It is the most underrated skill in hockey, and Brian Pothier excels at it.
Given how often teams deploy the dump-and-chase offense and how fast and ferocious forecheckers can be, the ability of a defenseman to retrieve the puck and make a quick, crisp pass to ignite a possession in the other direction is essential for offensive success.
That’s what makes the Washington Capitals defenseman so valuable.
“You have to be a special type of person to make those passes,” captain Chris Clark said. “They are so critical. You have all these options, like three or four options, that he is almost like a quarterback trying to read [the defense]. And if something isn’t there, you have to go somewhere else. [Pothier] seems to always make the right play.”
As a result of the rules overhaul after the 2004-05 lockout, teams desperately covet mobile defensemen with the passing touch of a top centerman. Few other defensemen can skate the puck out of danger like Mike Green, so vision, composure and “hockey sense” are the necessary weapons to combat the onslaught of dump-ins.
Making a good first pass under duress is not easy to practice. Players can shoot hundreds of wrist shots or skate for hours to improve those traits, but the qualities needed to reach Pothier’s competence in this area cannot be taught or manufactured.
“I think everybody has a gift, right?” he said. “I can’t do what [teammate] John Erskine can do, and I never will be able to. I can lift weights and make snarls and be as mean as I can, and I’m just not going to be able to do that.”
Having Pothier healthy and at top form for the first time in 21 months could be another big advantage for the Caps, who are already an offensive superpower. The combination of Pothier, Tom Poti and Green gives the Caps a trio of defensemen who can initiate the offense from the back end.
Not sure how important this is? Forwards typically bear the blame when scoring drops off, but previously potent offenses often struggle when mobile, puck-moving defensemen are removed from the equation. The Ottawa Senators’ recent decline is an example, as were the Pittsburgh Penguins last season before Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney returned from injuries.
“That’s my niche,” Pothier said. “If I am going to be effective and help the team, moving the puck is probably going to be the way. …
“As younger players, we always want to make the spectacular play - the curl-and-drag and the crazy cross-ice pass to [Alex] Ovechkin. When I get back there, I know what my options are - wing, center, far wing, [defense] partner - and I just hit the first guy I see open. When I am playing well, it is just boom, boom, boom.”
There was a time last season when it was a mystery whether Pothier would play again. He ended up missing 15 months because of a concussion caused by a hit from Boston’s Milan Lucic, but he returned for nine games at the end of the regular season and was a key contributor in the postseason.
General manager George McPhee eschewed adding a veteran defenseman at the trade deadline, and his confidence in Pothier was rewarded. Without any new vets this offseason, a full season of Pothier is the biggest reason to expect improvement from the defense corps.
“The playoffs were great for me to get me in the mode where I’m successful - just get the puck and move the puck and skate,” Pothier said. “Without playing for so long, I might have gotten into some bad habits over the summer, and it would have been harder to break them in the fall. Not to mention I would have been fighting 12 other guys for a roster spot, and there would have been a lot of questions from [coach Bruce Boudreau] and from everybody about my health.”
No worries there: Pothier said he’s as healthy as he has been “in five or six years.” So while the Caps are looking forward to the start of the regular season Thursday at Boston, few of his teammates can match Pothier’s gamut of emotions about returning to his native New England - and the site of the injury that nearly ended his career.
“I want to play the best minutes I can play, whether it is 15 or 25, and I want to help in whatever situation I am needed,” he said. “I want to be mentally prepared and physically prepared for all of it. I think this summer took care of the physical part, and I am working on the mental part.”
Note – The Caps on Thursday assigned forwards Andrew Gordon, Oskar Osala and Kyle Wilson to Hershey.