Daniel and Henrik Sedin were two of the most creative playmakers in hockey history, with an unmatched repertoire of passes. Bank passes, slap passes, blind-backhand-saucer passes that landed perfectly on the tape through a maze of legs — they could do it all.
On Tuesday, however, their former teammate Kevin Bieksa drew attention to an element of their passing game that no one had ever noticed: spin.
I don’t mean spin passes, where one of the Sedins would pull off a spin-o-rama while delivering the puck to a teammate, though they certainly did plenty of those in their career. I’m talking about the spin they would put on the puck.
"If you don’t believe me here, you’re wrong."
Bieksa, in his role as intermission analyst for Hockey Night in Canada, has spoken several times about a unique aspect of one-timers: the spin of the puck coming from the passer. As he explains it, it’s much easier for a right-hand shot to take a one-timer from a right-hand pass and vice versa: a left-hand shot from a left-hand pass.
“If you don’t believe me here, you’re wrong,” states Bieksa. “A righty passing it to a righty is easier to one-time because the puck is spinning clockwise.
“And if you don’t believe me, next time you’re at your men’s league games, grab a couple pucks at the end, have a righty pass it to you...and have a lefty pass it to you and you tell me which one you can one-time harder. The spin of it, it’s subtle...but it helps out in shooting that puck harder.”
The way the puck naturally rolls off the stick is why a right-handed player would put a clockwise spin on the puck as it moves from heel to toe. A left-handed player would, of course, put a counter-clockwise spin on the puck.
I’m going to choose to believe Bieksa that this matters for one-timers — as he said, if I don’t believe him, I’m wrong — but there is a lingering question of why it matters.
Why does spin matter for a one-timer?
My theory is that the clockwise spin of the pass would work with the natural clockwise spin created by the shot. The spin of the puck when it’s shot keeps it stable in its flight, allowing it to cut through the air more quickly so that it doesn’t lose as much speed on the way to the net. More spin results in a heavier and more accurate shot.
A left-handed pass to a right-hand shot would be spinning “against the grain” for a one-timer and would need to stop spinning in one direction as it hits the stick and start spinning in the other direction as the blade follows through. Having to reverse the spin of the puck would result in less spin and therefore a less stable flight for the puck.
Also, a clockwise-spinning puck would be spinning into the blade towards the toe of the stick of a right-handed shot, making it easier to control and release the shot. A counter-clockwise-spinning puck would be spinning towards the heel of the stick, perhaps more often resulting in a flubbed shot, or just making it harder for the puck to cleanly come off the stick.
According to Max Pacioretty, speaking about Andrei Markov's playmaking, that's exactly it.
"Let’s have a little physics class,” said Pacioretty to Arpon Basu of The Athletic. “When a lefty passes the puck, the puck spins counter-clockwise. So, when a lefty shoots the puck you keep the spin going counter-clockwise. If it’s a righty shooting the puck, [the shooter] has to reverse the spin of the puck and it’s harder for it to come off your blade."
"Sedins would manipulate the puck spin"
Whatever the reason, puck spin on a one-timer is evidently so important that elite passers like the Sedins would take this into account. According to Bieksa, the left-handed Sedins would change how they passed the puck to right-handed shots.
“Smart players like [the] Sedins would manipulate the puck spin depending on what hand [they] were passing to,” said Bieksa on Twitter. “They would put top spin passing to RD for [a one-timer].”
In other words, the Sedins, despite being left-hand shots, would put clockwise spin on the puck when passing to a right-hand shot like Bieksa.
This requires a very specific type of pass and I found an example of Henrik Sedin delivering just such a pass to Bieksa. It’s a power play goal from 2013 against the San Jose Sharks and it was Bieksa’s first goal of the season.
Daniel gains the zone with a pass to Alex Burrows, which means both Bieksa and Burrows were, at least momentarily, on the power play with the Sedins — truly a rare sight. Daniel drove to the net to provide a screen, while Burrows dropped the puck to Henrik. With a little space and Bieksa stepping over the blue line, Henrik puts the puck right in Bieksa’s wheelhouse.
Watching the play, Henrik’s pass might escape notice. It’s nothing fancy, really. It’s not a saucer pass, he’s not threading it through traffic, and it’s not a blind backhand pass. In fact, it looks like a tremendously easy pass to make.
Slowing it down, however, it becomes clear that there is a little something extra to this pass. Henrik doesn’t just pass it: he pushes it, following through with a little subtle push outwards, rolling the puck ever-so-slightly from toe to heel, instead of heel to toe.
Watching it in slow-motion, the wobble of the puck does indeed reveal that the puck is spinning clockwise — the opposite of how it would normally come off a left-hand stick and perfect for a one-timer by a right-hand shot.
Maybe it’s just me, but this is blowing my mind.
The Sedins aren’t the only players to do this. Even Bieksa said “smart players like [the] Sedins” rather than saying that only the Sedins did this. Markov was one of those players who took spin into account when setting up his Montreal Canadiens teammates, notably right-handed shot Shea Weber.
Does every elite playmaker in the NHL do this? Is it just that no one talks about it?
How this affects the current Canucks and their power play
It’s immediately evident how this can apply to the current Canucks. Fans sometimes question why the Canucks don’t set up Brock Boeser for more one-timers from the left side on the power play. Instead, it’s so often focused on setting up Elias Pettersson.
One of the main reasons may be that the quarterback at the point, Quinn Hughes, is a left-hand shot. The natural spin he puts on the puck is ideal for a left-hand shot like Pettersson, but less so for Boeser. This means it’s not quite as simple as putting two one-timer threats on either side of the ice on the power play and hammering away: Hughes would need to modify how he passes the puck to Boeser to put it in his wheelhouse with the puck spinning the right way.
That’s not to say that a right-hand shot can’t one-time a puck that’s spinning counter-clockwise. Of course they can, particularly an elite shooter like Brock Boeser. But in the NHL, every little edge counts.
It’s one of those subtle nuances of the game that can have a major impact.