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VHL 30 in 30 #29: Swinging Both Ways

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Swinging Both Ways

The Victory Hockey League has evolved greatly since its humble beginnings over five and a half years ago in terms of virtually everything; day-to-day functioning, means of communication, management styles, and the quality of play. However, while the bulk of this more abstract form of evolution will be discussed in the final episode of this series, there is one last bridge to cross in terms of relevance to the league's third decade: the growth of two-way forwards. The defensive side of the VHL has improved tenfold over the years and while there was no pioneer of a new style of play in recent years, focusing on both ends of the rink became a much bigger trend in the years that have gone by not so long ago. Not being a defensive liability has been encouraged more and more and the best skaters aren't simply the most skilled offensive players (at least, not wholly that anymore). This playing style has begun undermining Scotty Campbell's claim to being the greatest forward of all time, so it's clearly noteworthy.

In the first decade of the VHL, there were three notable two-way forwards; Hall of Famers Scott Boulet, Matt Defosse, and Alex McNeil. They all won their award, then named the Delvecchio Trophy, and Boulet eventually went down as the best of the three, having the trophy famously named after him since Season 11. After that though, it was a while until a true two-way forward came along. Matt Bailey looked to be that next great and he won the trophy thrice, but switched to defence halfway through his career, again leaving a hole in a shallow position in a league where everyone wanted to be next offensive great.

The first sign of change truly came with J.D. Stormwall, a S14 draftee by the Calgary Wranglers. Like Bailey, he was the third-generation player of his agency so he was in a way an experiment, and one which would definitely pay off. Despite almost failing in activity in his early years, Stormwall rebounded before the end of his entry-level contract and would grow in a positive environment in Calgary to become a three-time Scott Boulet Trophy winner and three-time Continental Cup champion (two of each coming with the Wranglers). Stormwall showed how much of a difference good defence can make even for a team focused on scoring and by the time he retired, the seed was sown and many players had seen that being a two-way forward requires more skill and in the end rewards with more recognition and prestige, as seen with Bailey, his contemporary Leander Kaelin, and Stormwall with rival Marek Schultz.

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J.D. Stormwall followed in the footsteps of another great Wrangler: Scott Boulet

"In my opinion, the perfect two-way forward is a player who can put up an impressive amount of points (90 or more points in a season), play a very physical, hard-nosed game, and leads his team (or at least forwards on his team) in +/- rating.  It's not very often you'll see a player lead in all three pieces of criteria in a season, so those who vote for the Boulet Trophy have their opinions of which of those is most important to them." - Jardy Bunclewirth

"The ability to play both ends of the ice effectively is key, and that comes with distributing your TPE effectively towards the most important attributes. I think one of the most under looked attributes for forwards is defense. Members with forwards tend to put a majority of their first few hundred TPE towards the obvious things, like skating, scoring, passing and puckhandling, but neglect the importance of a solid defense. I've noticed consistently that upon adding defense, a player's efficiency and effectiveness increase dramatically, both in the scoring front and the defensive end. Having a good balance between the offensive components and defensive attributes is key." - Leeroy Jenkins

"Obviously, you need to be able to contribute offensively. This doesn't necessarily mean scoring a lot of goals; nice passes, solid general position and overall efficiency can help any offense run more smoothly. But defensive positioning is also key. Sure, getting a ton of hits helps, but you can't forget the fundamentals. Forcing a guy to take a shot he doesn't want to or pass it away when he's trying to score can have a huge impact on your team." - Tukka Reikkinen

The next generation of forwards would give more and more attention to the defensive side of the game. Some stars, like Markus Strauss and Tarik Saeijs, remained pure scorers and exceeded in that facet, but an increasing amount, including Lars Berger, Anton Brekker, and Cam Fowler, became two-dimensional players. Alongside the growth of quality goaltenders in the league, profiled several episodes ago of this series, the emphasis on team defence greatly decreased the amount of scoring in the league, and many of the leaders were those who were able to shut down others themselves. This trend would continue into the future as we experienced some of the lowest-scoring seasons ever in Season 27 through 30, with parallels being drawn between the early S20s and the late ones. Berger (a three-time Scott Boulet Trophy winner) and Fowler (a one-time winner) were both inducted as first ballot Hall of Famers, just like Stormwall, Bailey, and Boulet before them, again setting a positive example for players to go down the two-way route.

