When it comes to the odds a youth hockey player might reach the NHL, the fractions are almost comical to consider. Barely more than 900 played at least one game in the NHL this past season, and fewer than 600 played in more than half of the shortened season's games.
That's a couple hundred regulars culled from the millions who grew up playing.
In other words, the average youth player might think learning from an NHL player is absolutely beyond the realm of their capabilities, but, while the next Patrice Bergeron may not be in your house, there are many lessons to be learned through watching him play.
We caught up with NESN analyst and Director of League Development for the Eastern Hockey Federation – a.k.a., The Fed – Billy Jaffe recently to talk about just some of what a young player could learn from even the most gifted of the Bruins.
“I should preface this by saying there are a million things he does right,” says Jaffe, who is also a hockey dad and coach, and his own career included Division I hockey at the University of Michigan. “But I would tell a young player to watch how he is always in the right position.”
Bergeron, a three-time Selke Trophy winner, is a master of being in the right place at the right time.
“He’s always below the puck in the defensive zone, meaning between the net and his man, and, in the office of zone, he is always above the puck, he’s always with his stick on the ice and in the right position,” Jaffe says. “Now, this is something that’s hard to teach – but thinking ahead and looking at, if you can, how he views the game. He’s always making sure he’s on the ice in a position to maximize his team’s opportunities.”
Bergeron has also moved up the ranks of the faceoff charts the past few seasons, from the 20s, to the top 10, to No. 1 overall in 2020-21 based on percentage. Since the 2005-06 season, Bergeron ranks in the top 10 overall based on percentage, a span over which he’s won more than 12,000 draws.
“He’s just a sublime hockey player, he is – in so many ways – but I would say to watch his faceoff work, too,” says Jaffe. “Watch how he comes in, and those little nuances that a young player can pick up.”
His shot keeps getting better, too.
“He has worked diligently on improving this in the last couple years, and, now, look how strong and how quick he is with his shot,” Jaffe says. “So that would definitely be something a young player could pick up on immediately. And I think he shoots with more purpose now. Opportunities, especially good ones in high percentage areas, don’t happen that often in the in the NHL.”
Marchand, one of the most dangerous puck-possession players in the game, manages to keep the puck away from even the league’s best defenders and defensive teams.
How does he do it?
“There are multiple reasons,” says Jaffe. “But one of the main ones is that he’s a master at keeping the puck just far enough away.”
Marchand also uses an unusually long stick for a player listed at 5-foot-9, and he uses that reach to his advantage.
“The puck is further away, and he is incredibly strong, despite his stature,” Jaffe says of Marchand, who is listed at 181 pounds. “He is incredibly physically strong and he uses his lower center of gravity to his advantage.”
Marchand is even more unusual with his ability to handle the puck, not just with his hands but with his understanding of the game.
“He is a master-class stick handler,” says Jaffe. “He’s just awesome at it, but I also think he has this ability to just see things with regard to where to place the puck. Sometimes he’ll put it through a player’s stick or skates, or put it in a certain area. He sees areas on the ice incredibly well.”
Youth players could also learn a thing or two from the leaps of faith Marchand takes all over the ice.
“By the way, he’s also fearless,” Jaffe says. “That’s something I think young players can pick up on, too. He’s willing to try things. When you handle the puck as much as he does, you’re going to fail at times. But he is still willing to try.”
An underrated component to all this elusiveness is Marchand’s skating ability.
“The last thing and I should mention about him is that he just has amazing edge work,” says Jaffe. “Amazing. He uses his edge work his advantage – to shield pucks, with his cutback ability, and with shielding defenders he can separate from them. That’s one thing I would tell players to look at.”
Since the 2016-17 season, Marchand has taken nearly 1,000 shots in the NHL and his shooting average has hovered around 17% with a career high of just over 20% this past season.
“I mean, his shot is fantastic,” Jaffe says. “You’re potentially talking about the top left wing in the world. Some people might argue [Artemi] Panarin or [Alexander] Ovechkin. I would say that Marchand is the best all-around left-wing in the world, given how he impacts the game in so many different ways.”
With 200 goals in under 450 NHL games, Pastrnak is hard to miss on the ice, too.
“The first thing that many people notice about David is his shot,” says Jaffe. “But the other thing is his creativity. Brad Marchand is so precise in some of his movements, ad Pastrnak is almost more improvisational. It’s amazing how different they are but they both produce unbelievable moments because of how special they both are.”
On any given shift, Pastrnak can go off whatever script there may have been and find himself on a highlight reel. And there is something in that for youth players, believe it or not.
“Pastrnak’s creativity is razzle-dazzle,” Jaffe says. “It’s unique and special. But these aren’t just things that he does in a game. He does it in practice, spending the time doing it, and then he translates it to the game.”
And that creativity can make for a fine line to understand for a player and his or her coach.
“Never stomp out creativity in a child,” Jaffe says. “That doesn’t mean you allow them free rein or to go all Youngblood, but there’s a time and a place for it. The high-end pro players, like Marchand or Pastrnak or Bergeron, do certain things not to show up the opponent but to make something happen. That’s sometimes the difference. Kids will go out there to try to be fancy, and they almost don’t understand at the moment it’s not the right thing to do.”
The highest-end players’ most genius strokes come when they’ve almost been pushed into showing that genius.
“You do it because that’s all that’s there,” says Jaffe. “That’s your reaction. That’s what you saw and that’s why you do it. You never want to try to dampen creativity too much but there’s a right time in the right place for it.”
We also asked Jaffe who might make an impact on this Bruins team, and what to keep an eye on as they do – or don’t.
