Breaking Down Bobby Brink’s Game

One of the fastest rising prospects available in the 2019 NHL Draft, Brink has gone from virtually unknown to a potential first round pick in just a few months.

Playing for the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, Brink has tallied 33 points through 19 games. After missing time to represent Team USA at the World Junior A Challenge, he no longer holds the USHL scoring lead, but he’s comfortably the most efficient producer in the league with 1.74 points per game.

Brink’s team has a fair amount of skill surrounding him, including Martin Pospisil, the 4th round pick of the Calgary Flames in 2017, and Marcus Kallionkelli, who is draft-eligible this year. Ideally, Brink’s production would be a result of his own efforts and not a product of his teammates.

This is an area where a statistic called Betweenness can be of use. Created in its hockey form by Evan Oppenheimer, Betweenness is a metric that estimates the influence of a player within his team’s scoring network. I like to look at it as a measure of how much the team would suffer if that player was suddenly removed from the scoring network of his team— the higher the betweenness, the more the team would feel the negative effects.

Brink is the most influential piece of Sioux City’s offence, meaning that he is the primary driver of the team’s offensive efforts.

The fact that Brink is able to go in, at 17 years of age, and basically dominate a league with 20 year olds in it is extremely impressive.

How does he do it? Let’s dive into Brink’s game.

A strong skater, Brink has a quick and powerful stride. He’s explosive, with an excellent first three steps, and consistently wins races all over the ice.

He’s excellent at making small plays with his edges all over his ice that may not seem like much, but they put him in a stronger position to make a play. For example, on this play Brink enters the zone with control, cuts across from right to left, and then pivots to open up towards the middle of the ice. This play, as basic as it is, gives him options in the middle of the ice— options that he wouldn’t have had if he hadn’t pivoted.

Ultimately, none of those options materialize, and Brink is forced to throw the puck on net, hoping that a rebound will pop out to one of his teammates that are driving the net, but that’s besides the point.

What is the point? Bobby Brink is a highly skilled player. He can manipulate the puck and make plays in ways that most players cannot. All players, but especially immensely talented players like Brink, are at their best when they have options with the puck. If one of these skilled players only has two options, that’s only two ways that they can put that skill to use.

Let’s look back on that rush from Brink that we just examined.

Focus on the part of the clip where Brink is cutting across the top of the opponent’s zone. In this situation, he has two primary options— he can continue to move in the direction that he is going, or he can change directions and go the opposite way, back from where he originally came from. No true passing options exist at this point— he could make a short pass to the forward with him on the rush, but that forward would be skating into immediate pressure, and a turnover would be likely.

Brink takes the first option, deciding to continue his cut across towards the boards. He pivots, so he’s facing the middle of the ice as opposed to looking at the boards, but he is still moving in that direction.

Let’s focus on that pivot. It doesn’t seem like much, but by turning to face the centre of the ice, Brink is creating additional options. He still has the same two options as he did originally— it isn’t too late to loop back the other way, and he can still continue to move towards the corner if he chooses. But now, he’s also created two new passing options to his two linemates in the slot area, as well as a shooting option that he didn’t have before, when he was on his backhand.

He started out with two options, now he has five. Those are three new possibilities; three new plays that could arise in a goal for his team.

Brink isn’t going to blow you away with overwhelming skill— he has talent, but he doesn’t use it in a particularly flashy kind of way. But all over the ice, Brink is making these small plays that give him more options, and once those possibilities are there, he puts his skill into action to execute on them.

Brink is always looking for open space, and makes a conscious effort to go to areas where a passing lane exists between him and the puck carrier.

In this clip, Brink drops down into the corner, seeing that the puck might end up being knocked into that area from the puck battle occurring along the boards. Canada’s penalty kill is a little too focused on the puck, with three players committed to the boards, leaving the net-front wide open. When the puck is drawn back to the point, Brink explodes towards the front of the net, which is still wide open, beating the defenceman desperately trying to recover. He doesn’t score, but that’s a highly dangerous opportunity that he created.

