Every NHL player works out in the off-season, but Kariya trains in a hockey-smart way. He works on weaknesses, targeting specific parts of his game and his body. He did it even before he turned pro. He was a superior passer but a mediocre shooter as a teen, in part because he deferred to the older boys he played with. To address the deficiency, Kariya obtained a highlight video of Hull's 86-goal season in 1990-91, studying his positioning and stick angle.
During the 1994 world championships, Shanahan, Kariya's linemate, told him that backcheckers tend to overhustle in their haste to get into the play; the forward who comes to a quick stop can get off his shot while the backcheckers zoom past like Wile E. Coyote on rocket-fueled Acme roller skates. "There's hard backchecking, and there's smart backchecking," Shanahan says. "Most guys put their heads down and go hard. The principle is that if the backcheckers go fast, you go slow. If they go slow, you go fast. The only problem is, when we play Anaheim and I'm entering the zone late expecting to be open, Paul's right there on me, waiting. Every time. Drives me nuts."
Kariya is persistent. To regain some of the explosiveness he lost to a foot injury last season, Kariya spent part of the summer Rollerblading uphill while wearing a weighted vest. He also worked on his shot again. For every 100 he would take on his natural left-handed side, he would shoot an equal number on his backhand.
As Team Canada skated at its first Olympic orientation practice last month, Colorado goalie Patrick Roy sidled up to Kariya and said, "I hear you've been working on your backhand this summer." Roy had been gathering intelligence, a surefire sign of intelligence. "A lot of people think I talk a lot, but I also listen a lot," Roy says. "I have scouts everywhere in the league, people who play for different teams whom I respect. I ask them what's going on."
In June, Roy earned an unprecedented third Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP, but in Game 4 of the finals he committed a gaffe that might have had Bucknerian repercussions. He coughed up the puck behind the net with 12 minutes left and gave the Devils the tying goal in a game New Jersey would go on to win, evening the series. The mistake underscored the arrogance of a goaltender who at times should be tethered to the crossbar.
Roy's attention to his angles is meticulous, as is his attention to the position of his glove. After studying the Buffalo Sabres' Dominik Hasek a few years ago, Roy abandoned the classic goalie pose, in which the tip of the glove is pointing down, and rotated it about 30 degrees to an angle that he says is better suited to catching a rising puck. "Sometimes you'll hear a fan say, 'Oh, man, he should have had that one,' " says Roy, who holds the league records for regular-season (484) and playoff (137) wins. "Then there are the times when fans say, 'He never had a chance.' I'd rather have somebody tell me I should have stopped one than have someone say I didn't have a chance, because, if I didn't have a chance, it means I was out of position."
"A lot of goalies are just playing the game, not thinking the game," Devils netminder Martin Brodeur says. "It's about reading the play, controlling rebounds, managing the game. If you're smart, you know when to freeze the puck. At home or on the road there's a big difference. On the road, if you're not matching up well [on the fly] against the other team, you need a face-off so you can bring in players you need to defend against guys like Lemieux or [ Washington's Jaromir] Jagr. The smart goalie decides where the puck is going at all times, moving it to the correct players or holding on to it for the draw."
When he can, goalie Curtis Joseph of the Toronto Maple Leafs even tries to dictate the location of the face-offs. For example, if he knows that Leafs captain Mats Sundin is due on the ice next, Joseph will subtly shift a puck he freezes in the middle of the crease to the right, putting the ensuing face-off in the circle to his right. The quick thinking permits Sundin, a right-handed shot, to backhand the draw into the corner and out of danger.
Positioning is the primary indicator of a defenseman's hockey IQ. Often the best blueliners, like Lidstrom or Teppo Numminen of the Phoenix Coyotes, are so sound they're barely noticed. A secondary but almost as telling measure is the outlet pass, a multiple-choice test of the player's decision-making prowess. "Every defenseman, from first pair to third, has to make that pass, and nobody makes it better than Pronger," says Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake.
The 6'6" Pronger, who has the certitude of a cop and the reach of a boardinghouse diner, is another of the accursed players whose size and skills are so manifest that his smarts haven't received sufficient credit. The Canucks' Burke, the general manager in Hartford when Pronger was drafted, says Pronger "reads the ice as well as any defenseman in the modern era." Invariably Pronger makes not only a good first pass but also the best first pass, the one that creates the most open ice. His and fellow defenseman Al MacInnis's ability to push the puck smartly makes St. Louis a formidable team in transition.