When Colorado Avalanche forward Rene Bourque slipped behind defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin for the eventual winning goal in Tuesday’s preseason game, it provided a huge teaching moment for new Wild assistant coach Scott Stevens.
The Hall of Fame defenseman played in a different era.
One of the NHL’s toughest hombres, the former New Jersey Devils captain played when players could typically get away with extending elbows and using lumber as a weapon.
Regardless of the fact that infractions like that get penalized in today’s game, the Wild’s blue line isn’t built that way. The defense corps might just be the strength of the Wild, but there’s no Scott Stevens residing on the back end. So during this week’s practices, the Wild has worked on boxing out, having a good stick and taking the body.
“We’re not big, [so] it’s got to be position, angles, all of those things,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We’re not just going to outmuscle guys. The guy that scored, Rene Bourque, when Spurge was behind him, he just couldn’t do anything about it.
“So we have to make sure people don’t get behind him.”
It took about a week for Stevens to make his presence known and voice heard. Stevens halted practice a few times this week to make it clear to anybody within shouting distance what he wants.
“My feeling is goals are scored in that blue paint and as a group we’ve got to be strong there,” Stevens said. “We’ve got to initiate, we’ve got to box out and we’ve got to keep people from getting there. If we get into people early, let our goalies see the puck, life will be easier for everybody.
“It’s not easy. There are rules. But that front of the net is huge. We want to keep people out of there.”
It’s not often assistants stop practice, but Boudreau loved it.
“I’m trying to get all the coaches, when they see something wrong, they’ve got to bark at them and get them to do it right,” Boudreau said. “I can’t be the only voice that they hear on a negative notion.”
Defenseman Ryan Suter loved it, too.
“He’s intense. That’s what you want,” Suter said. “It’s huge to have a guy like him. I don’t even know if some of these [young] guys were alive when he was playing, but I sure was. I remember watching him. Just the way he carries himself, he’s a true professional.
“Anytime you can get advice from a guy of his stature is pretty impressive, just the little things that guys that play the game only would know. It’s fun to hear the things he has and to be taking it all in from him.”
Stevens said you don’t need a blue line full of Chris Prongers, Derian Hatchers and Adam Footes to play hard in one’s own zone. So that even means smaller defensemen like Spurgeon, Brodin, Matt Dumba and Mike Reilly.
“The bottom line, if some guy’s bigger than you, then get their stick,” Stevens said. “I don’t want guys tipping pucks. Tipped pucks are dangerous pucks and hard for goalies to stop. So as a defenseman, you size up your opponent: ‘Am I bigger? Can I get into his body and box him out or do I get his stick?’
“These are the things I want our guys to think about.”
Suter’s first year as a pro came in 2004 mere months after Stevens retired. Yet Suter says, “You never know it all and if you think you do, then you’ve got an issue. I’m excited to learn. That was the first conversation we had. He even said he was excited to learn from me and I’m excited to learn from him. You could tell that it’s going to be a good relationship, not only for me, but all the D.”
Stevens says he’s only trying to tweak a few things on an already strong blue line.
“They were well-coached before and they do a lot of really good things,” Stevens said. “We’re quick. You play to your strength, and we want to out-quick people and be quick to check in our own zone.
“We don’t want to spend time there, so I’m trying to give us ways to spend less.”