The reluctant shootout guy
When the Minnesota Wild traded for lightly used New York Rangers center Erik Christensen earlier this month, a Western Conference general manager observed, "They must be thinking shootouts."
Indeed, the Wild was mindful of shootouts. The team was also thinking about injuries (Guillaume Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Mikko Koivu were on the laundry list of Minnesota forwards sidelined at the time), as well as Christensen's offensive touch (18 of his career 62 goals have come on the power play) and relative experience (he had played in more than 350 NHL games, which made him a graybeard compared to Casey Wellman, the forward who was shipped to New York).
But shootouts certainly were part of the equation. If goalie Niklas Backstrom wasn't stopping many, the Wild needed someone who had at least a 50-50 chance of scoring one.
Of course, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher would never put it that way -- "Backstrom in the shootout has been a little bit overblown," he says -- but the consensus top 10 goalie, currently boasting a career best .922 save percentage, recently has been a shootout sieve. He's saved just 10 of 22 shots this season while winning only three of seven. He is above .500 in shootout saves for his career -- 85 of 151 -- but those middling numbers reflect a 15-28 lifetime record.
So with things sketchy at the back end of the end game for a playoff bubble team, why not beef up the front end by acquiring a player with an expiring contract who makes less than $1 million?
While hockey is decades behind Major League Baseball, the NFL and even the NBA in advanced statistical analysis -- popular NHL metrics still mostly consist of fourth-grade column addition stuff such as number of goals, assists, penalty minutes, stitches, lost teeth, etc. -- but Christensen's value is tangible.
Although stopped by Dallas' Kari Lehtonen in his one shootout attempt with the Wild since the Feb. 3 trade, Christensen has scored on 24 of 47 career shots in the postgame skills competition. (His 11 deciding shootout goals ranks third all-time although that stat is as dependent on extraneous factors such as order of the shooters as it is on his slick hands.) Christensen, in other words, can add value. He brings something that can be measured more readily than the contribution of, say, a four-minute-per-game fighter or even a so-called "energy guy."
"If you look at the composition of most fourth lines, you'll see energy lines, gritty lines that forecheck and maybe get momentum going," say Fletcher, who, like Wild coach Mike Yeo, knew Christensen from their time in the Penguins organization. "They'll (be composed of) the tougher guys, the physical players or somebody who can play in a special teams situation, power play or penalty kill. So why not a guy who can help in the shootout, which is a kind of special teams situation? Maybe that guy provides a goal that helps win a game and gets you that extra point."
Christensen was part of the most famous NHL shootout game, the all-in regular-season ender in 2010 between the Rangers and Flyers. He was the first New York shooter, against Philadelphia goalie Brian Boucher, and was stuffed on a stick-side snapper. The Flyers won the shootout, 2-1, edged New York for a playoff berth and used the victory as a springboard to an unlikely trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
"I think there's more made out of (my role in shootouts) than there should be," Christensen said by phone this week. "I don't look at myself as 'The Shootout Guy.' I don't want that label. Or to be known just as a shootout guy, anyway. Things just sorta happened."
Christensen, a Penguins third round draft choice in 2002, was a first-year professional when the American Hockey League employed a five-man shootout during the 2005-06 NHL lockout, giving him time and opportunity to get comfortable with the format. But he always was at ease with the unadulterated skill parts of the game. This was part of his hockey DNA, passed down from his father, Ivan, a former lawyer.
Ivan Christensen, an offensive defenseman who had a brief junior hockey career, quit law to start a company near Edmonton, Complete Player Inc., that taught young players techniques that were appropriated from the old Soviet system. (Jason Chimera and Blair Betts were among the NHLers who trained with Christensen's father.) Christensen grew up dangling. He could always fill the net, like in 2002-03 when he won the Bobby Clarke Trophy for leading the Western Hockey League in scoring.
When Christensen converted nine of his first 14 shootout attempts with Pittsburgh, his reputation was cemented. His feelings about being pigeonholed are ambivalent, but his shootouts attempts are wholly committed. Christensen does not study goalies. He does not second-guess himself once he gathers the puck at the center-ice dot. The moves are always pre-planned, one of the factors to which he attributes his success.
