Our Game Is A Joke Right Now

We’ve all heard it many times, whether from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman or other high-level NHL executives, that “our game has never been better,” or faster; how the speed, skill, and excitement on display is unrivaled in the history of our sport. It’s curious; generating wide-spread consensus has never been in the nature of our ever-complicated sport, yet here we have it in droves. Whether it be Bettman, the General Managers, ex-players, or TSN analysts, everyone even remotely involved with the NHL says the same thing: the game has never been better, faster or more exciting.

And the fans think so too, even if the empty seats next to them in certain arenas around the NHL don’t seem to (although to be fair, league-wide attendance is still solid). But why wouldn’t the fans think that? When such a vast collection of NHL executives and analysts say the same thing, we are inclined to believe them. These are the experts, the people with experience, the people who would know.

But these are also the people who routinely strike out at the draft table, who go years without even making the playoffs despite spending to the cap. As wise, hard-working, and well-intentioned as many of them are, their experience does not preclude them from being wrong sometimes. And, unfortunately, this time they are.

About a week ago, the Philadelphia Flyers faced off against the Tampa Bay Lightning. I did not watch the full game, a decision everyone who did soon came to envy. Apparently, the game came to a complete stand still when Tampa Bay had all five players hang back in the neutral zone defending, and the Philadelphia Flyers refused to skate the puck right to them (pictured above). These happenings have since spurred much long-due discussion about the state of our game, and the neutral zone trap in particular. Unfortunately, these criticisms have focused solely on the Tampa Bay Lightning, when in reality every team traps when it suits them, and moreover, the trap is not the only problem. The problems are many, and widespread, all symptoms and causes of one unfortunate truth that no one wants to admit: the game sucks right now. It is in decline. It’s boring. Games are often hard to sit through if it’s not your team. Exciting plays are few and far between.

In fact, it’s gotten so bad, even some of those high-level NHL executives have begun to realize it. In a recent interview, LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi had this to say.

“Well, I know the coaches are looking really close at (how to score more goals). Once you get to the 10-game mark, you start talking to all the general managers, and it is a recurring theme with most of the general managers.…We’re certainly near the bottom of (goal scoring), but so many teams are saying how they’re having trouble scoring.

Translation: We can’t score, but in talking to the other General Managers, it turns out they can’t score either. Almost no one can score. It’s a recurring theme in today’s NHL.

That is as close to an admission you will get from a high-level NHL executive that our game has huge problems right now. But where GMs and coaches are only concerned with a good statistical bottom-line (i.e. getting enough goals to win), no matter how they achieve it, I am concerned even more with the lack of quality scoring chances, the lack of excitement and speed. That’s the true problem. Dean Lombardi touched on it as well.

“When you make changes to the rules of the game, they don’t manifest themselves right away. I think we’re all looking at, with the red line taken out, the biggest thing you’re seeing is more — like San Jose last night, particularly when they got the lead — with five guys standing from the red line back. So, how do you get through that? You’ve got to make good dump-ins…

Whenever the way the game is played requires you to base your whole offense off “good dump-ins,” there is a huge problem. This game is supposed to be about skill, speed, skating–hitting the offensive blue-line with speed off the rush. I can’t think of anything that requires less talent than dumping the puck in.

But that’s the problem. With the game as tight-checking as it is now 5-on-5, even the best players usually can’t skate for more than a second or two without being closed on by the opposition. Not withstanding power-plays and the rare odd-man rush 5-on-5, there just isn’t enough time and space for much speed, skill, and play-making. Those entertaining aspects of the game have been replaced with “dump-ins.” If that’s not an excitement-killer, I don’t know what is.

The truth is, our game is in need of major fixing right now. Dean Lombardi said as much whether he realizes it or not, and everyone who watched the recent Flyers-Lightning game witnessed the same, only most of them don’t realize that the problem extends far past the Lightning. Their game with the Flyers was just a microcosm of much bigger problems, the latest and most obvious outbreak of the overarching disease plaguing our game. You’ll recall Dean Lombardi even mentioned the San Jose Sharks as culprits (quoted above), a team with the likes of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Ryane Clowe, Dan Boyle, and Brent Burns on its roster. If a team with that much firepower is doing it, everyone is.

There is no longer any doubt in my mind that the game is in trouble. The only question is why.

The answer? There are many, but the most succinct place to start is that the evolution of NHL defensive schemes, and defenders themselves, has slowed the on-ice product. It’s possible this would have happened by now regardless of the NHL lockout, but I believe the lockout’s rule changes expedited this process.

Think about it. Why do we evolve? To adapt to our surroundings. And coming out of the lockout, no players had more to adapt to than NHL defenseman. They were no longer allowed to use hooking and holding as defending tools, which forced them to find new ways to defend, to improve other aspects of their game such as positioning and gap control.

This is textbook evolution. Think of it like a video game. The defencemen had the difficulty changed to “Hard” and the forwards got theirs changed to “Easy.” Initially, there was an adjustment period for the defencemen which saw increased offense around the league the first couple post-lockout seasons. But since then, the game has slowly reverted back in the opposite direction, in large part because defenses have now adjusted to where they are even better than they were pre-lockout. Gap control and positioning have been nearly perfected to unprecedented levels. No one gets beat 1-on-1 anymore. We haven’t seen an Alex Ovechkin highlight-reel goal in ages. Defenseman used to be like pylons to him, now he can’t even deke around your average 3rd pairing journeyman. Defencemen have evolved, and forwards like Ovechkin haven’t, at least not at anywhere near the same rate.

