Welcome to Preds Playbook, our newest feature at SHJ. In this space I’ll be breaking down the X’s and O’s of the game from a Nashville perspective, usually focusing on goals, scoring chances and general systems/philosophies pertaining to the Predators. Hopefully these segments can give fans a better understanding of the finer points of hockey. If you missed our first installment, you can find it here. Today we look at free agent signing Viktor Stalberg.
You’ve probably heard analysts, coaches, writers, etc. say someone has “game-changing speed” more than once before. Like most terms in the sports lexicon, this one doesn’t have a specific definition, and is instead left up for individual interpretation.
Personally, I will note that someone has “game-changing speed” if he can consistently use his skating as a primary means of creating or preventing scoring chances. One guy who fits this description is Viktor Stalberg.
Stalberg may not be the blue-chip forward Preds fans were hoping Poile would acquire this summer, but he certainly brings an exciting brand of hockey to the table. We’re going to focus specifically on his skating, how that has aided him in the past and how it can help Nashville in the future.
(I apologize in advance for subjecting you to Chelsea Dagger).
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The first video we’ll look at today is a textbook example of how Stalberg uses his skating to create a scoring chance.
The play begins with Sharp clearing the puck up the ice, sending it toward the right boards in the neutral zone.
As the puck reaches the blue line, both Stalberg and Orlov are skating hard on pursuit. Stalberg has made up considerable ground on his opponent and has a good angle to get to the puck.
As they cross the blue line the puck remains free. Stalberg has caught up with Orlov, and it’s anyone’s guess who wins the race at this point.
Stalberg gets there first and uses his body to shield Orlov away from the puck.
He then continues to gain separation on Orlov and now has no one between him and the goalie.
With no defender affecting him in any way at this point, Stalberg rips a shot on net and scores.
Bear in mind: Orlov, while young and inexperienced, is considered a strong skater. You’ll notice that the Russian D-man doesn’t glide his way toward the puck in this highlight; he’s sprinting in pursuit. But he is no match for Stalberg, who blows by him and lights the lamp.
Stalberg needs every last bit of his speed to make this play happen. In the third to last screenshot you see him move ahead of Orlov to gain the position necessary to make his drive to the net. Then, in the next frame, you’ll see that he gets separation on Orlov, giving him the space he needs to get a clean shot on goal. If Stalberg moved a hair slower at any juncture, everything could have fallen apart.
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This play below shows how one can use elite speed to create scoring chance with a strong forecheck.
The clip begins with the puck going deep into the Nashville end of the ice, and Stalberg is one of several ‘Hawks on the chase. Notice how far behind he is from Preds defenseman Ryan Ellis at this point.
The puck makes it to the end boards, and Stalberg and Ellis are sprinting to gain possession.
Despite starting the race at a huge disadvantage, Stalberg gets to the puck around the same time as Ellis, and gets his stick on it first — negating an icing call and keeping play alive in the offensive zone. With the help of Andrew Shaw, Stalberg gains possession for Chicago.
He then sweeps a pass back to Leddy, who has plenty of room to move around.
Stalberg skates to the half-boards and receives a pass back from Leddy near the edge of the left circle.
Stalberg is now looking at four defenders who are focused on him.
Despite the attention from his opponent, he puts the puck on net and scores — in part thanks to the screen set by Shaw.
There was nothing remarkable about the actual goal here, but Chicago would have never been able to gain possession had Stalberg not used his speed to prevent an icing.
Nashville’s forecheck was far weaker than normal last year, and having a center who is capable of creating pressure like this should go a long way toward not only improving the Preds’ offensive output, but returning the club to the style of hockey Barry Trotz prefers.
This play shows how Stalberg’s speed allows him avert defenders to create a scoring opportunity.
The ‘Hawks lose the face-off, but Stalberg makes a quick break for the puck and gains possession before any Stars player can do so.
