Alain Nasreddine has watched New York Rangers defensemen go to the front of the net and hang out below the goal line.
It wasn’t like this back in his playing days.
Nasreddine scored one goal in 74 NHL games as a defenseman from 1998-2008. Now, the interim New Jersey Devils coach sees a league in which defensemen are expected to score – and they are delivering.
Goals are coming from everywhere this season: lacrosse-style from Andrei Svechnikov and Filip Forsberg, a ton from the blue line and even one from Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne. A total of 661 different players have scored at least once this season, a testament to balanced attacks around the league.
”You want a five-man offense,” Nasreddine said. ”The way the game is played right now, you need a five-man offense with D-men joining, whether that’s off the rush or in the offensive zone.”
There are an average of 6.12 goals per game so far this season, the second straight year that number has surpassed six and just the third time in the past 23 seasons. The top four goal scorers are all forwards 24 or younger; more impressively, 200 defensemen have combined to put up 727 goals.
Washington’s John Carlson is on pace to be the NHL’s first 100-point defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1991-92. But he’s just the leader of the pack as the style of play in the league moves more and more toward getting defensemen involved in the offense.
”Nowadays, everybody activates the D,” Arizona coach Rick Tocchet said. ”I don’t think there’s a team that doesn’t try to get their D to join the rush. You can’t just have your top two defensemen (be) offensive guys. You have to have everybody participate.”
Look no further than the Nashville Predators for a prime example of that. Even after trading P.K. Subban, Nashville’s blue line can still pile up the goals and has combined for 29 through 48 games.
”Teams want their defensemen to jump up, want their defensemen in the play,” Predators defenseman Roman Josi said. ”Every team has kind of that fourth guy in the rush all the time, and even in the O-zone, teams are moving. I think that’s just kind of the way the game is now.”
The game is trending that direction so much that Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour tells his team, ”You score off the rush and you score on the power play.”
Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin said odd-man rushes with defensemen are ”the best opportunities to score” and that, combined with the talent of young defensemen like Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen, Colorado’s Cale Makar and Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin, has been responsible for much more offense from the back end.
”You look at the young guys coming in: Heiskanen, Makar, some of these really young guys, and they come in and they’re contributing right away,” Slavin said. ”I think some teams are driven by their defense, and when their defensemen are going, that’s when the team’s playing really well. Some of those teams have those offensive defensemen that are expected to put up big numbers.”
Josi, whose 14 goals sit one off the league lead among defensemen, is a perennial Norris Trophy contender in part because of how much emphasis he puts on defense. But he’s also the prototypical modern-day blue liner in that he can do it all.
”You’re a defenseman and your primary job is to defend well,” Josi said. ”But if you’re on the power play, if you consider yourself a two-way defenseman, yeah, you want to produce offensively, too.”
Nasreddine points out that teams like the Rangers – who lead the NHL in defensemen scoring – and the Capitals often let their defensemen go to the front of the net or even below the goal line. That used to be a no-no except for some of hockey’s best who could handle those responsibilities. Now it’s just part of what coaches expect, and it’s changing who’s playing the position.
”That’s why you’re seeing more mobile defensemen, skating defensemen, because most coaches want those defensemen to be involved in the offense,” Nasreddine said. ”It’s been going for a while now, but you see it more and more.”
Not long ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning sat outside a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. After winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season team and getting swept out of the playoffs in the first round last season, it was fair to worry about the Lightning not putting as much value in the 82-game grind this time.
Tampa Bay is 12-2-1 since just before Christmas and now trails Atlantic Division-leading Boston by just seven points with two extra games left to play.
”We don’t think about the future or think about the past,” Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said. ”If you’re going to think about your future, you’ll miss your present so that’s our philosophy for right now.”