Thomas Chabot did it again. The silky-smooth Ottawa Senators defenseman sent New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier sailing the other night thanks to some deft puckwork at the blueline, making Hischier the latest victim of Chabot’s skills. Earlier this season, the Sens D-man scored a highlight-reel goal against Toronto after stealing Igor Ozhiganov’s soul with this move. And Chabot is far from alone in his viral skills this year.
If I may, this feels like the Year of Clowning in the NHL. Social media gives us the tools to re-live amazing moments almost instantly, but there seem to have been an inordinate amount of clips featuring defenders getting spiritually wrecked by a great dangle.
Think about it: Elias Pettersson on Ryan Strome in the pre-season. Mitch Marner on Dustin Byfuglien. Sidney Crosby on Ryan Strome in the regular season (sorry, Ryan). So what’s up with guys going viral?
“It’s the advancements made in skill,” said Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly. “The time and effort players are taking in the off-season to work on their games now is the most I’ve seen. Guys are investing money in ice time and ways to get better. Auston (Matthews) is on the ice all summer working on his skills; Mitch is the same way. That’s been a theme around the league – guys using the resources around them to make them the best players they can be.”
And in a way, our current social media climate creates a vicious/virtuous cycle, pushing players to hit new levels of skill based on what they see from others online.
“It’s the viral videos,” said Vegas right winger Alex Tuch. “What are these kids that have all the talent in the world doing? They’re stickhandling more and more and more. You got a guy who went viral when he was nine, (New York Islanders first-rounder) Oliver Wahlstrom. He’s a hell of a player and he can probably still do all that stuff. Now when we go back in the summer, we’re seeing all these little kids that can stickhandle better than us. So we work on it more. It’s a skill game. Even being a bigger guy, you have to have the skill and ability to play that 1-on-1 game once in a while to create more space for yourself.”
Dallas Stars defenseman Esa Lindell also believes that social media encourages players to up their skills and he also sees the evolving NHL game as a challenge for him and his fellow blueliners.
“The way the game is going with speed and skills – you’re not allowed to cross-check or hit the guys the same way – that makes it possible with all the moves,” Lindell said. “Everyone is so fast these days, you have to be a good skater to stick in this league. There are tough gaps for the ‘D’ when the guys are coming full-speed. That makes it possible for them to pull off those sick moves.”
Tuch’s teammate, Shea Theodore, is the type of modern, skating defenseman that all teams need nowadays and playing for high-paced Vegas, the youngster knows the value of speed. He sees a combination of quickness and preparation as being essential when defending an oncoming rush – and getting help can minimize the risk, too.
“It starts with your gap coming through the neutral zone,” Theodore said. “If your gap isn’t there and you’re caught flat-footed, you can get exposed. When you have a tight gap and defensively, you’re playing as a team, that eliminates that 1-on-1 aspect when your center brings support. But you have to watch for it.”
The funny thing about these viral clips is that we’re still talking about the best players in the world: who wouldn’t want Hischier or Byfuglien on their team? But it is fascinating to see just how regularly these moments are happening and of course no NHLer wants to see a split-second mistake plastered all over Twitter after the game.
But the game is as fast as it has ever been. Is there any advice on how to avoid being Internet Famous for the wrong reason?
“You just try not to fall down,” Rielly said. “As soon as you fall down, you know it’s going viral.”