Monday, 12 December 2011

The AAA's Defence

Previously I've written a bit about the Big Three on defence for the Montreal Winged Wheelers of the 1880s and early 1890s, a defensively dominant team: goaltender Tom Paton, point James Stewart and cover-point Allan Cameron. We know that Paton excelled not only at stopping the puck but especially at clearing it after a save; we known that Cameron was noted both for his transition game and his aggressive defence; and we know that while Stewart was less celebrated than the other two, he was still known as a top defender. However, we also saw a quote which called Stewart out for leaving his position in front of the goal too much, for not playing as a point should.

But it doesn't make much sense that this team, with a point that played out of position so often, would be able to prevent goals as well as they did. The point was the second-most important defensive position on the ice, and if he abandoned his position so much, that would cost his team goals. Unless, of course, leaving his post actually helped his team keep the puck out of the net...

I believe that Stewart's aggressiveness, relative to how the point position was "supposed" to be played at the time, was in fact a tactical choice, and one that was very effective. Cameron was known to challenge opponents, instead of waiting for them to come to him, and I suggest that Stewart did the same to great effect. This is from a game report in the March 8, 1892 edition of the Montreal Gazette:
Paton had many stops to make, nevertheless, but they were of the free and easy order and he cleverly drove the puck out of his territory. Stewart and Cameron swooped around after the puck in admirable style.
So both Cameron and Stewart went after the enemy puck-carriers (something points especially were not really expected to do). They did not play passively, allowing the opponents time to enter the zone and set up a combination play. I believe this is one of the main reasons the Winged Wheelers were so good at preventing goals: Cameron and Stewart were able to play aggressively, stripping the puck from opponents before they could make a play. Not everyone could do this, of course; you'd need the instincts and ability to pull it off.

This style of play, done effectively, was especially beneficial in the era that Stewart and Cameron played in. Why? Because there was no forward passing. When making an offensive rush, you had to stay behind the puck carrier to be eligible to receive a pass. So rushes were akin to what you see in rugby, with a line of forwards skating ahead. This is why the point played behind the cover-point rather than side-by-side like modern blueliners do; opponents came in using individual rushes, because they were not allowed to pass the puck ahead.

I believe this is also what allowed Cameron and Stewart to be so effective by being aggressive. If you challenged an enemy puck carrier, you were not in as much danger of getting into a bad position as you would be in the modern game, because if the opponent passed the puck before you get to him, he could at best do it laterally, and it will often be behind him. As such, if you could read the play quickly enough (which Cameron and Stewart surely could), when the opponent passed the puck you were be able to adjust your trajectory to intercept that player instead, because he simply could not be behind you.

As such, I think Cameron and especially Stewart were simply ahead of their time, realizing the advantage on defence that playing aggressively could bring. While some other defences waiting for puck carriers to come to them, the Winged Wheelers focused on stopping the opponents advances as soon as they could. And this is one reason they were so very good at keeping the puck out of the net.

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