Several weeks ago a discussion emerged in the comments section of Tom's excellent article about Bobby Butler about whether or not the Devils should slide Adam Henrique to left wing this season. The debate was mostly between Alamoth and Elektrostal_Kid. Excellent points were made on both sides, and some other users chipped in, including myself at one point. At the time, I advocated for keeping Henrique as a center. My main reason was that I thought Henrique should be playing center long term and I didn't think it made sense to hinder his development by having him unnecessarily change positions. As I said, the discussion concluded with what I felt was a very good case made on both sides, and it actually left me questioning myself more about where I'd like to see Henrique play in the future. So, I decided to watch some video and look for a few examples of his play that demonstrate each case. Please follow along after the jump as I attempt to take a closer overview at his skill set to see if there is really a benefit of having him in one position over another.
The Case for Center
Henrique is a great passer. His head is always up and he sees the ice very well. He also seems to have a knack for knowing or sensing where his linemates should be and has been known to deliver no look passes on point as well. Here are a few examples of some beautiful looking plays that demonstrated his savvy touch and positioning as a center.
NJ vs TB 3/29/12
Beginning at roughly 1:20 of the video, this play is a 3 on 2 rush involving Henrique, Kovalchuk, and #9. 9 drops the puck to Kovy and heads to the right, Henrique fills the lane in the middle and Kovy on the left. Kovy crosses the blue line, stops, and cuts to the middle. Henrique continues towards the net and slips behind the defenders. Kovy slides a pass over to 9 on the right who shoots. The shot is blocked by Roloson, but he gives up a rebound. Henrique is in perfect position in front of the net and corrals the rebound. At this point, he finds himself surrounded by 3 Lightning players and deftly drops the puck back to Kovy who slams it home.
NJ vs CHI 3/27/12
Beauty of an assist by Henrique here, with the play developing starting at :37 of the video. As the Blackhawks attempt to clear the zone, Henrique has already turned and is beginning to retreat for defensive support. He sees Fayne is going to be able to control the puck near center ice and the Blackhawks going for a line change. Henrique then peels off and positions himself very well by the blue line to receive a pass from Fayne and re-enter the zone. A three on one situation develops, with Bernier filling the middle lane while Sykora streaks to the net on the far side. Henrique's head is up the whole time, and he threads a beautiful pass right onto the tape of Sykora who redirects into the back of the net.
NJ vs NYI 3/8/12
This is a very nice secondary assist from Henrique. The play starts at 17 seconds on the video. He glides into position to support Fayne who has pinched along the near boards. Fayne slides the puck around and Henrique, with his back to the boards, controls the puck onto his stick from a deep position. The first Islander to Henrique is too slow. Adam immediately finds #9 in the slot and hits him with a perfect pass before the other Islander can recover.
2/21/12 NJ vs Toronto
This is just another beauty from Henrique. Starting at 10 seconds on the video, the play begins with Zubrus pushing the puck down low along the boards, where Henrique is in perfect position to pick up the play. Henrique is positioned facing the boards to protect his positioning from the oncoming Leafs defender. Without turning or looking, Henrique immediately fires a sweet behind the back pass to Sykora streaking into the slot.
Henrique had a pretty strong faceoff percentage when compared to the other Devils. Granted he was still under 50% (48.8%) for the season. But he was second on the team in number of draws taken (1026) behind Elias (1348). Henrique was far ahead of third place Zubrus who took 441 draws. He also was very good in special teams situations, boasting an above 50% success rate in both shorthanded and power play situations.
Great skating is obviously a skill that helps in any position in hockey. That being the case, it will come up again in a case for a winger. But no one covers more ice than a centerman, who usually plays deep in the offensive zone and works back down low when in the defensive zone. Henrique is a very fluid skater with good jump as well as a good top speed.
Henrique proved to be a good defensive player as well as having offensive upside. All forwards should be defensively responsible, but the center is typically more involved in the backcheck than the two wingers.
