Why are right-handed defensemen such a commodity in the NHL? | TribLIVE.com
Penguins/NHL

Why are right-handed defensemen such a commodity in the NHL?

Seth Rorabaugh
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AP
The Penguins’ Kris Letang is one of the highest paid defensemen in the NHL.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Kris Letang often was the Penguins’ only right-handed defenseman last season, but the team now has more balance.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz plays against the Blue Jackets Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson corals the puck against the Blue Jackets’ Ryan Macinnis in the second period Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.

Jim Rutherford is a baseball fan. Has been most of his life.

The Pittsburgh Penguins general manager shares an affinity for the Boston Red Sox along with coach Mike Sullivan.

Rutherford is fully aware one of the most valuable commodities in that sport is left-handed pitching. There just aren’t as many left-handed pitchers as right-handed pitchers.

Through Friday’s games, a total of 616 players had thrown at least one pitch right-handed in an MLB game this season. In contrast, there have been 214 left-handed pitchers.

“Anything is more valuable when you don’t have it,” Rutherford said. “There’s a supply and demand there.”

Considering roughly nine out of 10 people on the earth are right-handed, the disparity in baseball makes perfect sense.

Then there’s hockey, which goes completely against the grain.

Of the 906 non-goalies who participated in at least one regular-season game last season in the NHL, 570 of them (62.9 percent) shot left-handed.

Why are there so many left-handed shots when the vast majority of the planet uses its right hand to change channels, throw baseballs or drink coffee?

There really isn’t an answer. At least not any good ones. There are plenty of “I thinks” or “Maybe it’s becauses” and a ton of “I don’t knows” but not many theories based on empirical evidence.

“I don’t know,” said Red Wings defenseman Trevor Daley, a former Penguin. “You get a lot of Canadian golfers that shoot left. American guys are all right-handed golfers.”

“I don’t know,” said right-handed Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuck. “Maybe right-handed shots are probably better than left-handers?”

While the forward positions are actually heavier on lefties in terms of the sheer numbers (374 lefties and 206 righties in the NHL last season), that discrepancy can be skewed a bit by the amount of centers who play left-handed. As long as you have at least one right-handed shot on a line of three players, that trio more often than not can function competently.

Defense is another matter.

Last season, there were 196 lefties and 130 righties on defense. Ideally, every coach in the NHL wants every pairing to be made up of a left-handed shot and a right-handed shot. If you have to play two lefties, one of them is going to be in a tough spot playing on his off side.

“We prefer to have guys on their strong sides as defensemen,” Sullivan said. “It helps going back for pucks. You’re always on your forehand. You have the ability to change the point of attack on your forehand, make that (defense-to-defense) pass. It puts guys in more advantageous positions. That’s not to say that some guys can’t play the off side. But I think it’s obvious that our preference is to keep them on their strong sides.”

Said New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz: “It’s a huge luxury. When you get a lefty and lefty (on defense), it takes a unique player, a guy like (former Penguins defenseman) Sergei Gonchar who could do that a little bit. You lose about a third of your ice when you play your off hand. Just offensively, you lose a third of the ice. You get some good looks when you jump into holes because you’re on your off hand. You get a little more one-timers. It’s a unique skill to be able to do that.

“It is a luxury, and you need a really good, poised player with some ability with the hands and the ability to contort so he can open up the ice for himself. Having two lefties, passing for your partner is a little different spot than when you have a lefty-righty. There is an adjustment for everybody who does that. It is a luxury these days.”

The Penguins likely will open the season enjoying that luxury as their projected top three defensive tandems involve a left-handed and right-handed shot. That was rarely the case last season, particularly after defenseman Justin Schultz went down in October and was sidelined for four months because of a fractured left leg. During his convalescence, the Penguins usually had one right-handed defenseman in Kris Letang and five lefties, two of whom usually were playing their off side. The Penguins staggered throughout that four-month spell waiting for Schultz to return.

“The thing that hurt us (last) year was in our top six, we had the two right-handed shots in Schultz and Letang,” Rutherford said. “Then when Schultz got hurt, it became more difficult with guys playing their off side.”

More often than not, Jack Johnson and Jamie Oleskiak, who was traded to the Dallas Stars in January, were tasked with manning the off side.

“You get put on your backhand a little bit more, but I’m comfortable there,” Johnson said. “There’s pros and cons to the both. Offensively on the right side, you’ve got a chance to take one-timers, get pucks to the net a little quicker. In the (defensive) zone, you might have to put your head on a swivel a little bit more because you’ll be opened up a little bit more to get hit.”

Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen also sometimes played his off side during his tenure with the Penguins.

