that’s really good.
“I think we need to look to see what the coaches are doing to help these kids be so advanced. There’s nothing they’re not ready for. It’s not just athletic ability. I believe it’s in the teaching.”
WILD’S WEEK AHEAD
Tuesday: 7 p.m. vs. Buffalo
Saturday: 2 p.m. at Colorado
Tue. FSN+, Sat. FSN
Player to watch: Kyle Okposo, Sabres
The former Gopherd and Islanders first-rounder struck it rich, signing a seven-year, $42 million deal.
“Come on, kids. All we do on the road is eat, eat and eat.”
—Wild coach Bruce Boudreau to two Niagara North hockey players, who served as stick boys during the morning skate and shadowed the Wild on Thursday in Buffalo.
Michael Russo can be heard on 100.3-FM and seen on FSN • Blog: startribune.com/russo • Twitter: @russostrib