Scooter Vaughn's game opening game against Colorado College was something to behold. When I started writing this piece, I thought it would be a small part of my wrap up of Michigan's advancement to the Frozen Four over the weekend. As I kept writing it grew into something else entirely. Part homage, part hockey rant, part old coach, part memory. The more that I fed into my mind and keyboard the more it appeared that I might be missing something bigger. That bigger something was Scooter Vaughn's development into one of Michigan's best players and just how bright his future may be at the professional level. It seems to me that since the turning point in the season (the Miami losses) Vaughn has become one of Michigan's most consistent forwards and its biggest sparks.
His goal against Colorado College stuck with me, and may be indicative of things to come. There is, of course, the obvious beauty of Vaughn's roofing a backhand to forehand shot from a tough angle. But, to me, there was so much more. Over the course of the season Vaughn has become one of my, if not the, favorite player on this team. He reminds in many ways of Bob Probert, Chris Simon, and Dustin Byfuglien . Not in the tough guy sense, but in the size, speed and skill sense. Masked behind that giant wall of muscle and equipment lies a truly skilled hockey player.
Vaughn has surprised me in a lot ways this season. The physiciality of his game is obvious given his size, strength, and love for hammering people. But for a man his size, he is amazingly fast. During the Colorado College game Vaughn would routinely catch CC's swartz brothers from behind and drive them into the wall. Whether straight line speed or acceleration is your preference, Vaughn has both and he uses them well. What makes him the total package and a player that will have a long career in the NHL is his skill. The man has got hands that I would kill for.
You probably remember Scooter's toe drag rocket from late in the season as he danced around a sprawling defenseman to laser in a goal. As pretty as that was, his goal against CC was so much more telling of his ability. Hockey players love the forehand to backhand drag move while going at a defensman. Go to any practice, pick up game, or pro game and you'll see it tried over and over again. Hockey players love it because not only does it look sweet and it's hard to do, it gives you a huge advantage over the D-man if you can pull it off. If it's done right, you have the defenseman's hips facing the wrong way, killing his momentum and forcing him to use his upper body to flail at you as you pass him.
But defensemen know this. That's why, especially at the college and pro levels, they're adept at stopping this move. Correct stick placement and quick feet will defeat this move 9 times out of 10, whether with a well placed poke check or stopping the crossing puck with your outside skate. Honestly, you're drilled enough in practice to be able to prevent this in your sleep; match his speed, arm and stick out, keep your feet light, keep body position between yourself and the forward, and BANG, you've stopped it and you're going the other way.
What defensemen have trouble with is when they've matched your speed entering the zone and all of a sudden you've got an extra burst of speed. It destroys your timing. All of a sudden the puck is moving a lot faster than you thought and you've missed your poke check. The real issue comes next. While you've missed the puck, you still should have body position to force the forward to toward the boards. Not with Scooter. His surprising burst not only allowed him to slip the puck to the outside past the defensman's stick and feet, it also allowed him to blow past the D-man to the point where he had overtaken his position.
But Scooter wasn't out of the woods yet. He was at the faceoff dot with a defenseman turning to hack him and the puck on his backhand going towards the net. Critically, Scooter shielded the puck with his body from the last desperate lunge of the defenseman and was now free of him and out of his reach. Then the hard part. Scooter had to bring the puck from his back hand to a more advantageous shooting position.
One thing you'll often see from young players is something of a panic as they near the net from the outside. "Get it on net" has been drilled into them so often that they know if they miss the opportunity to shoot there's a lot of bench waiting for them. So, put a young guy in a pressure packed situation in Scooter's position at that moment and you've got a backhander harmlessly bouncing off the goalies blocker or pads. Scooter is no longer a "young player". Part of this is because, despite his size, he is amazing on his skates. Vaughn, free of the defenseman, opens his right hip toward the net, pulling the puck from his backhand to his forehand in one motion. All of a sudden he's created a positive angle to shoot from a horrible one. Also, as a result, he's completely destroyed the goalie's angle on the puck and opened up the forehand side of the net. Still, the goalie's got a giant trapper waiting for the puck and is waiting for the chance.