Incidentally, while looking through scoring footage, I found a great clip of Henrique stripping Jagr on a back check. The play ultimately lead to a Kovalchuk goal.
Flyers vs Devils 3/11/12
Strong in front of both nets
On the offensive side, Henrique has shown no problems getting to the dirty areas in front of the net, screening the goalie, positioning himself for rebounds, and jockeying with defensemen. The same holds true on the defensive side of the ice. Henrique is strong in front of the net, disrupting passes and the play of the forwards around the slot and the crease. Henrique always has his stick down on the ice, and this is very beneficial to his strong play in front of both nets.
The case for a scoring winger
The kid's got finish
NJ vs LA, Game 4
This is just a sweet goal. As the play develops, the Kings are looking to clear the puck, with Clarkson applying the pressure down low. Henrique is retreating on the far side to assist with the backcheck, and Ponikarovsky is skating back on the near side. Fayne is able to interrupt the breakout pass for the Devils near the red line, and the puck slides to Ponikarovsky, who was skating back through the area. Henrique immediately turns and fills the role of a winger, streaking down the far side of the ice. Clarkson hits him with a cross ice pass which Henrique controls by using his skate to direct the pass onto his stick. He then immediately rips a shot, beating Quick top shelf.
11/5/2011 NJ vs Winnipeg
This was just Henrique's second NHL goal, but a play he created and finished himself, looking like a veteran. Clarkson fails on his clearing attempt and the puck bounces to one of the point men for Winnipeg. Henrique, covering for Clarkson, steps out to block the point shot, which he does. The deflection ricochets out to center ice, and Henrique is all over it, accelerating past the two Jets defenders and finishing off the play with a nifty backhand.
Here is another example from the same Winnipeg game back in November. Henrique has just come off the bench, receives the pass while accelerating through the neutral zone and blows by 3 Winnipeg players for the game winner. This is a great example of his speed and finishing skills. If you let the video run through the replay you can hear Chico refer to Henrique as "Adam Larsson".
Henrique has a good shot. He is by no means a sniper, but he has a nice quick release and can place the puck very well. He also has some skill with the backhand. It would benefit the Devils to get him into a position where he can shoot more.
Henrique put up a good shooting percentage this past season, 12.3%. For what it's worth he shot 13.3 % the previous year in Albany and 12.5 % in the playoffs this season. He doesn't have a long enough track record to really project his shooting percentage. But, when I look into the breakdown of his even strength, power play, and shorthanded shot totals and percentages, I see a few interesting points.
First, Henrique scored 16 goals and still managed 130 shots mostly playing between 2 of the most prolific shooters in the league. This works out to an average of 1.756 sh/gm. He was 10/95 at even strength which works out to about 10.5 %. He had 2 Empty net goals (2/2). Henrique's shooting percentage was bolstered by a probably unsustainable 4/23 in 4x5 situations (17.4 %). I do, however, also see one area where he should stand to improve his shooting percentage next season - the power play.
Henrique actually only got 10 shots on the power play last year and did not score (0/10). I would expect this season Henrique will see a lot of time on the first PP unit. This should help his shooting percentage as well as shot rate and goals. The prior year in Albany, Henrique put up 188 shots in 73 games. This works out to 2.575 shots / game. He also scored 8 power play goals out of a total of 25 goals that season.
When the two players on your wings total 600 shots between them, it is not your job to grin and rip it every chance you get. Henrique should have more opportunities to fire at will this season, regardless of where he plays. If he plays the wing, he will almost certainly have an even higher shot total and more chances to finish. Also, his ice time should bump up this year. Last year he averaged 14.33 / 60 at evens. I would expect that number to be higher this season. Hopefully Henrique's projected increases in TOI at evens and on the power play should offset potential losses in 4x5 goals scored and shooting percentage. We will have to wait and see if around 10.5% is sustainable for him at 5x5.
