As Pronger moves the puck, he runs through a mental checklist of passing options, depending on the time and space available to him. Option 1 is the rare rinkwide bomb to a forward who's stretching the defense. Option 2, which is the primary pass for Pronger but one fraught with danger for almost everyone else, is the hard pass under coverage to a winger on the opposite side of the rink. Option 3 is throwing it back to the other defenseman, which is usually too static for his tastes. Options 4 and 5 are banging the puck off the boards or glass, generally safe plays. "Pronger can kill any forechecking scheme with that pass he makes to the offside winger," Blake says of Option 2. "That's dangerous unless you know you can make it, and he makes it every game. He beats two or three guys with that pass, and away the Blues go."
Pronger keeps a mental book on all the first-and second-line forwards he sees, watching the highlights every night to see not the scores but the scorers' moves. "You see a play and say, O.K., that's the move he's going to try because it worked," Pronger says. "Then you get in the same spot with him, the guy tries to put it through your stick and shoot, and you shut it down. You just have to read it."
The modern player doesn't have to know Tolstoy to thrive in the NHL, but there is required reading: breakouts, two-on-ones, neutral-zone traps. For those who can't handle anything more complex than Hockey for Dummies, school's out.