Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev clearly had no idea where the puck had gone.
He thought he saw an open lane to clear the zone after grabbing a loose puck and wheeling behind his own net March 4 against the Blackhawks.
But unbeknownst to Sergachev, Alex DeBrincat had wheeled directly behind him, pickpocketed the puck off his stick and — all in one motion — spun a dangerous low backhand shot on Andrei Vasilevskiy.
DeBrincat had executed that move several times already, and he has done it several times since, too. It has become a regular addition to his repertoire.
His quick hands and expert stickhandling have been offensive threats for four years in the NHL. Why not also use them for defensive purposes?
But only toward the end of last season, when DeBrincat’s scoring drought forced him to search for other ways to make himself useful, and throughout this season has he discovered that.
“That’s been a big part of my game this year,” DeBrincat said recently. “When we do that and when we have back pressure, it creates so much offense, too. That’s what we have to stick to: Be good in our zone or on the backcheck, and we’re going to get a lot of chances and odd-man rushes.”
The NHL’s takeaways counter is untrustworthy, but even it reflects DeBrincat’s improvement in this regard. His takeaways-per-game rate has risen from 0.51 over his first two seasons to 0.59 last season and 0.67 this season. He’s tied for the Hawks’ lead in takeaways.
That inherently translates to more possession time, more scoring chances and — when he forces a turnover in the neutral or defensive zone — sometimes odd-man rushes for the Hawks.
It has certainly contributed to DeBrincat’s 21 goals, tied for sixth in the NHL, and 40 points. It also has contributed to DeBrincat’s many transition chances — he ranks fourth in the NHL in shots off the rush, according to hockey analyst Corey Szjnader’s data.
“He’s just working so hard to get the puck back — it’s pretty obvious,” Dylan Strome said. “When he’s out there, he finds a way to pick a pocket from a guy from behind or win a battle in the corner and create some zone time for linemates.
“When you can extend a shift in the O-zone by winning a 50-50 puck or stripping a guy from behind, it’s going to give you better chances to score and more offense. It’s probably something our team could do a better job of, and he’s doing a great job of it.”
And the examples keep coming. On Saturday against the Blue Jackets, DeBrincat demonstrated his swift stick reflexes to break up a pass from Michael del Zotto to Seth Jones along Columbus’ offensive blue line and nearly gave himself a breakaway.
Last week against the Stars, DeBrincat swooped in to snatch a puck Justin Dowling thought he had time to gather along the boards. He skated to the slot and ripped a top-shelf goal.
Even during this season, DeBrincat said he got away temporarily from the pickpocketing and defensive engagement. But then he “sat down and realized I wasn’t doing it as much,” prompting a renewed commitment to “get back on that and create a lot of turnovers.”
That brief lull wasn’t enough to change coach Jeremy Colliton’s mind about DeBrincat’s growth away from the puck, though.
“He has steadily improved,” Colliton said. “He’s a terrific skater but has that relentless compete [level] we talk about being a big part of the identity of our team. When he’s playing that way, our group feeds off it. It’s a big piece of what makes him really valuable.”