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NKB’s Notebook: Reilly’s Stretch Passes, and Thoughts on Line Combinations

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NHL: Ottawa Senators at Vancouver Canucks Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back for another edition of NKB’s Notebook, this time on the heels of one of the team’s best performance of the year: a 2-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets in which they mostly carried the play and were fully-deserving of the outcome they got. It was as encouraging a game as you’ll see from this group.

Here are a few things that I noticed in the process of watching last week’s games:

  • This is not a new observation, but I’ve really enjoyed the play of the Colin White, Evegenii Dadonov, Nick Paul trio. The Dadonov goal on Saturday was a perfect encapsulation of what that line can do when it’s working well: Paul retrieved the puck on the forecheck and got it to White, who in turns made a quick backdoor pass to Dadonov for the the chip in over Connor Hellebuyck; not an easy play in itself. Each player is in their role in that sequence, a perfectly complimenting set of skills. To my eye, a big part of their success has been that type of cycling in the offensive end off of turnovers; they’ve been by far the team’s best line at both generating the turnovers, and then sustaining an attack afterwards. Paul and White are likely too limited offensively to be contributors to a good team’s top six, but they are very viable on a third line and the added offensive prowess of Dadonov makes this a tantalizing trio for this version of the Sens.
  • At the same time, I’m not nearly as big a fan of the Chris Tierney, Connor Brown, Brady Tkachuk line. At a conceptual level I understand what DJ Smith is trying to do: he wants to have a group that he can confidently send over the boards against the opponent’s top line, like he did last year with Brown, Paul, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau. The issue I have with this approach is that Tierney and Brown are both so limited offensively that it has the effect of wasting Tkachuk’s offensive upside. Folks will point to the game winner on Saturday, which is fair enough, but for my money the long-term results haven’t been good enough to justify this type of deployment for your star winger. Tkachuk’s elite skill is puck retrieval, and the team will get better results if the players benefitting from said retrieval are their more skilled forwards.
  • The last thing that I wanted to touch on was Mike Reilly’s proficiency at the stretch pass. I’ve written before that I find Reilly to be one of the most confounding players on the team because no one else has his highs and his lows, but there’s no denying that he’s a wizard at the long bomb breakaway pass. The stretch pass to setup Dadonov’s breakaway goal during the second Edmonton game was an elite execution of the concept: Reilly not only needs to execute with precision, but he also needs to have the presence of mind to even think to make the pass in the first place. If I had to put my finger on the thing that sets Reilly apart from other second and third pairing options, it’s that instinct: he will always look for the most attacking play. Most defensemen that are a bit further down the depth chart will opt for the safer play. Lately, that instinct has paid off in spades, in particular with a couple of great stretch passes.