Skating / Breakouts from the zone
Henrique is an excellent skater and nifty with the puck. This is a great asset for a scoring winger as well. He breaks out very well from the zone and receives passes very well. He was able to get himself into many breakaway and odd man rush opportunities this year at even strength and shorthanded. A lot of times it was the result of his speed and excellent positioning. Other times, it was the result of blocking a point shot and heading off to the races. Either way, several of the goals shown above were examples of Henrique using his excellent speed + finishing ability to blow by opposing players and score.
He's Strong in the Corners
Although he is not a huge guy, Henrique is strong on the puck. He positions his body very well, and has shown he is not afraid to get into the dirty areas of the ice, whether it be in front of the net or down low in the corners.
Less time supporting everyone else, more time getting to areas where he can finish
Henrique seems to possess the poise, skill level, and finishing skills to score sweet looking and timely goals. Who wouldn't like to see more of Henrique streaking towards the goal at top speed ready to receive a pass and rip a shot past some helpless netminder? This could be a regular occurrence for left wing Adam Henrique. Rather than supporting the others on the ice, he could be the one finishing. The Devils are currently short on scoring wingers, especially on the left side and someone is going to have to put the puck in the net more frequently.
Over the course of his 4 year Junior Career, Henrique totaled 111 goals and 117 assists, nearly a 1:1 ratio. This was accomplished while mostly playing alongside a very prolific scorer named Taylor Hall. For comparison, Hall scored 123 goals and accumulated 157 assists in the three seasons they both played for Windsor. This works out to a goal:assist ratio of .78 :1. Henrique, in the same three seasons totaled 88 goals and 96 assists. This is a ratio of .91:1. Yes, Adam Henrique had a higher goal: assist ratio than Taylor Hall during the time they played together. Follow this up with an outstanding 38 goals and 26 assists for Henrique in the Junior playoffs over the years. Add in during his one season in Albany, Henrique put up 25 goals and 25 assists , or a 1:1 ratio. It seems he has the pedigree to be a scoring winger.
After looking back on Henrique's skill set and some highlights from this season, as well as taking into account his production in the AHL and Juniors, I actually think he's a great fit in either position. . I was hoping to look at some film and some numbers and find a definitive answer, but my research just reinforced that I like him in both places. The more I think about it, I am glad I didn't reach a hard or overwhelming conclusion, as this is a testament to the player's versatility.
Henrique is a natural fluid passer. He also has a scorer's touch. He has proved to be an excellent finisher as well as a great playmaker. He is a strong possession player. Although I can also easily see how he could be a force to be reckoned with on the wing, at the end of the day, I still love his skill set to play center.
There are two factors in play here which are both important and don't necessarily always align perfectly - the long term development of the player and the immediate needs of the team. When I say the long term development of the player, I mean where he would provide most benefit to the organization in the long run. Fortunately with Henrique, he seems to have the skill set to thrive at either position. As a younger player, however, I still would rather not see him flip flop between the two positions. I would prefer to see him stick with one for the time being and run with it.
On one hand, I understand he could provide more short term value to the organization as a left wing due to an impending need. This could also help him realize his full potential as a scorer. He seems to have the background to be a good one, as demonstrated by his nearly 1:1 goal / assist ratio.
I still think in the long run, Henrique provides more value as a center. There are some skills that he possesses which, in my opinion, will not be utilized to their fullest potential playing on the wing. For example, his strong play in the neutral zone, his general headiness and awareness of his surroundings, his strong play in front of both nets, and his strong defensive play. Also, the numbers he put up in Juniors and the AHL (nearly a 1:1 goal / assist ratio) were largely achieved while playing Center. Perhaps he can play center on a different sort of line that features more of a possession winger rather than two shooters and we can get the best of both worlds.
Now I'd like to know what everyone else thinks. Do you have a strong opinion one way or the other on where Adam Henrique should play moving forward? Am I giving too much credence to any one of his particular skills or overlooking anything important in my analysis? Thanks for reading, and also thanks to everyone involved in the original discussion which prompted me to think further about this particular topic.