“If you have time, if the puck is in the middle of the ice, you have more options,” Niskanen said. “But under pressure, you’re forced to make more plays on your backhand, which generally, for most people, is not as good. You’re set up for a one-timer automatically if you’re in the (offensive) zone. But pucks coming up the wall, you’re on backhand. You can’t make as strong of a play.

“Defending, I actually like defending on my off side because I keep my body in the middle and get that little extra reach with my stick without having to turn my feet.”

There is a difference between being able to play on your off side and doing so at a high level. Relatively few defensemen can.

One of the best in recent memory is Daley.

A member of the Penguins’ 2016 and ’17 Stanley Cup championship teams, Daley is a left-handed shot who professes a preference and greater level of ease playing on his right side.

“Just early on in my career, I was put on my right, and I kind of just stuck there,” said Daley, who is entering his 16th NHL season. “I think left-handers are more dominant in hockey than right-handers. It’s just something that I got used to and got a lot more comfortable on just over the years. I stayed there for so long.”

For a forechecking forward, you tend to be aware if a defenseman retrieving a puck is on his off side.

“I always am,” said Capitals forward Carl Hagelin, another former Penguin. “It’s more if he’s on his backhand or his forehand and what angle you’re coming at. Sometimes, you can’t really think, you just go. … You can see if he has his puck on his backhand, you know he doesn’t have as many options then he’s not as stronger. Just time-wise, it will take a little longer for him to do what he needs to do if it’s on his backhand.”

Playing the right side tends to be a lucrative proposition. Of the NHL’s 15 highest salary-cap hits on defense, 11 belong to right-handed shots.

Player, team Shoots Salary cap hit
Erik Karlsson, Sharks Right $11.5 million
Drew Doughty, Kings Right $11 million
P.K. Subban, Devils Right $9 million
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes Left $8.25 million
Jacob Trouba, Rangers Right $8 million
Brent Burns, Sharks Right $8 million
John Carlson, Capitals Right $8 million
Victor Hedman, Lightning Left $7.875 million
Shea Weber, Canadiens Right $7,857,143
Dustin Byfuglift$en, Jets Right $7.6 million
Ryan Suter, Wild Left $7,538,461
Aaron Ekblad, Panthers Right $7.5 million
Kris Letang, Penguins Right $7.25 million
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Sharks Left $7 million
Brent Seabrook, Blackhawks Right $6.875 million

Note: All salary information is courtesy of Cap Friendly.

“Supply and demand, I guess,” said Niskanen, who signed a seven-year contract worth $40.25 million with the Washington Capitals in 2014. “I don’t necessarily fall into this category, but highly skilled right-shot defensemen really work well (on the power play) because a lot of dishers (passers) are lefties. Just the way power plays are set up, guys like (Capitals forward Nicklas) Backstrom or Sid (Crosby), they generally work the right half wall, their off side. They have a right shot just for the one-time option, either on the top side or the back door.”

Even more bewildering in all of this is the side one shoots from isn’t necessarily the same side one lives life on outside the rink.

“Write with my right hand,” said the left-shooting Johnson. “Throw with my right hand. But I’m a little weird. I would catch with my left. I would swing a baseball bat with my left hand. I would play golf left-handed. But for the most part, I’m pretty normal. Put a baseball hand or a golf club or hockey stick, I’m left-handed.”

“I play golf, baseball righty,” said former Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta, now shooting left-handed with the Chicago Blackhawks. “Catch lefty. Bat righty. Golf righty.”

In some cases, vision will dictate how a player shoots or does performs mundane activities such as eating or ringing a doorbell.

“For me, it’s more right-eye dominant,” said right-shooting Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. “My right eye is dominant, so everything needs to be on this (right) side. Literally everything.”

Does any of this makes sense?

Johnson offered the most kinesiologically coherent hypothesis.

“The rule of thumb is your dominant hand would be the top hand on your hockey stick because you have to go to one hand a lot,” Johnson said. “You want that to be your dominant, stronger, more coordinated hand. It doesn’t always work out that way. Some guys are right-hand dominant, and they play right-handed. But it’s not set in stone.”

What does appear to be concrete is the discrepancy between left-handed and right-handed defensemen won’t be leveling off anytime soon.

The Penguins appear to have found ways to avoid an imbalanced blue line. Even a would-be fourth defensive pairing of Johnson and Ruhwedel offers a lefty-righty dynamic. But an injury, such as Schultz’s ailment last season, or other factors could always make the Penguins’ best-laid plans go awry.

“You can see a difference in our team when we have the three right shots and the three left shots,” said Rutherford. “But it seems like, every year the thing teams are looking for the most are right-shot defenseman.”

Follow the Penguins all season long.

Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Penguins
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