How Adam Fox Is Dominating the NHL With His Mind

Only three seasons removed from the NCAA, Adam Fox has already claimed a Norris Trophy and more recently a seven-year, $66.5 million extension ($9.5M AAV) from the New York Rangers.

Frankly, that’s a bargain.

The 23-year-old is performing like the best defenseman in the world for the second straight campaign. He doesn’t garner as much attention as his big-name peers because his tools are ordinary in comparison. He isn’t as electrifying as Cale Makar, as bold as Roman Josi or as physically imposing as Victor Hedman, but the 5’11”, 183-pounder might be more valuable than all of them due to his otherworldly hockey sense.

He’s continually in the right place at the right time making the right decisions.

This ruthless efficiency is even more apparent in 2021-22, as the Rangers have stumbled out of the gates in their first season under head coach Gerard Gallant. Don’t be fooled by their 6-2-2 record. New York hasn’t carried the balance of play whatsoever, controlling just 46.5% of the expected goals (24th in the NHL) and 50.0% of the actual goals (17th) at 5-on-5. It ranks seventh leaguewide in points percentage despite a tenuous goal differential of +2.

Without Fox’s heroics and Igor Shesterkin’s breakout between the pipes (1.85 GAA, 94.3 SV%), this team would find itself in the gutter of the Metropolitan Division.

Fox’s raw numbers (11 points in 10 games) suggest he’s a game-breaker—and he is—but he’s perhaps even more effective as a defender and facilitator. Think about that for a second: He leads his club as well as all blueliners in points…and that isn’t necessarily his most important contribution. His impact isn’t limited to initiating the breakout and immediately barreling down the ice. He’s a three-zone wonder who uses his sharp instincts to govern the ice and tilt it in New York’s favor.

That begins with getting stops. Instead of chasing the play, he lets puck-carriers come to him, standing his ground and then nipping any zone entry in the bud. Watch how disruptive he is on the strength of his hand-eye coordination and quick reads:

Life as a defenseman is so much easier when you don’t even let opponents set up shop.

That’s not always possible, of course. Attackers may focus on Ryan Lindgren’s side or manage to sneak a dump-in past Fox. Thankfully, he’s equally stingy in the defensive zone, displaying a remarkable ability to identify the biggest threat in any given scenario and snuff it out. Oftentimes, it seems like he knows what opponents want before they do. Combined with his rapier-like poke check, his play recognition allows him to foil attackers time and time again:

If you need additional evidence of his defensive acumen, look at the following sequence from the Rangers’ 4-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on October 29:

Fourth-liner Greg McKegg has lost his stick in the defensive zone. It’s essentially a power play for Columbus. Over the next 50 seconds, the Blue Jackets pour it on and Fox repeatedly stymies them, keeping them at bay long enough for McKegg to skate off for a replacement. Every single play on the puck during this sequence is made by Fox. He can smell your intentions. As such, he always has the jump on his competition.

It’s no surprise that he ranks first among defensemen in takeaways (120+ minutes played). Moreover, he ranks sixth among 125 eligible blueliners in GA60. Especially now that Shesterkin is announcing himself as a star, it’s almost impossible to score on the Rangers during Fox’s shifts.

Once the Rangers retrieve the puck, Fox ensures that they can transition to offense via his poise and pinpoint breakout passes. In his eyes, the forecheck basically doesn’t exist. He doesn’t feel pressure:

New York’s No. 1 defenseman is keenly attuned to his surroundings—where the forecheck is coming from, where his outlets are, how long he can safely handle the puck. He then plays chicken with the opposition, waiting until the very last second to navigate out of trouble or for a passing lane to materialize.

His vision enters the frame in the offensive zone. Fox can dissect defenses with ease, detecting the slightest opening and exploiting it with his touch, accuracy and uncanny knack for evading opponents. As an entirely average skater, he creates space through deceptive stutter steps rather than blinding speed. He switches gears or shifts his leverage to gain the upper hand on defenders, and from there, his playmaking talent takes hold:

Notice how he’s perpetually driving the play, buying time for the pieces to fall into place before he strikes. It’s one of those chess-vs.-checkers phenomena. No one else sees what he does.

And when he ties every element of his game together—the defense, the transition and the offense—it’s poetry in motion:

Against the Seattle Kraken on Sunday night, he connects with Artemi Panarin on a three-zone give-and-go for the game-winner. Against the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night, he breaks up a short-handed rush, slows the tempo to a crawl so that his teammates can catch up and spins J.T. Miller around as he dishes to Panarin. One second later, the puck is in the net.

As it stands, Fox’s all-around brilliance is carrying a squad that doesn’t know its identity. Gallant is hoping to implement a system built around a tenacious forecheck, but the Rangers may not have the personnel to deliver the goods. Panarin is suffering through his worst stretch as a Ranger. Mika Zibanejad is a ghost on most nights. High draft picks Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko have yet to find their footing.

When Fox is on the ice, New York owns 75.0% of the goals scored. When he’s off, its GF% crashes down to 37.5. That’s about as stark a contrast as you can imagine. When you consider his overall impact, he’s currently the Norris front-runner once more. 

He’s doing this without offering any real sizzle either. He’s simply one move ahead of everyone else.

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