Stalberg begins advancing up the ice and now faces a triangle of defenders. He essentially has three options here: 1) Send the puck off the boards to move it up the ice; 2) try to carry it himself; or 3) dish it to Handzus. He chooses the third option — splitting two defenders in the process — and sends a perfect pass to his teammate.
Stalberg then continues up the ice and is forced to split two defenders for the second time in a matter of seconds…
The defender on the left of the screen tries to catch up Stalberg, but it is to no avail. Handzus sends a lead pass back to Stalberg, who receives it cleanly.
As Stalberg gains possession and begins to drive to the net, he now finds himself in a one-on-one situation. At this point he is now parallel to Philip Larsen on the ice.
Larsen begins to collapse on the puck, but Stalberg uses his quick release to get a shot off before he can be disrupted.
He puts a beautiful shot on goal — far side, right under the goalie’s armpit — and scores.
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The last play we’ll look at today is downright filthy.
Stalberg takes a lead pass in his own zone and takes off for the net.
Upon receiving the pass, there are three defenders who could disrupt Stalberg’s drive to the net.
Soon the third D-man gives up on the play, as his skating is no match for Stalberg’s. At this point it’s down to two Blue Jackets to stop him, both of whom are parallel to Stalberg on the ice.
The D-man on the right falls behind just a little, and Stalberg starts to gain separation from Jakub Voracek (No. 93).
At this point the D-man on the right has no way of defending the play. Stalberg has also gained enough separation from Voracek to get a clean shot off.
While Voracek manages to get his stick in Stalberg’s way, it wasn’t enough to stop the puck from going in the back of the net. Goal.
This play is incredible, and is a direct product of Stalberg’s ability to face multiple opponents head-on and dart past them.
The Predators don’t have anyone else on their roster who can maneuver up the ice the way Stalberg did here. While it would be unfair to expect him to create highlights like this on a regular basis, the simple fact that he’s capable of doing so makes him a unique talent.
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- One common theme in the clips above is how important every last drop of Stalberg’s speed was to lighting the lamp. Truth is, there are only a few guys in the league who can skate well enough to score any of these goals.
- Stalberg’s woeful playoff performance this spring, in which he scored zero goals and amassed just three assists in 19 games, has to be a concern. But I don’t believe it’s as big of an issue as many seem to believe. That’s pure speculation on my part, but I think Nashville’s system will be healthy for him and will help him thrive. Only time will tell.
- Despite his 6′ 3” frame, many scouts have criticized Stalberg for being too soft and playing smaller than his size. This could explain his post-season issues — at least in part — as play gets far more chippy after the 82nd game (or I guess 48th). His speed is going to be a major factor in the coming years, but he’s going to have to bring a tougher presence to the ice than he has in the past. Nashville is moving back to “Predator Hockey” after getting away from it last year, so Trotz will be looking for Stalberg to throw his weight around. It’ll be interesting to see just how physical Stalberg will be with his new club, and that’ll definitely be something for fans to pay attention to this season.
- Stalberg’s Fenwick percentage last year was 55.5%, which is extremely high. As this fantastic article will show you, a team’s overall Fenwick % has a strong correlation with its ability to contend for a playoff spot. The Preds as a whole have seen its Fenwick dip over the last few years — going from 51.7% in 2009-10 (sixth in the NHL) to 45.9% in 2013 (25th in the NHL) — and acquiring a player who can help drive possession was absolutely crucial. As the second video shows, Stalberg’s speed can be extremely valuable on the forecheck, and that’s something the Nashville brass has to love.
- Stalberg may not be the elite, electrifying forward the Preds have desired for so long, but he has potential to be a 20-25 goal-per-year guy — especially given the expanded role he’ll receive from his time in Chicago. He racked up 22 goals in 79 games in 2011-12 and nine goals in 47 games last year as a bottom six forward, so we know he can find the back of the net.
- That regular season scoring pace over the last two years averages out to 20 goals per 82 games. If he can develop some consistency and is willing to buy into “Predator Hockey,” there’s good reason to believe Stalberg can live up to his new contract — and then some.