The American winger also demonstrates a clear understanding of space creation, and makes an effort to create space for his teammates as well as himself in the offensive zone. One of Brink’s signature plays is to hold onto the puck until an opposing defender is forced to commit to him, then hand the puck off to a teammate who can then take that vacated area.

This play from Brink demonstrates that ability very well. Brink’s team is outnumbered on the rush, with just two attackers compared to three Fargo defenders. Brink’s team won’t muster anything on that rush attempt because of that numbers disadvantage, so Brink loops back towards the blueline. By doing so, he manages to create a soft spot in the opponent’s defensive system.

Before Brink loops back, Fargo is in a perfectly fine defensive position. The puck carrier is contained to the outside, they have two defenders in between the puck and the net, and the other attacker is well-marked.

But by circling back, Brink is able to disturb this position. He draws one of the Fargo defenders with him towards the blueline, creating space where the defender had formerly been.

Let’s visualize this a bit more clearly.

In the top picture, Fargo is in a strong defensive position. Brink and the Musketeers have few lanes of attack, and very little options to attack.

In the bottom picture, which is after Brink has circled back towards the blueline, Fargo is now in a considerably less favourable defensive position. The defensive line, which is shown in the top picture, has been destroyed, and a pocket of space has been created on the left side of Fargo’s zone.

This is another excellent example of a little play that Brink has made that doesn’t appear to be much, but it puts his team in a much more favourable offensive position.

Brink is well aware of his strengths and weaknesses in the offensive zone. Brink is officially listed as 5’10”, but his listed height for the World Junior A Challenge suggests that he’s actually closer to 5’8”. His exact height aside, Brink isn’t a big guy, and he isn’t going to physically dominate a game or even just a puck battle. When Brink goes into a corner, he’s going to lose that battle more often than not. It’s not his fault, but it’s the reality of the situation.

Brink appears to be cognizant of this, and actually adjusts his game to avoid those puck battles, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I think it’s a good thing that he shows that level of intelligence to recognize that he’s more likely to hang onto the puck if he doesn’t force a battle. When Brink enters the offensive zone with the puck, rather than continuing down into the corner, he’ll hook back away from the corner and look for a passing option towards the centre of the ice.

As Brink progresses to higher levels of hockey, like the NCAA— he’s committed to the University of Denver— he’ll need to rely on his skill and intelligence to make up for any differences in size. This particular trait, to me, signals that he won’t have much difficulty doing that.

Here’s a play that, without really honing in on any one thing in particular, does a really good job of demonstrating Brink’s overall offensive game, including some of the key points that we’ve gone over.

Brink starts off displaying his skating ability, accelerating quickly while skating backwards towards the close boards, then executing a seamless pivot to begin skating forwards. Then, he makes an excellent play to receive a pass with his skate that just shows off an immense amount of coordination. Before he touches the puck with his stick a single time, he’s already looking back towards the centre of the ice to identify a passing option. He forces the defender to fully commit to him before dishing the puck to a trailing forward, who now has space on the outside of the ice to work with the puck. Brink isn’t done yet, circling around the net and finding space backdoor. His teammate isn’t on the same page, and just rims the puck around the boards, but Brink is able to recover, catch up to the puck, and make an excellent elevated pass to a teammate with a clear path to the net.

Skating ability? Check. Space creation? Check. Identification of open space? Check. Vision and decision making under pressure? Check. A ton of good things being displayed in that one clip.

Moving on now to the transition game: Brink forechecks well, effectively angling opponents towards the boards where he can pin them and take the puck. On the flip side, Brink does a good job of beating the opposition forecheck, getting himself into position along the boards to receive a pass from his defenceman, then looking towards the middle of the ice to connect with a forward as they exit the zone.

His contributions are felt all over the ice for his team. He’s dominant offensively at the USHL, he’s strong in transition, and, although there’s work to be done, he isn’t a defensive liability. It’s looking more and more likely that Brink will be selected within the first 31 picks at the 2018 NHL Draft with each passing day, and, honestly, I can’t say that I would be surprised if he cracks the top 20, potentially even the top 15.

Bobby Brink is legit, and he’s here to stay.