By Scott Wheeler (The Athletic)
TORONTO — In two decades of coaching in the NHL, Todd Woodcroft has always been fascinated by one thing above all else: the centre position.

It began, in his formative years, watching Doug Gilmour play for the Maple Leafs. It continued, as his fandom of hockey turned into a passion for its details, when his favourite team became the Red Wings. He was drawn, then, to Steve Yzerman’s dual prowess offensively and defensively, to Igor Larionov’s ability to influence a game all over the ice, and to Sergei Fedorov’s game-changing combination of skill and responsible defensive play.

Later, when he was beginning his NHL coaching career in the early 2000s, Woodcroft appreciated a series of other Red Wings centres, from Pavel Datsyuk (whom he worked with for 10 summers) to Henrik Zetterberg and Kris Draper, for the ways they were able to put their own stamp on multiple championships.

And ever since, he has made studying the position his focus, whether that be talking to people he considers smarter than he is or vigorously watching the players he deems the best centres in the game.

Saturday morning, inside a lecture hall at Ryerson University as part of the TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference, an annual speaker series that this year featured Woodcroft alongside fellow Jets assistant Jamie Kompon and a slew of other NHL coaches, Woodcroft outlined his blueprint for building a two-way centre in today’s NHL.

It starts with a question: “What would the DNA be of a centre if we were going to build one?”

The first lesson he learned in pursuit of the answer to that question, through studying everyone from Datsyuk to Marie-Philip Poulin, is it doesn’t happen overnight.

There are several components that help a centre become responsible off the puck, a threat on it and good in all three zones, according to Woodcroft.

And step by step, he can detail exactly what that looks like, weaving from Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little and Jack Roslovic to Bo Horvat, Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Elias Pettersson and Dylan Larkin.

In his 50-minute talk, Woodcroft offered rare insight into the way the Jets play.

Everything starts and ends, Woodcroft insists, with the centre as the “conscience of the team.”

That’s the pillar of Woodcroft’s approach to the way the Jets operate in all three zones.

Woodcroft believes the centre ought to be the most responsible player on the ice. For him, that means several things:

  1. The centre must be conscientious.
  2. The centre is a “puck transporter.”
  3. The centre must be responsible down low.
  4. The centre must understand the importance of defending.

In each way, Woodcroft refers to the centre as the “central nervous system on the ice.”

To be that, he believes his centres need to “be aware of their relationship with all of the other five teammates that they have on the ice.”

In a perfect world, that means the Jets’ centres are the low players in the defensive zone and the high players in the offensive zone, though Woodcroft insists that doesn’t have to be the case.

“Hockey happens. Things happen on the ice. A line like Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine — if they’re working together, it doesn’t mean Mark Scheifele has to be the high forward. We want the puck in his hands and using what he’s best at, and that’s making plays and scoring or giving the puck to Patrik Laine, who I actually taught to shoot the puck,” Woodcroft joked.

Woodcroft always comes back to that DNA, though, to that question.

“But how do you make a two-way centre? The excellent two-way centres are the ones that play between the dots in all zones. Their head on a swivel seems obvious, but how often does that not happen? And then we see problems getting their toes up the ice as fast as they can and having their stick down and presented. I don’t care what system your team plays — they’re critical pieces to the way any team plays,” Woodcroft said.

Throughout his presentation, he paused to reinforce some of those points with Jets video — as well as video of his aforementioned favourite two-way centres.

He stressed that the Jets want their centres swinging to the top of their own goal crease defensively to make themselves available as that “transporter” (the player who receives it from a defenceman and either carries it into space or relays it to the next player and pushes tempo up ice while staying below the puck). Being a transporter requires understanding that one pass often beats two players, Woodcroft said, noting it’s not necessarily on the centre to carry the puck up ice.

By curling low, not only is the centre available, but he’s also the player best positioned to act as what Woodcroft calls a “second quick.”

“The second quick is the second layer. If there’s any kind of a breakdown, your centre is there to help out, to grab that puck, ready to transport it,” Woodcroft said.

“You have to convince your centre that he or she is that support valve. The best coaches in the world, I think, are the ones who teach their centres the importance of defending. At the end of the day, coaches need a reason to put you on the ice at critical times. That’s how the elite two-way centres are born: by having the trust of the coach to be on the ice at critical junctures.”

The little details — the coming back to the top of the crease as that “second quick” — aren’t as simple as they appear, though.

That’s because to excuse the play, the defenceman also has to be comfortable risking putting the puck into the middle of the ice to hit the centre there. And the centre has to have the right sense of timing. The Jets want their centres to intentionally slow down their curl in the defensive zone to avoid putting themselves ahead of that defenceman or outside the faceoff dots (and thus on the perimeter closer to the opposing team’s forechecking wingers).

It takes communication, too. The defenceman and the centre need to make eye contact; both need to have their head on a swivel, both need to have their toes facing up ice, and they need to be talking.

The centre also has to have his stick down and presented — and be able to handle those passes on his backhand, a skill Woodcroft promises is challenging for many — because there might be a body or two between him and his defenceman, but they can always see a stick flat on the ice.

“The first thing is understanding and recognizing pressure. The second is about reading the possession. Is it a two-on-two, is it a two-on-one, how much distance is there between myself and the puck or the battle, who has control, what’s going on?” Woodcroft said.

In those situations, the Jets want their centre to be patient. If the battle is equal in numbers, they would rather their centre hold at the top of the crease and remain available rather than dive in to help. But not all centres have that kind of patience, when instincts push them to chase the puck.

When the defenceman is under a lot of pressure, it also means the Jets want their centre to wait long enough for the two defencemen on the ice to make a D-to-D pass below the goal line, which requires the centre to switch his handedness when he presents his stick as an option.

