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The Art of the Shot Block

Anybody remember Craig Ludwig?  I do, in part because he's from the area where I grew up (Wisconsin Northwoods), and in part because I'd see him every once in a while in the Rhinelander area, though he also brought the Cup to Eagle River once (he was born in Rhinelander, but played high school hockey for Northland Pines).  Because it's a small world, my dad refereed his kids once, too.  And let me tell you, he looks like a biker in-person...or Robin Yount if Yount could box-squat 750 pounds.  See?

Anyway, one of Ludwig's calling cards was that he blocked a boatload of shots; I can't remember which one, but I remember the back of one of his hockey cards quoting a teammate that said his shinguards should be in the Hall of Fame.  Needless to say, his ready sacrifices created a reputation for toughness and defensive prowess, something that isn't always appreciated by NHL fans.  I've always admired Ryan Callahan for the same reasons that fans admired Ludwig (NHL management loved him, too; the dude had a hella-long career with essentially two teams).  But Callahan's injury near the end of this season has brought me to pay attention to the shot-blocking technique of NHLers during the playoffs.  And frankly, some of it sucks.

Let me clear the air: I haven't played in the NHL (high school and bar leagues were as far as I went, but I played D and the penalty kill, so I'm familiar).  I have not attempted to block Zdeno Chara's freakishly hard shot.  But you'll notice in the video of the Callahan injury that he did something that a player should do everything they can to avoid: he turned his back to the shot.  To be fair, he's not the only one to do this; Nicklas Backstrom, for instance, does it in this clip of him on the penalty kill, you see Victor Hedman do it here at about the 0:11 mark, and Jarret Stoll rolls around to expose the side and back of his leg here.  I saw these kinds of scenes frequently during the playoffs, with the offenders typically being forwards (particularly those in shorthanded situations).  I understand why it happens, too; it's a reflex thing, because typically our back is tougher than our belly, but unfortunately that idea doesn't work with textbook shot-blocking technique, shown here, where your focus is on exposing the most protected parts of your body to the shot.

One part of the shot block is positioning, vital because what Callahan, Hedman, Backstrom, and Stoll were doing, though a brave sacrifice of sorts, is dangerous to both the player and the team that needs that player.  The second part is timing, crucial because a poorly-timed dive can expose another sensitive part of your body to the shot.  Take, for instance, this Josh Gorges attempt, where he over-dives and puts his head right in-line with the shot.  Another example is the third block in the Eric Nystrom "textbook" video above, where he times it perfectly to take the shot off the pads; the wrong timing on that play, and Nystrom could very well end up in the same boat as Callahan.  It's desperation, I understand, but that third way of blocking the shot should be avoided at all cost.

A third, tangential point I'd like to make is that, if you're far away from the shooter, going for the block can hurt as much as help your team.  For instance, in Game 7 of the this year's Vancouver-Nashville series, Dan Hamhuis made an incredibly important stop a long ways away from the shooter, but he also screened Roberto Luongo and could have potentially deflected the puck into the goal.  Unless your goalie is out of the net or the traffic between the goaltender and the puck is heavy behind you, you'd be better served to let him or her deal with the puck...not do this.

Then, of course, you have your unmitigated disasters of shot-blocking, for instance the infamous Patrick Thoresen block that had him singing soprano.  He dives headfirst, far away from the shooter, and for his sins he takes it in the little Patrick Thoresen.  I feel like Thoresen has done as much to convince players to continue to turn away from the puck as anybody.  Then you have Mike Green's "heroic" block in the playoffs against the Rangers, where his timing was off, and he was right in front of Michal Neuvirth.  In neither case was the block necessary (in Thoresen's case, he couldn't have known that), and the results were an injury to an important player for the Washington Capitals and the splitting of a testicle that was essential to the growth of the Norwegian population.

Maybe I'm just griping, but I truly think this an area where NHL players could do better, particularly among penalty-killing forwards.  Those kinds of players are not easily replaceable (the losses of players like Patrice Bergeron and Ryan Callahan can be potentially disastrous for their respective teams), and while bumps and bruises are expected to be played through in the playoffs, you can't shake off a broken leg or testicle...nor would you want to try shaking a broken leg or testicle.

On a sidenote: while Craig Ludwig had a reputation for blocking shots he's not exempt from this critique, having seen this picture.  Cruisin' for an ass bruisin', that one.

P.S. HP's Rob Vollman points out in the comments that there's a must-see video of Guelph's LW Tyler Carroll putting his body on the line during a penalty kill against Kitchener in an OHL game this year.  I will note that he took the textbook approach, and some bruises, but was ready to play the next game (albeit 11 days later, post-Christmas break).