I’ve been watching Brian Campbell closely and I plan to share here what I have found. I was going to do one huge post, but it will be best to split this into three sections.
Volume 1: I’ll show how great Brian Campbell is at moving or transitioning the puck through the neutral zone leading to offensive zone entries.
Volume 2: Brian Campbell is playing the right side consistently for what I believe is the first time in his career. In this section, I’ll explain why it’s a hindrance for left shot defensemen to play the right side.
Volume 3: The final piece of this series will illustrate how Brian Campbell is adjusting so he can be more effective as a right side defenseman.
Left and Right defensemen. What factors determine what side a defensemen plays on? Normally, its as simple as which hand they shoot with. Left shot d-men play the left side and right shot d-men play the right side. But why is this?
It’s mostly about the forehand vs backhand relationship. A left handed shot can use the forehand pass to clear the puck, pass the puck, stop the puck along the boards, etc. If the left shot d-man is playing on the right side, that player has to use his backhand more. They have to clear the puck, pass the puck and stop the puck along the boards more often with their backhand instead of their forehand. A players backhand is weaker than their forehand which puts them at a disadvantage. Don’t worry if this went over your head, you’ll visually see what I’m talking about in the gifs later in this post.
The amazing thing is defensemen playing their strong side is something coaches and the analytics community agree on. Here is Mike Babcock discussing the importance of having left-right balance in his defensemen.
“It’s just a simple thing like a d-zone faceoff when they bump the puck over and you go from a left-hand shot to a left-hand shot, he’s on his backhand,” explained Babcock. “What does he do with the puck? He rims it around the wall.
“When the puck comes up to the blueline and you’re playing your offside, what does the d-man do with the puck? He rims it back down. Well, we just worked hard to get it not rimmed back down. The right-hander puts it across the top or shoots a one-timer.
“In the neutral zone – so this is the third thing I’m telling you – when it goes d-to-d, and the wide side guy is wide open and you can put a laser on his tape and it gets space, now what do you do? Well, you don’t go in the middle on your backhand, because you’re scared shitless. So what do you do? You bang it off the glass and give it to them, when you comes back.”
Visually, playing the off-side appears to be a disadvantage, but statistical analysis backs it up as well. This hockey graphs post by Domenic Galamini suggests coaches are correct to value the importance of handedness. A balanced pairing with a left and a right shot d-man have consistently outperformed left-left and right-right defensive pairs in shot and goal based stats.
Now that you have a general overview of the importance of handedness of defensemen, lets take a look at Brian Campbell. Why is Campbell being forced to play the right side? A look at the Blackhawks defensive depth according to the handedness of shot provides the answer.
The Blackhawks are carrying eight defensemen. This season, Van Riemsdyk and Rozsival have been the usual healthy scratches. This leaves five left shot d-men and one right shot d-man in the lineup. Hjalmarsson has been able to play well on the right side and Seabrook is already a right shot d-man, so that forces either Keith, Campbell, Kempny, or Forsling to take the final right side spot. Kempny and Forsling are rookies that Q probably doesn’t want playing their off-side. This leaves either Keith or Campbell to play the right side, and Brian Campbell has been the odd man out.
You’ll also notice by looking at the AHL depth chart, that Chicago has a real lack of right shot defensemen in the system.
Playing the off-side might not affect Hjalmarsson as much as it affects Campbell. Hjalmarsson is a defensive defensemen and not an elite passer like Campbell. Taking away the forehand of a so-so passer isn’t as bad as taking the forehand away from an elite puck mover in Brian Campbell.
In volume 1, you saw how Brian Campbell generated offense from the left side and mostly with the forehand pass. Now lets take a look at examples of where he struggled on the right side.
Above, you’ll see Brian Campbell receive the puck while playing the right side. As a left shot defensemen, he has to use a weak backhand pass to move the puck back to the middle. A right shot d-man would have been able to use a forehand pass towards any part of the ice when playing on the right side. With Campbell playing on his off-side, his options are mostly restricted to a back hand pass or to bang the puck off the boards with the forehand.
Campbell is pretty lucky here as it still ends up as an eventual offensive zone entry. But still, you’ll notice how weak the pass was and how slow the release was. In volume 1, you saw quick release, strong, and accurate forehand passes by Brian Campbell through the neutral zone that generated offense. When playing the right side, Brian Campbell can’t optimally be Brian Campbell.
Lets look at another example.
Here, Brian Campbell skates backwards. By skating backwards, he can attempt a forehand pass. Although, note that when making a forehand pass while skating backwards, he is passing away from where he is skating. This will result in a less powerful and less accurate pass as his momentum is going away from the passing target. The play is broken up in the neutral zone and the Devils take possession.
Above, Brian Campbell receives the puck off the faceoff, he goes up the right side, pressure comes, and he has to bang the puck off the boards for an icing. Instead of a weak backhand pass to the middle, Campbell makes a safe play in throwing the puck off the boards and up the ice. The safe play results in a negative result.
Brian Campbell receives the puck on the right side. He tries to take the puck towards the left side in order to use his forehand pass. The play develops quickly and he sends an inaccurate pass to Jordan Tootoo and New Jersey gains possession. Even though this play didn’t work, Brian Campbell is on the right track realizing he needs to get to the left side to make better plays.
The difference between volume 1 and volume 2 is very evident. In volume 1, Campbell showed off his elite puck moving ability by creating easy offensive zone entries for the Blackhawks. In volume 2, we see a totally different defensemen, unable to make strong neutral zone plays. The difference? Campbell was on the left side in volume 1 and on the right side in volume 2. He can utilize the forehand pass when playing on his left side. On the right side, he has to settle more for the weak backhand pass which often leads to a turnover. Campbell’s best weapon is his transition offense and playing him on the right side really hampers his ability to optimally impact the Blackhawks.
In the final installment of the Brian Campbell series, I’ll show how the defenseman is adjusting to life on the right side.