“You will play in your D-zone, I promise. At some point in the game, you will play in the D-zone,” Woodcroft joked about often trying to teach patience to his centres.

“Hockey is about defence to offence and offence to defence, and then you’re rinsing and you’re repeating that. So learning how to play in the D-zone is critical for the development of your centremen.”

The decision to swing and the speed with which the player must swing are also determined by the pressure of the opposing team’s forecheck, which requires that the centre constantly be shoulder checking.

Again and again, as Woodcroft flips between videos, those same principles are consistently at play in successful exits.

“I think this guy’s 11 years old — I have no idea. He looks like he’s 6, but he’s doing a great job. He’s paying attention to defence, he’s stopping, the details of supporting the puck, transporting and relaying the puck, and getting up ice for an entry,” Woodcroft said of Pettersson before turning his attention to Crosby.

“This guy, 87, I don’t know who he is or if he has a chance to play hockey as a career. He’s a pretty good player. Not going to dive in. The middle of the ice is the area that’s open. In between the dots.”

Some Jets do these things better than others, but they’ve all figured it out — and it’s at the core of what makes Winnipeg one of the league’s most dynamic offensive teams, Woodcroft said.

The principles don’t change in the neutral zone, either. Only in the neutral zone, nobody on the Jets is expected to slow down.

“In the neutral zone, the most important thing for centres is to work to get available. Your mantra should be that you don’t want to slow down,” Woodcroft said. “All a neutral zone counter is is a breakout on shorter ice — there’s no end boards.”

Through the neutral zone, the Jets still want their centre to drive the middle of the ice as the transporter — and often kick it out at the offensive zone blue line for a winger.

“The best teams in the NHL will use the middle of the ice as much as they can. And good teams, their defencemen are comfortable getting that puck to the middle of the ice. The D need a place to go with the puck, and they have to be comfortable getting the puck to those places,” Woodcroft said.

“It’s the centre’s job to make him or herself available. Let the wingers do the board work — they’re usually meatheads. The centre has to solve the problems and see the problems before they happen.”

Woodcroft views entries as “controlled or uncontrolled invasions of the other team’s zone.”

“We’re trying to force D back, hopefully make them turn their feet. If something goes wrong, your middle driver is at the net. If there are problems, they’re going to get solved,” Woodcroft said.

Once that entry is executed, the Jets prefer to loosen up the structured approach they take in the other two zones.

“I personally don’t think that in the offensive zone your centres need a place to go. The offensive zone is their time. We don’t want robots. Everybody wants to play with the puck. Everybody deserves a chance to shoot and score and have some fun there. Too much structure can be a problem,” Woodcroft added.

That doesn’t mean the Jets don’t have principles in the offensive zone, though. After that kick-out at the offensive zone blue line, the Jets want their centre driving the net because that gives their wingers certainty.

And if the winger ends up outside those dots, he wants him taking the puck to the centre or giving it to the driving centre.

The Jets’ other offensive-zone principles include the importance of close support (just like in the defensive zone), the need for a constant high forward and a centre who works in concert with everyone else.

“Reward and embrace that responsibility. Good two-way centres like Steve Yzerman figured out you have to sacrifice some offence if your team’s going to win,” Woodcroft explained.

“Elite two-way centres are ones that are equal parts defence and offence and puck transporter and shutdown player. They’re getting the most out of their linemates while frequently masking their mistakes. And they trust their linemates. To me, being an elite two-way centre isn’t something that you are; it’s something that you do. Every shift. Every game.”

In his pursuit of finding the optimal role for a centre, Woodcroft has also closely studied faceoffs, settling on Ryan O’Reilly as the best he has ever seen do it — and his go-to when reviewing video with the Jets’ left-handed centres.

“In Winnipeg, we have made faceoffs very important, understanding that faceoffs can win a game or lose a game. It’s about puck possession. To me, this is the ultimate one-on-one battle in a game. A faceoff is the only controlled environment, other than a penalty shot, in a game. And there are certain things you can do,” Woodcroft said.

In his four years in Winnipeg, the Jets’ assistant has tried to instill a handful of core faceoff skills in his centres, beginning with the way they “anchor their sticks” in the circle (Woodcroft doesn’t want his centres swinging their sticks outside of the faceoff circle and back in) and ending with the knowledge that the full faceoff circle isn’t even in play and that the puck is almost always dropped in the half of the circle closest to the official.

“(O’Reilly) uses a stick that’s about a 480 flex — I don’t know, it’s stiff as heck and he’s got a toe on it that I don’t know if it’s a back-scratcher or what he’s doing, but he’s a master craftsman,” Woodcroft said, pointing to the way O’Reilly studies the handedness and the position of the opposing centre before he steps into a draw.

“When two sticks come together, who’s going to hold that dot better? You can use the energy of your opponent to squirt that puck back. It’s about grit, not strength. Sometimes it’s a bad drop by a linesman — which never happens — or it hits off a skate and there’s the grit and wherewithal to stay on a second puck for half a second. That’s will to me. That’s a compete indicator for our centremen.”

Whether the draw is won or lost, the centre has to get back to those same-old Jets fundamentals. The ones Woodcroft can rattle off as if by second nature.

“Low and slow. If you continue the speed that you have, you will not be able to receive the puck and be inside the dots and plant your stick. The skill to take the puck on your backhand,” he said, flipping through videos.

“His feet are in the paint. Almost playing goalie.

“He’s underneath the puck. Moving before you touch the puck.

“Eyes are up. Recognize handedness. Shoulder check. Talking and listening. Understand the relationship with the D.

“Second quick.”