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Watching Rocky Thompson’s PP Breakouts with an NHL Coach

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The San Jose Sharks have run two common power play breakouts over the last two years.

There’s the two-man drop pass:

Usually, it’s Erik Karlsson (65) as the quarterback, who drops the puck back to the two forwards coming from behind with speed. The forward who receives the puck usually passes.

Then there’s the “five man” swing:

On this breakout, the entire power play unit comes up the ice together — once again, Karlsson is the focal point, as it’s incumbent on him to get the opposition’s F1 penalty killer (that’s the PK’er closest to the puck) off balance, then hit an open Sharks forward in stride with a pass.

You can see both breakouts, back to back, in this January 2020 game:

Enter Rocky Thompson.

“He’s strong with his power play philosophies. Lots of different breakouts,” said Chicago Wolves assistant coach Bob Nardella of Thompson, his head coach from 2017-20. “Some of the teams we played, not many teams vary with their power play breakouts. But we did. He was very creative with that.

“Speaking for my league, Milwaukee, they had two breakouts. Iowa. They stuck to it and they were very good, those teams.”

With that in mind, I re-watched Wolves games to get an idea about the breakouts that Thompson might incorporate into the San Jose Sharks power play — if and when he joins the Sharks.

I focused on Erik Brannstrom’s time with the Wolves, as he was probably Thompson’s most adept QB in Chicago.

A former NHL coach added: “If you don’t have the one guy to carry the puck, he’s average? I can tell you that you’re going to be struggling to find the guy to carry the puck all year.”

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Analytics

On the Incomparable Miro Heiskanen

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Every Sunday at Peng to the Point, we talk about the world away from the San Jose Sharks.

Two years ago today, the San Jose Sharks acquired Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators. For the superstar defenseman, this ended an interminable cycle of trade rumor after trade rumor. For young defensemen like Miro Heiskanen, Shea Theodore, and Mikhail Sergachev, each attached to a potential Karlsson blockbuster, it was a sigh of relief.

The 21-year-old Heiskanen has emerged as arguably the best young blueliner in the league this post-season, leading all rearguards with 22 points in just 20 games.

In January, I spoke with Rick Bowness, assistant coach John Stevens, Jason Dickinson, and Esa Lindell in Los Angeles about the Finnish wunderkind for The Point Hockey. Special thanks to Mike Kelly and The Point Hockey for allowing me to share these unreleased quotes, which are accompanied by Heiskanen clips from Dallas-Vegas Game Three.

“He’s just going to skate himself out of trouble,” Bowness gushed.

Off the draw, Heiskanen (4) walks down the left wall, looking for offense. His pass into the paint goes off Tyler Seguin (91) and speedy Jonathan Marchessault (81) is off on a 2-on-1. But look at Heiskanen turn the corner from behind the Golden Knights net and catch Marchessault.

“They’re trying to get on top of him, be more physical on him. Take away his skating space. Not let him get going,” Bowness pointed out. “But with the hockey sense that he has, he smells that out.”

“It’s his skating ability, his footwork is elite,” Dickinson offered. “He seems to not get crossed up.”

In any viewing, Heiskanen’s composure with the puck always stands out. Max Pacioretty (67) is on top of the left-handed defenseman, but some fancy footwork and a quick backhand pass, he’s beat the forecheck.

Stevens agreed: “He’s got a lot of poise with the puck.”

“His poise is underrated. It doesn’t matter what happened last shift, last second, he’s going to do the same thing the next time,” Dickinson added. “If he loses the puck and they get a scoring chance, he’s going to try that move again, not sweat it.”

This is in the offensive zone, but Heiskanen appears to have ice in his veins with the puck, kicking it up to his stick with Reilly Smith (19) backchecking.

Miro Heiskanen is a transition machine with his blend of hockey sense, skating, and puck poise, as demonstrated by his proficiency with Zone Entries/Exits and Stretch Pass Completions:

Or take this connection with Joel Kiviranta (25) from Game Three, right after breaking up Marchessault’s 2-on-1:

It’s not just offense with Heiskanen either. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he’s not the most imposing of defenders, but he more than gets by with guile, a quick stick, and of course, his fabulous feet.

“Good stick in the d-zone, how he places himself in the d-zone,” Lindell observed. “He doesn’t run around, get caught.”

“With any young player, you want to be more consistent. Just killing plays coming into the zone off the rush. Killing plays down low,” Stevens noted. “He does a good job of that, but the better and better you get at that, the less time you spend in your zone.”

Dickinson lauded Heiskanen’s footwork and angles defensively: “He’s smart at reading when to go and when not to go, how to go and how not to go. There’s little ways in how [defensemen] angle their stick or angle their feet that gives you a lane through their triangle, through their feet or around them. He’s good at recognizing where to put his body, his stick.

“It’s impressive that he’s able to make these sharp turns, these quick stops, and stay with a guy if they make a good move on him. He seems to be able to recover because he’s so quick and agile.”

Heiskanen just eats up Paul Stastny (26) in the corner, luring the veteran forward into a turnover.

Heiskanen’s ability to kill the Smith attack off the rush, of course, led directly to Alexander Radulov’s Game Three OT winner:

The 21-year-old is proving to be a big-time player on the biggest of stages.

Stevens, who coached 2016 Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty in Los Angeles, was happy to put Miro Heiskanen in the same breath: “When the game is tight, the thing I like about him, that I would compare to Drew, he wants to make a difference. If the game is tight, he doesn’t get intimidated. He’s not afraid of the spotlight.

“There’s parts of his game I can’t teach him. He does things instinctively well like Drew did. You just want to turn him loose and let him play. I call it freedom of discipline. Give him the discipline of how the team wants to play, give him the freedom to use his talent.”

Bowness, however, who’s coached defensemen from Ray Bourque to Zdeno Chara to Victor Hedman, resisted any comparisons:

“Great players have their own identity. Who do you compare Ray Bourque to? Nick Lidstrom? Miro has his own identity. This kid is [21] years old, he has Norris Trophy written all over him.

“He’s humble, he works hard. He knows he’s good without talking about it. He lets his play do his talking for him. He’s an exceptional young man, he’s an exceptional talent.

“You have to let those guys go. Don’t get in their way. Let them play.

“But to compare him to someone? No. Compare him to Miro.”

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