When the cycling drills are done, when the coach is finished screaming about defensive positioning and playing ‘the system’, when the ‘Herbies’ are over, when someone is crowned ‘Juice Boy’ and practice officially ends is where you learn it. It’s born of the teenage spirit of ‘doing some cool around your friends.’ You see it tried all the time in AAA and Junior hockey. But for most NHL players, it tends to vanish from their repertoire during games. The size, speed and skill of NHL defenders makes it hard to pull off and if it fails, it almost always ends in a turnover.
We’re talking about the ‘Toe-Drag.’
Sure, it goes by other names like the ‘Curl-and-Drag’ and the ‘Dipsy-Doo’, but the essence of the move is the same: putting the puck out from the body and close enough to a defender to make them reach out for it, only to pull it in close to the body and quickly move it to a position behind that same defender. Sometimes, you’ll even see someone pull the move off between their own legs, like our own #8. When done correctly and at high speeds, the move effectively embarrasses the defender and leaves him looking for his bus pass back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Here in DC, we are witness to one of the highest concentrations of skilled Toe-Draggers known to man. Ovechkin, Semin, Green, and Fleischmann all possess and NHL-level version of the move. More often than not, we see one and it leaves us giggling and shaking our head in amazement. Ovechkin’s move between the legs toe-drag against Pittsburgh that led to a Knuble goal is one example. Semin’s INSANE, double toe drag goal against Philly is another. No one embarrasses defenders with the move more than the Caps. As fans, we’re as lucky as you can get.
On the flip-side of the highlight reel version is an ugly beast that we’re also seeing more and more this season: the failed toe-drag. In certain situations, with the puck deep in the offensive zone or along the wall, trying and failing isn’t a bad thing. The issue is trying and failing at a toe-drag just across the blue line or, worse, in the defensive zone.
Ovechkin and Semin often attempt the move just as they cross the blueline, when they are stood up by defenders as they enter the offensive zone. With the whole team attacking, a failed move leads to an instant odd-man situation. When it works, its sublime, leaving defenders at their own blue line and creating separation for the Alexs’ amazing shots. When it fails, the resulting odd-man breaks are frustrating. When it leads to shorthanded breakaways against, it looks forehead-slappingly, Edmonton Oilers bad.
The worst place on the ice to fail at a toe drag is obviously the defensive zone, which leads us to the biggest failed toe-drag offender: Mike Green. For every well-executed toe-drag Green makes that leaves a forechecker behind, he seems to fail at the same move and turns the puck over deep in his own zone. It’s always a risky move to attempt and it’s almost always unnecessary. I don’t think I need to tell anyone how bad a defensive zone turnover during the breakout is for the team.
In his now infamous Puck Daddy interview with Dmitry Chesnokov, Alex Semin said this about offense:
I just don't get it, why when a player is skating up the ice and no one is attacking him, he dumps the puck into the offensive zone and then chases it? Why would you do this if there is no one forechecking you? I understand that if there is someone coming at you and you don't know whether you can get past that player, then you can dump the puck, pass it or shoot. But if not, then hold on to the puck, skate forward, create a chance.
While I agree with Semin on this one, and while it’s a strategy that has helped the Caps create huge amounts of offense this season, I wish he and his toe-dragging teammates would heed his words a little more. In obvious dump-and-chase situations, they often attempt risky one-on-one moves. Semin, Ovechkin and Green, are responsible for roughly 28% of the total team give-aways. Yes, part of that is due to their tendency to have the puck on their stick more often than their teammates. Another part is their belief that they can execute such a move and get in a better position to score. But their use of the toe-drag and other ‘high risk, high reward’ moves leads to a high number of turnovers for all three.
The solution is simple: save the one-on-one moves for certain situations. By limiting the moves just inside the blueline, Ovie and Semin would allow more time for the team to regroup defensively in the event of a turnover. Likewise, Green would be better off making the simple pass to start the breakout rather than attempt to toe drag around a forechecker. It’s a dangerous move, made in the most dangerous spot on the ice, when the simple play would work just as well.
Then again, simple doesn't scare defenses. As long as the offense keeps clicking the way it has and the turnovers stay down, I'll gladly watch these Caps toe-drag all season long.