"Honestly I couldn't tell you the exact impact the influx of two-way forwards has on the VHL.  When I was a GM though, I liked to pair a checking forward on a line with a scoring forward, as I felt the two playing styles complemented each other and would give the team more success.  Mikka Virkkunen and J.D. Stormwall both dominated in their respective fashions in their era, and I honestly am not sure either would have seen as much success had they not been on the same team, even though they weren't on the same line all too often.  I would say Stormwall's two-way dominance helped Bunclewirth a great deal as well, though he was no slouch in the two-way department either." - Jardy Bunclewirth

"Prior to the TWF era, only one player has really been looked at as the only "true" two-way forward, that being Scott Boulet. The increase in the number of two-way forwards has shown how important the role is. A team with a strong two-way forward is a team that has the best of the best, a player that can play both front and back well enough to make a cup-winning difference. Now, it seems that more and more members are building a two-way build, because they realize how important they are to the game." - Leeroy Jenkins

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Enter Leeroy Jenkins

However, the biggest two-way forward of them all came after Berger and Fowler retired and Brekker went on the decline after Season 24. Leeroy Jenkins, a Season 23 first overall selection by the competing HC Davos Dynamo, had a dreadful rookie season and began to show signs of his pre-draft ranking in his sophomore season as he won the Continental Cup. When Berger retired though after three consecutive Scott Boulet Trophies, Jenkins took his place seamlessly and would go on to one of the best careers in VHL history. Not only did Jenkins win every single offensive award in his career as well as a league-record five Continental Cups with four different teams, he became the first player since Boulet to win his trophy four times with the last detail helping eclipse, in some VHL members' opinion, even the career of Scotty Campbell. Jenkins definitely brought the importance of the two-way position to a whole new level and even as he declined, there has remained healthy competition with the trophy now not only synonymous with Boulet but with Leeroy Jenkins as well.

Jenkins also beat a long-standing record of hits in a single season in Season 26, becoming the first player in VHL history to eclipse 400 hits in one year. As a statement of the depth of two-way forwards in the league, rookie David Smalling set a new record the very next season, which remained in place all the way up until Tukka Reikkinen, like Jenkins in S26, delivered an MVP-worthy season in Season 30 with lots of goals, points, and hits. Between Smalling and Reikkinen's season, Nick Fisher missed Jenkins' old record by just one hit, though he was largely an exception to the rule being an inactive defenseman rather than a prolific two-way forward. Most of the league's best forwards now check as much as they score, with Jenkins and Reikkinen as the obvious examples mixed with Ansgar Snijider, Jarvis Baldwin, and even last season's MVP, formerly a pure sniper, Volodymyr Rybak.

"A lot of the checking records have began to fall really quickly, I myself am going to be in the Top 5 for all time hits of all-time. A lot of guys are willing to throw around the body and can still manage to pot goals and assists. The league has become much more physical all together and having good strength matters more than ever in the VHL. I think players are realizing that playing defense and being strong on your feet is a staple to success in the modern era. So while it might not be as prevalent amongst All-Stars (Smalling, Reikinnen, Larsson, and myself) as it is currently, I think we will still have players who play in both ends of the ice really well." - Ansgar Snijider

"It has helped the league become less offensively based. If you look at the top 25 for goals scored in a single season, only three of the top 25 occurred since Season 26 when the two-ways starting becoming more prevalent, and all three were in that Season 26 to Season 27 range when this was just starting. Forwards are contributing on defense now more than ever in this league and it changes up team-building strategies for GMs, which is always good." - Tukka Reikkinen

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David Smalling: a stepping stone or already the next big thing?