Vaughn never let him have it. The move from forehand to backhand takes less than a second (and less than five feet at 10 mph) to execute, and Vaughn wastes no time after that. The moment the puck transfers into the cradle of the blade Vaughn is already in a shooting position and lets it fly. The goalie had no prayer. Is this a surprise? No. Why? Because Scooter Vaughn is that good a hockey player.
I had the good fortune to meet Bob Probert a couple of years before his death at a hockey clinic. He had been helping a friend run a clinic on one rink while I had been working a different clinic for a friend of mine. We let out a little early when word got round that Probie was in the building. I walked over, stick in hand to the main rink of the building to see Probert skating with and talking with some of the other instructors after their clinic had been let out. Fortunately, I knew one of the instructors and he waived me on. Probert was joking around and showing off for us, a bunch of college aged kids who had a little talent but not enough to play DI, and generally having a good time.
As we skated, did some break aways on a goalie whose name and school escapes me, and played pick your pipe, I noticed something. Probert's shot was amazing. It was a friggin rifle shot. And it didn't matter where he let it go. For all the talk of how strong, tough, and pugilistic he was, the most incredible thing was learning how much skill he had. In a lot of ways it was as sad as it was breathtaking. Here was a man with the skill to be a forty goal scorer, who'd instead spent his career piling up penalty minutes. And still scoring 20 goals for mediocre Red Wing teams.
Similarly, there was Chris Simon (then of the Washington Capitals). A gigantic hulk of a human being seemingly more adept at pummeling people than scoring. Then, all of a sudden, people realized he has a laser beam for a shot. For the better part of a season Simon terrorized the league by ripping in goals that one one expected. But in the course of doing so, he forgot to do what gave him the space to operate in the first place, fight. Teams learned that if you hit him hard, he wouldn't drop the gloves anymore because he saw himself as a scorer all of a sudden. I remember betting a friend that Simon would reach 30 goals on the season with 12 games to go and Simon at 27 goals. My friend laughed. He was right. Simon didn't score again. He forgot his toughness and his skill suffered.
This brings me to the Dustin Byfuglien comparison. Last season Byfuglien was a force not only physically (in the hitting department) but on the score sheet. An amazing level of skill matched with an amazing motor and taste for inflicting pain. He was fast, strong, and skilled. He also possessed a wicked, wicked shot. He seemed to embody the skill and toughness of Simon and Probert without the saddening flaws.
That is how I see Vaughn developing. While he is not all the way there yet, he is certainly on his way. His determination on both ends of the ice combined with his size and skill make me think that Vaughn is only just beginning to scrape the surface of his ability. But this is about Vaughn now, and not in the future, so let's return to question at hand. Has Vaughn turned into Michigan's most important player?
To preface this, I'm not talking about "best" or goalies. Goalies occupy a special plae in hockey that is not comparable to other positions. Keeping a puck out of the net and putting one in are two separate endeavors and ones that I will not compare. Best player status is securely in the hands of Carl Hagelin. I'm not debating this. But the question of most important is still up for grabs. Since Michigan was swept by Miami, Vaughn has gone 4-5-9. He's registered a point in 5 of Michigan's last 7 games (including tallying a point in Michigan's last three games) and trails only Carl Hagelin (5-7-12) in scoring since the loss to Miami.
Importantly, Vaughn has provided a secondary scoring punch to back up the Hagelin-Brown-Cappo line. His physical presence is preventing other teams from running at Michigan's otherwise undersized third line. Going into Michigan's matchup with North Dakota, Vaughn's performance is going to be critical. With Matt Rust's line going up against two Hobey Baker candidates you're not going to be able to expect a lot out of his grouping offensively. So it's going to be up to Hagelin's line (which will face North Dakota's top defensive group) and Vaughn's line to produce points. Because Vaughn's line will likely go up against North Dakota's third line, it'll be imperative that the skill and speed Vaughn's displayed this year be on full display come next Thursday.
If Michigan is to advance, it will have to be.