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Safe is Death

By playing a risk-averse game, hockey teams are missing out on life.

Vincent Pugliese

I am a university student. Next year I may be able to go overseas for two weeks to student teach. I want to even though I get homesick and will miss my family. I will be alone. I will be vulnerable to things I have never heard of before, but I know that I will be mad at myself if I don't look into it because it is an experience that I can't ever have again.

Safety is something that we love. The safety of a familiar environment is comforting and can make you feel better. But it can also be the death of you, robbing you of experiences so you don't have to leave you safe place.

How does going overseas and safety apply to hockey? Safe in hockey is like safe in life, you miss out on something awesome like a goal for something safe like a dump-in. The dump-in is the safe play, you may get the puck back but unless the dump in is botched you will not get counter-attacked right away. But is safe good? Probably not.

Take Dustin Byfuglien. He is the opposite of safe; he is risky. He plays by The Rules of the Buff, meaning that he loves to freelance plays and make something out of nothing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it results in a goal against. When Byfuglien plays on defense he takes risk and that is a good thing. When Byfuglien takes risks it usually pays off in some way, whether it ends up behind the opposing teams goalie or creates a scoring chance Byfuglien is always doing something.

This applies throughout the lineup. Chris Thorburn isn't going to give much but coaches see what he does as safe, meaning he won't cost them a a goal on a quantifiable mistake in their eyes. He skates hard, he blocks shots, he hits guys; he does all the quantifiable things that make coaches think a player is playing well. All the things that make a player "safe". But maybe safe isn't good enough anymore. The more hockey statisticians research the game, the more being risk averse looks like a bad idea.

Earlier I wrote a piece on Mark Stuart and why people love him. I started to explain why the way we think about hockey is wrong. To defend means that not having the puck is a bad idea. Instead of defense winning championships, we should realize that it s the team that always as the puck are the teams that win championships. As long as hockey stays risk averse, Thorburn will end up in the top six because "he plays the right way". But the right way makes it harder for his teammates to score because he isn't putting himself in a position to score, he is trying to do things to not get scored on.

If Eric O'Dell was playing with Scheifele and Wheeler there may be more mistakes and at first there may be more goals against, but given time the three of them would probably be able to figure out how to outscore their opponents when they are on the ice. It may mean that there are some nervous times in the zone while they collect the puck but when they get the puck they can do something positive with it. Doing something positive should be praised. Getting the puck and keeping it is more important than blocking a shot and losing the puck once more.

Not having the puck isn't safe. It means that you have to put yourself in a position to get hurt by a puck, to have to fight to get it back rather than fight to keep it. It is safer to have the puck as you can usually control what will happen to you when you have it. It is riskier to not have the puck because you cannot control what the other player will do to you; he may dangle you, he may run over you, he may score a goal. You do not control that, you are no longer safe.

Safety is a weird concept in sport and in life. We want to think that safety helps us out and it does. Not walking alone after dark, staying in well lit areas are good things that help keep up alive. But the other type of safety the one about leaving behind what you know is hard, but if you stay safe you will never win.

I know that if I don't at least try to go overseas next year I will regret it. Safe doesn't mean staying in your comfort zone, it means being able to leave your comfort zone knowing you can return. Safe in hockey doesn't mean rushing the puck up the ice solo whenever you can, it means being comfortable enough to let a player rush the puck up the ice when the opportunity presents itself. Safe means being comfortable enough with you players to loosen the reigns on them just enough that they can play their way out of danger and into safety; the opponents end.