Christensen, a left-handed shot, has four go-to moves:
• He will double deke, skating to the left, faking a return to the right, inducing the goalie to move laterally to his left, and then tapping in a forehand. Christensen twisted Nashville's Pekka Rinne into knots with that move in November 2010.
• He will change the angle by skating in from the right and then shooting stick side like the Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk.
• He will come up the middle of the ice and shoot stick side, a variation of the Datsyuk move with the added element of surprise.
• Occasionally he will trot out the Peter Forsberg Postage Stamp move (which, of course, originated not with Forsberg at the 1994 Winter Olympics, but with countryman Kent Nilsson, the Magic Man, at an earlier World Championships).
Christensen introduced the one-handed move in a December 2010 game against Tampa Bay when he saw Ryan Malone, an old Penguins teammate, counseling Lightning goalie Dan Ellis about his tendencies prior to the shootout.
"I'd been messing around with it in practice," Christensen says, "but doing it on that stage (at Madison Square Garden) was a little different."
He calculates he was three-for-three last season with The Forsberg. But Lehtonen, an old teammate from Atlanta, foiled it in Christiansen's Wild debut. That 2-1 loss to Dallas was precisely the kind of game that makes so many NHL GMs rail against the shootout. Arguably the Wild had outplayed the Stars for 65 minutes. Certainly they had outshot Dallas, 34-26.
Fletcher says, "I think we probably deserved two points there but didn't get it. If you didn't think the shootout was important before, you knew by the end of the game how important that was."
As of Wed., Feb. 15, the Wild, 5-6 in shootouts this season, was five points out of a playoff spot. "The shootout is here to stay -- the Commissioner (Gary Bettman) recently made a comment to that effect -- so it's up to us to figure out a way to be successful. It's something we practice every day. And when we're healthy, we have Koivu (26-for-58 career), Matt Cullen (6-for-11 this season, 18-for-42 career) and now Christensen, which gives us three very capable guys."
The shootout is the stepchild that the NHL still is coming to terms with more than five years after it arrived, instituted as a way to decide games as well as mollify fans after the 2004-05 lockout. But instead of five shooters, the NHL made the mistake of going with three a side -- as if the shootout were something to be hurried through rather than savored. And the NHL kept the consolation point, now part of the dance of the seven veils that makes the league standings opaque, tricks people into thinking losing teams are actually playing .500, and artificially keeps the standings and playoff races tight because of the three-point games it creates.
This he-man league wants as many losers as possible to go home feeling as good about themselves by giving then a point. Honestly, there are days when you think the NHL will hand out trophies for participation, like at a Little League banquet. It should just man-up and make the shootout substantially more than a coda by expanding it to five shooters and removing the wiggle room of the loser point or ditching it entirely, replacing it with expanded overtime or simply accepting ties.
"If I see a great game, I'm happy with a tie," Christensen says. "Seeing a team win or lose at that point almost is besides the point. You're not really a hockey fan if you leave a fantastic 1-1 game feeling disappointed. Of course, there are some bad 1-1 games and ties do kinda suck."
So we are trapped like a bug in amber. NHL fans are stuck with the half-hearted shootout system. And Christensen is stuck with his half-deserved reputation.
There are worse things than being considered a one-trick pony -- Lightning defenseman Marc-André Bergeron is an egregious one-on-one defender but his ability to shoot rockets from the point on the power play earns him $1 million a year -- although Christensen, on his fifth team since 2008, aspires to more. He is averaging a little more than 13 minutes a game while moving up and down the Wild's lineup, playing center and wing. Yet his stay in Minnesota might be brief
The Wild has some developing talent in the minors and six forwards who will turn pro next season, including players from junior hockey, Europe and U.S. colleges. Yes, the shelf life of an NHL specialist can be precarious. Christensen understands that he might not have found a permanent home in the self-proclaimed State of Hockey. But when the fans get to their feet at the end of the night and there is nothing but open ice between him and the goalie, he has an unerring grasp of what is required.
In the inevitable trade activity that will climax Feb. 27 at 3 p.m. EST, when marquee teams like Chicago and Washington might make bold statements and marquee names like Rick Nash might be changing addresses, ultimately an almost forgotten minor deal a month earlier might prove -- measurably -- to be one of the most significant of the season.
Or -- like Boucher's blocker save on Christensen in 2010 -- not.