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International Scouting Services Blog: The evolution of the fourth forward

Ryan Murphy is expected to be a first round pick in the 2011 NHL draft. (Photo courtesy OHL Images)

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Ryan Murphy is expected to be a first round pick in the 2011 NHL draft. (Photo courtesy OHL Images)

There seem to be conflicting preferences at almost every level of hockey right now when it comes to the role of the defenseman. Offensive defenders have long basked in a glory that rarely touches even the best of the defensive defenders save for, say, the occasional big hitter or intimidating and mean tough-guy types.

I have had the opportunity during the past year to really explore some of the more outside-the-box thinking on this subject and with Kitchener Rangers defenseman Ryan Murphy receiving so much buzz for this year’s NHL draft, it seems an appropriate time to work towards sorting out some of the theories that are out there. 

The fact Murphy dominated Canada’s under-18 summer evaluation camp, but was still left off the roster for the Ivan Hlinka tournament, raised a lot of eyebrows; the fact he just may make the world junior team seems to raise a few more. Murphy’s chances cannot be deemed all that good, though, considering Canada’s Ivan Hlinka coach, George Burnett (who ultimately chose to leave Murphy off the Ivan Hlinka squad), will be an assistant coach for Canada in Buffalo for this year’s world junior tournament. 

Murphy has just gone about his business, being one of the most dominant offensive defenders in recent junior hockey memory. So why is there so much debate about this kid? Judging by his numbers you would almost surely consider him a lock for the WJC team and if you’ve been lucky enough to watch him play, you certainly understand how exciting and creative he is. 

The fact is, not all coaches believe in the concept of a defensive position player taking unnecessary risks in the name of creating offense. And when it comes to short-term competitions, like the World Junior Championship, such fears are often amplified. With so little room for error, the idea of taking a potentially risky defender just to bolster an offense can be too scary of a situation for a coach, especially if you already have other players who you believe can fill that particular role. But that school of thinking is not as widespread as it once was: More and more, successful teams are encouraging the idea of adding a fourth forward to the rush.

Pierre Page, of Quebec Nordiques fame, currently coaches with Austria’s Salzburg Red Bull program and during his presentation at the 2010 IIHF coaching symposium in Cologne, Germany, posed the question: Why does every team follow the same mold of positional requirements? What Mr. Page was getting at was that for some reason everyone seems to believe hockey teams must play with three forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender. But is that really the most effective way to play the game in this day in age?

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Mike Johnston, coach of the Western League’s Portland Winterhawks, was at the same conference and illustrated how beneficial it can be to activate the defensive positions in offensive situations - he’s also been one of the premier developers of offensive defensemen the past few seasons. Look at the numbers posted by Troy Rutkowski, Taylor Aronson and Joe Morrow. They aren’t Bobby Orr, but they are making fundamental changes in their tendencies and actions that are proving successful for their team and making them more appealing NHL prospects.

Is this a small trend? Maybe. Is it possible this is a glimpse into the future? It’s possible. What’s for sure is there is an obvious attempt to adapt coaching philosophies and create new systems in hopes of producing more offensive chances and better offensive players at every position.

Murphy may be the poster child for the movement, as he finds himself smack dab in the middle of the philosophical differences today’s coaches have. Murphy isn’t Bobby Orr, either; he is more comparable to P.K. Subban, who didn’t seem to have any problem cracking the WJC roster not once, but twice.

However, it is important to understand, regardless of the skill level and regardless of how productive the player is, there will always be those questions relating to risk and reward - especially for fourth forwards.

Ross MacLean is the head scout for International Scouting Services and is considered one of the rising stars of the business. A young, diverse and versatile hockey mind, MacLean leads ISS' network of scouts and puts his domestic and international hockey experience and knowledge towards ranking and providing industry-leading profiles and information on draft eligible players around the world.

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