When our overlord Achariya asked me to write a piece about Anton Stralman for 6 Days of Stralman, she probably thought she was going to get a well-reasoned piece on why Stralman is one of the best defenders in the game. Maybe she thought I’d talk about how he’s been one of the most impactful defenders by almost any shot based metric over the last four years or so. Maybe she thought I’d write a thoughtful piece about why he and Victor Hedman make such a perfect complimentary pairing.
I’m not going to do that. One, because Matt already did that yesterday. And two, because I have a very serious question to ask:
Why do NHL players keep thinking they can skate into a space that Anton Stralman is currently occupying?
He is not going to give you that space. I know he’s a nice-looking blonde Swedish man with wispy hair and a reserved, even gentle, personality. But my dude, if you try to skate into his space, you’re going to end up in a gif for all the wrong reasons.
Let’s start with Mikko Rantanen. Maybe Mikko thought that Stralman would take a different approach than his usual in an international exhibition. He was wrong.
Rantanen attacks the exact area Stralman is occupying at the blue line and his reward is 190 pounds of Swedish shoulder in his chest. Skating full speed into Stralman’s space seems like a bad decision that no one should ever make. I suspect Rantanen has learned his lesson:
I won’t make any jokes about this one because Denis Malgin suffered a concussion on the play. But I do want to highlight Stralman here. He refuses to give Malgin any room to gain the zone. He eats away at the space until the attacking player has nowhere to go. Malgin doesn’t change course, obviously thinking he can get by Stralman, and that ultimately leads to a collision at the worst spot on the ice. Malgin hits the rounded edge of the boards.
This is one of the purest examples of how a defender can force a player into a no-win situation and then separate him from the puck. Stralman is so good at this. His anticipation and understanding of where he is on the ice allows him to occupy the exact space where the offensive player will need to go and usually leads to the Lightning recovering the puck.
The next play is from the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 against Chicago. This occurs in the offensive zone as the Hawks are trying to start the break out and transition to offense. Stralman makes an aggressive play and steps up to shut down Brandon Saad. While it doesn’t occur at his own blue line, the principle here is the same. He puts himself directly in the path Saad wants to attack and makes it impossible for him to carry the puck into the neutral zone.
Saad tries to go through Stralman. He realizes at the last minute how bad of an idea that is and bails. This isn’t a particularly physical play, but it shows that understanding where your opponent wants to be and getting there before they do can be incredibly disruptive.
This next one is really fun. Anthony Duclair thinks he’s going to fly out into transition. He only has to beat Anton Stralman to skate away into the attack. He tries to go wide because he knows he has the speed advantage. But Stralman doesn’t need to be as fast as Duclair because he anticipated the attack in advance.
As Duclair heads up ice, Stralman is already skating to the exact spot where the Coyote forward will exit the zone. He takes a perfect angle and meets him at the Lightning blue line. Duclair comes out on the worse side of the collision and is added to the list of names who now realize that a one on one matchup with Anton Stralman is a very bad situation for the player not named Anton Stralman.
The next two highlights aren’t necessarily one-on-one but I like them both so I’m including them. Here, Stralman (with help from Nikita Kucherov) shuts down the best player of a generation. Sidney Crosby is trying to work his wizardry in the offensive zone. Stralman does what he always does. He picks a spot, baits Crosby into challenging him, and then steps up to take away the space and the puck.
Crosby is not only one of the best players in the game but one of the smartest, and even he is not immune to Stralman’s wily defensive maneuvers. He realizes at the last minute that he’s done exactly what Stralman wanted him to do but he has no other options so he tries to skate through it. Obviously, it doesn’t work out for him.
This last one is poor quality because I clipped it myself and my laptop is not good at that. But this is a perfect example of how Stralman patiently waits for a play to develop and draws the offensive player into his area so that he can shut it down.
He doesn’t get overly aggressive, but he’s also not passive. He sees the attack forming. He sits back into a soft spot in the defensive zone. He gives Logan Couture the illusion of space to skate. But when Couture tries to take that space, Stralman steps up and and separates him from the puck once again with some help from Kucherov on the back check.
If Stralman plays that attack too aggressively, he could have easily been burned for a scoring chance. If he sits back too much, he gives up a shot as well. Instead, he does neither. He sets up a trap for the attacking player. Couture skates right into it. And that’s the end of the attack.
Anton Stralman is a special player. He’s a defender perfectly suited to this era of NHL hockey. He landed on a team with a perfect partner for him in Victor Hedman. Together, they form an ideal set of complimentary skills. Both are well-rounded but Stralman excels defensively and Hedman excels offensively. That combination resulted in fans being able to see them both perform at their optimum levels.
I’m not sure how much to expect from Stralman as the new season starts. He had a down year after an early injury. He’s 31 years old now. But whatever happens going forward, he’ll forever be one of my favorite players to watch. His unique ability to play a physical but clean defensive game by manipulating space and drawing attackers into traps has been a ton of fun to watch and I hope we get at least a couple more years of it.