“Erik Haula has a lot of speed and he has some swagger to his game,” Jaffe says of the Finnish-born forward who played three seasons at the University of Minnesota before starting his pro career in 2013. “I don’t want put the pressure all on Haula, though, because I look at a guys like Jake DeBrusk and Charlie Coyle having significant impacts on the success of the team this year.”
DeBrusk scored a career high of 27 goals in 2018-19 and has 67 in his 244-game NHL career. Coyle has 115 goals in his 621 NHL games. The pair combined for 11 this past season.
“If Jake can become the scorer that we all hope we can, and Charlie can play at a high-level, then your team has a good chance to do more damage, to be more successful,” says Jaffe. “With Jake, I’m rooting huge for the kid. Maybe with a guy like Nick Foligno as his linemate, he provides that. If he succeeds, I think this team is in a good spot. If he doesn’t, it’s going to be a lot tougher.”
From the time he was in his early teens, the Long Island native has been in the conversation as possibly the best defenseman of his birth year. In 2016, the Bruins made the Boston University and former USNTDP star the No. 14 overall pick in the draft – the fifth U.S.-born player and the first U.S.-born defenseman off the board.
“Charlie’s footwork and skating are outstanding,” Jaffe says. “He can make himself very elusive – turning in his own zone, with his head up – or beating the first forechecker because he’s not coasting. He’s moving. He accelerates beautifully to get separation. I would say the other thing with Charlie is how well he closes on people. A lot of that is skating.”
That skating ability also means at 6-feet and 208 pounds, his game can be more physical.
“Because his skating is so good, he can be a real physical beast back there, too,” says Jaffe. “You can’t be a successful body checker if you’re not strong in your skates. And he is incredibly strong on his skates.”
Overall, though, it is McAvoy’s hockey sense that helps his physical skills shine.
“His reeds and anticipation are excellent,” Jaffe says. “His vision on the ice is complemented by his overall anticipation. They go hand-in-hand. So, if you could just watch how his feet are moving, you can see that he’s not waiting – he’s anticipating. That and his skating are things I would watch.”
Who else – from 5-foot-9 Matt Grzelcyk to 6-foot-5 Brandon Carlo – might make an even larger impact than in previous seasons on the back line?
“I think young players can learn something from all of them,” says Jaffe. “But Matt Grzelcyk’s edge work and his turning ability has probably got to be considered one of his greatest strengths. He’s a real good passer, too. That would be another quality that I would say to focus on with him. Brandon Carlo, you can watch how he uses his big body to contain players and take away space – and he faces a lot of the opponents’ top players. A young player could look at a guy like Connor Clifton and see someone who puts it on the line every time he’s on the ice. I can look at his effort and his determination and his physical play. And Mike Reilly, he has really good offensive instincts.”
Last season, the Buffalo Sabres went 15-34-7 with a -61 goal differential, but the Swedish-born Ullmark managed a 9-6 record with a 2.63 goals against average and save percentage of .917.
“With Linus Ullmark, you get a guy who is big at 6-foot-4 and about 215 pounds,” Jaffe says. “He’s big and he moves well, and he’s a good athlete. Now he’s coming to a team that should be much better defensively in front of him – so he should be seeing fewer quality chances against and that should translate to success.”
Swayman, born in Anchorage but whose young hockey career included stops with the Pikes Peak Miners and Sioux Falls Stampede before playing at the University of Maine, has impressed Jaffe.
“Just his preparation and his calmness, and his approach to the game, is something that other players can look to,” he says. “With goalies, the biggest thing to me is that when a goal goes in, a goalie has to know how to put it behind him or her right away. And Jeremy seems to have that ability. He really manages that well.”
In 10 games with Boston this past season, Swayman went 7-3 with a 1.5 goals agains average and .945 save percentage.
“He does a really nice job of holding his feet,” says Jaffe “He’s just a goalie that, so far, in his very small sample size, has shown a lot of confidence in a lot of ways.”
What can we teach young players about watching out for positive energy in the NHL?
“Your body language gives away how are you feeling, at times,” Jaffe says. “And sometimes you don’t want to let people know how you’re actually feeling, especially on the ice. Your body language can show frustration. It can show anger. It can show that you’ve lost focus. It can show an opponent that they’ve gotten to you. People are watching, especially as youth players get older. And your body language can either put you into a great position or into a negative position in the eyes of anyone watching you. People know hockey can be frustrating, but well how do you deal with it?”
Once a 100-point scorer in the OHL as a junior hockey player (25-86--111 in 1982-83), the Ottawa-born head coach is now a Jack Adams Trophy winner in his sixth season with the Bruins.
“If you listen to him speak, you can hear he gives very detailed, very honest answers, but he’s not telling us anything he hasn’t already told his players,” says Jaffe. “I think the lesson that you can take – to communicate with your players. He’s incredibly creative from an Xs and Os standpoint, especially offensively. He likes to teach a lot of movement and a lot of bringing the puck to the net – not a lot of extra passes. And I think you can learn that you can be confident.”
“Well, I’d love to see the players that I think could really help them to step up by doing so,” Jaffe says. “I’d love to see Charlie Coyle, who is healthy now, have a great year. I’d love to see Jake DeBrusk have a great year. There’s pressure on them. I love to see that. This is a changing of the cultural guard with this team. Not having Zdeno Chara, not having David Krejci, not having Kevan Miller. You’ve lost a lot of leadership, so I’d love to see the young leaders step. I’d like to see them put forth a really good season that translates into a good playoff run. It’s going to be a different year, but let’s see how they come out of it.”