We’re down to the ‘final four’ in hockey, and while I have tremendous respect for the teams that have made it this far, I’m alarmed at a trend we’re seeing in the league. Let me illustrate below:
The eight best offenses in the NHL this season were, in order: Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia, Ottawa, Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit, and Nashville. Included in there are your last four Stanley Cup-winning teams, as well as the runner-up team from each of those seasons as well. (Detroit faced Pittsburgh in ’08 and ’09, each winning once; Chicago bested Philly in ’10, and Boston defeated Vancouver in ’11). This group represents the cream of the crop in the NHL, the most marketable teams, the biggest stars, and the teams generally considered favorites to win the 2012 Stanley Cup. NONE of them are still playing.
The top eight defensive teams in the NHL, again in order: St. Louis, Los Angeles, NY Rangers, Vancouver, Boston, Detroit, Phoenix, and New Jersey. All four teams remaining can be found on this list, and all share a common theme: defense before offense. Your Vegas Cup favorites are the LA Kings, a team that barely scored two goals per game during the regular season. Vegas’ next choice is New York, a team that celebrates blocked shots as much as goals scored, and whose coach treats press conferences with utter contempt.
Look, I understand that playoff hockey is a tighter, more intense game, and I not only accept that, I embrace it – the NHL’s postseason is a two month grind of intensity, passion, sweat, and pain unrivalled anywhere else in sports. However, it feels to me more and more like offense simply doesn’t matter anymore in the NHL. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Pens-Flyers series got the highest first-round ratings in fourteen years. Offense should be something sustainable, something you can count on to build momentum, not something that simply results from solid defense. There HAS to be balance in the game.
What do fans want? Oh, sure, the diehards (myself included) appreciate the pitchers’ duel in baseball, the 10-7 test of wills in football, the 2-1 defensive struggle in hockey – but the average, ‘casual’ fan loves the 3-run homer, the 80-yard TD pass – and the breakaway goal in hockey. Baseball became too pitcher-dominated in the 1960’s – the league responded by lowering the mound and shrinking the strike zone, and aside from the steroid era the game has been pretty ‘in balance’ ever since. The NFL radically altered the rules in the late 1970’s regarding jamming and holding receivers, and offense instantly went up. Hockey was all ‘clutch and grab’ in the 90’s, and after the 2004 lockout they strictly enforced the rules to improve the ‘flow’ of the game. In EVERY CASE I mentioned, those changes increased the popularity of the sport.
The NHL faces a crossroads moment here – coaches love control, and defense is far easier to control than offense. Now that defensive hockey is proving to be a winning formula – we’re guaranteed to have an anemic offense win the Cup this year – the league will rush to mimic these tactics. Coaches won’t voluntarily change the game, the league will have to take action, and do it swiftly. Here are some of the ideas I have for bringing offense back, from the simplest, least-intrusive to the most radical:
–Enforce the rules. I’m not going to spend much time on this – I’ve been critical of the league since January for inconsistent enforcement of the rules, and given how well they enforced things from 2005-2011 I know it’s possible. Take away the subtle holds, trips, and interference and watch the skill come back into the game.
–Reduce the size of goalie equipment. This has been brought up before – if you look at a goalie from 1990 compared to now, the pads are MUCH bigger and a 170-pound goalie can appear as big as a 250-pound man with all that stuff on. Goalies play a much more aggressive style now than they did then, and defensemen are far faster and more agile – giving shooters more room to target around goalies makes sense, and will force goalies to have to make hard choices when facing a 2-on-1, for example.
–Legislate against blocked shots. This one is tricky, because I respect and admire anyone who willingly lays down to block a 100-MPH slap shot – but fans don’t want to see blocks, they want to see goals or great goalie saves! Sooner or later a player is going to lay down to block a shot and get seriously injured when they get hit in the face. Perhaps the answer can be found in basketball – near the basket, there’s an area where a charge will not be called. Perhaps if a defender is close to his own goal, it could be made illegal to intentionally leave his feet to block a shot. I don’t have any solid ideas here, but it’s worth discussion.
–Widen the net. By far the easiest and most controversial idea. To me, the goalies are bigger and their equipment bigger still – why not simply enlarge the shooting area? The counterargument basically comes down to various iterations of ‘we’ve always done it this way’, citing the integrity of the game, history, etc. My answer: At one time the forward pass was illegal in football AND hockey, baseball’s playing surface varies by city (AND they’ve changed the mound, the ball, and the strike zone throughout the last 100 years), and the NBA introduced the 3-point line less than 30 years ago. Change is hard, but change can keep the game balanced as well.
It will be interesting to see how quickly the NHL reacts to this trend – and maybe I’m wrong, maybe this is a 1-year aberration and having a strong offense will pay off next season. Time will tell.
Next week, we’ll begin to look at baseball as the season passes the quarter-pole.
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.