From unique individuals in the days of Boulet and Bailey to the start of a trend with Stormwall, Schultz, Berger, Brekker, and Fowler, to now a very common style of play, the position of two-way forward has evolved alongside the VHL over the past decade. Players now come into the drafts with the goal of becoming the next great hitting legend and two-way pivot, with the obvious example being David Smalling, but also his contemporaries Miles Larsson and Clark Marcellin, as well as an older player, closer to Jenkins' age, in pure hitter Jarppi Leppala. These names do not cover the whole list and it is ever-growing making scoring goals that much harder than it was in the league's “good ol'” days. That's not to say that pure snipers have completely disappeared but even they, the pure scoring threats, seem to play with more of an edge of their game. So what catalysed this tendency and when did this change in player build philosophy really take place?

"Perhaps it was the career of Lars Berger. Maybe it was the record-breaking success of Leeroy Jenkins. Maybe it was a combination of both, or none. It's hard to say exactly what caused the rise, but both of the players above had a definite contribution. Both of these players won three or more Boulet trophies, and both were recognized to be offensive stars as well. Where they went, success, either individual, team, or both, followed, and I believe that many people saw this, and recognized how great they could become. Tukka Reikinnen for example, may have quite possibly modeled his build on Lars Berger, and it has shown in his Championship with Vasteras, where he played an important defensive role, and in Season 30's cup run with New York, in which he was the most dominant player in the league." - Leeroy Jenkins

"It really doesn't take too much work to get a lot of practice hours, and once a player runs out of places to improve offensively, naturally the next place to go is on defense. There are many handlers that are very good at piling up practice hours in this league and you eventually run out of places to improve on offense and that leads to more defensive forwards if that's not your playing style as a prospect. If the league doesn't implement a slight year-by-year depreciation (sort of like a 'rust from the offseason or something') then I fully expect this to continue." - Tukka Reikkinen

"I really think it was just timing, I don't think we had a particular jump off point that brought it about. A lot of guys hadn't tried the style of play before and it was for the most part an "untapped market". It was definitely something that came about out of pure coincidence. Obviously defense is an extremely important aspect, especially when you're playing in your own zone and are lacking depth at defense which a lot of years we were." - Ansgar Snijider

"For a long time, most players who joined the VHL had a very similar goal, and that was to be the most prolific and dangerous scorer in the league.  For every person who saw that goal reached, there was probably at least 10 who did not.  In addition, the VHL had gotten old enough that some people felt it was time to experiment with new play styles to try to find different kinds of success, both individually and as a team.  One reason you could argue J.D. Stormwall won so many Boulet Trophies is because there wasn't many players who emphasized their play on checking like he did, so he had thin competition.  Thus, we saw many players join the VHL not (just) to score a lot, but to HIT a lot." - Jardy Bunclewirth

Now that two-ways forwards have cemented their place in the VHL, it only makes sense for them to continue playing important roles in the future, helping superstars become that much better as their linemates, stopping their rivals, giving teams an advantage in the Continental Cup hunt and setting new records. It's fair to assume that the ceiling has not yet been reached and there is more room to evolve for future and even current players. Perhaps the next great is just around the corner and his accomplishments will put to shame Leeroy Jenkins, Scotty Campbell, Grimm Jonsson, and any other great forward of your choice to shame, since the Victory Hockey League always develops talents out of players we both expect and don't expect to succeed. With that in mind, it's hard not to be constantly excited about what the future holds.

"I feel like two-way forwards will now be just as much a part of the league as snipers are.  I mentioned before how two-way forwards were birthed because of the over-saturation of snipers, and I feel like that process will occur again now with two-way forwards.  Perhaps that means we'll eventually see more fighters in the league, or more people attempting to become face-off/playmaking specialists.  My guess would be the latter, considering forwards haven't consistently won the Mikita Trophy since Alexander Beketov last won it.  Either way, two-way forwards are here to stay." - Jardy Bunclewirth

"Again, the importance of the TWF has been recognized and accepted as one of the standards of the VHL. If a person wants to succeed, then they know that a two-way forward can be one of the most influential ways of achieving that. I can see the trend continuing in years to come." - Leeroy Jenkins

End of Part 29
Special thanks to Ansgar Snijider, Tukka Reikkinen, Leeroy Jenkins, and Jardy Bunclewirth

 

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