If that wasn’t enough to slow the game down, coaches have adjusted and evolved, too, especially in their defensive schemes. This feeds directly into the lack of space in the neutral zone. I remember a couple of seasons ago, every time a team played the Minnesota Wild, there would be a story about how their then-coach Jacques Lemaire made you play a boring dump-and-chase style with his trap. Back then slow dump-and-chase hockey was considered the boring exception to the NHL norm. Now it is the norm, to the point where many can’t even tell the difference.

Thanks to the coaches, now every team not only traps, but they play much smarter, more detail-oriented games in general. Forwards back-check like mad. Shot-blocking is rampant. Defenses always collapse to the net in the defensive zone, allowing only for perimeter shots by the opposition. Attacking teams almost always have a third-man-high in the offensive zone to prevent 2-on-1’s going the other way, even when their defenders pinch. Players are taught to always stay behind the puck in general, to not allow any outnumbered attacks, and to never turn the puck over high. That isn’t an entirely new concept, but a couple of seasons ago some very skilled players seemed to believe it was worth the risk of stick-handling at the opposition blue-line. Not anymore. Now teams know it’s not worth it, in fact so much so that players are even taught it’s better to dump the puck in and give it away all together than risk attempting a creative play at the blue-line.

And that is what teams do now more than ever. They abide by the most low-risk, mechanical hockey-philosophy I’ve ever witnessed. When in doubt, get rid of it. If you’re under pressure in the defensive zone, just flip it out or chip it out off the boards, back to the other team. If you’re under pressure in the neutral zone, (and you always are in today’s NHL), dump it in, back to the other team.

This is the antithesis to the Red Army teams’ philosophy of years passed, whose players were taught to never just give the puck up willingly. You work so hard to gain possession, why would you just give it away freely?

But every NHL team does now. Why? Probably because, on the claustrophobic NHL-sized rinks, it increases your odds of winning the hockey game. There is so little room to make plays out there, especially in the neutral zone, that players know; if you try to stickhandle through the neutral zone or do anything creative, you will likely turn the puck over. Obviously that’s no good, so instead, teams are playing as low-risk a game as possible. And it works. We saw as much at the last Olympics when Canada’s style met Russia’s (and by some wild coincidence Canada met Russia), and Canada took Russia to town, winning a 7-3 blowout. Russia tried to play a creative skill game, and look where it got them. Bottom line: the current NHL way is better for winning, otherwise it wouldn’t be the current NHL way and we wouldn’t have a problem. It’s just that sometimes winning strategies are inversely related to what’s best for the game, at least when there are pre-existing factors distorting the game which allow for malignant strategies to prosper.

An example of this inversion is what happened after Russia beat Canada, when the U.S.A. met Canada in the gold-medal game. These were two teams, both playing the current-NHL style on NHL-sized rinks, both filled with all-world talent (especially Canada), and it was a 1-0 defensive chess match up until the last minute of regulation, and a 2-1 Final. It was just one game, and I don’t have a perfect memory of it, but that gives you some idea. Even on teams filled with many of the best scoring talents our league has to offer, the level of defensive play was still much higher than the level of offensive play.

Another main cause of that problem (to go along with evolved coaching and defending) is that we seem to have less and less great scoring forwards in our league to go around. For example, two teams in particular were looking for forward help coming into this season, the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, and both quickly pounced on the best trade options to become available in years (along with Jeff Carter).

First the Kings traded their best prospect for Mike Richards, someone with 69 million left on his contract who scored 23 goals last season, and was rumored to have partying and fitness issues in Philadelphia. Then the Canucks traded for David Booth, a player who scored 40 points last season, with a bad concussion history and 4 years and 17 million guaranteed left on his contract.

Mike Richards is a great two-way 2nd line center, and even David Booth could be a good acquisition strictly within the context of the current league, but, historically speaking, those are some seriously slim pickings. And these were the best trades available in years, probably since Dany Heatley got traded to the Sharks before the 2009-2010 season. (Last year the big fish on the trade market was Dustin Penner, another gem).

There are tons of teams who could use not just one, but multiple quality top-six forwards, yet they won’t even get one because there just isn’t anyone. And this feeds into the coaching and “trap” issue. Not only is offensive talent lacking in our game, a problem by itself, but coaches who lack the offensive talent required to win almost always resort to trapping the other team and slowing the game down. And if they don’t, then they lose, get fired, and someone else comes in and does do it.

And unfortunately, that’s what many NHL coaches have been tasked with doing. The lack of sufficient quality offensive players on many teams is forcing them to resort to trapping just to survive.

Plain and simple, our league just does not have enough good offensive players right now. Every season a couple good young players come out of the draft, and we’re told how great the talent pool is today. Except that it isn’t. For every quality player that comes in, two seem to exit. And a big part of that appears to be the decline of once-great hockey development programs in Europe, particularly Russia.

Just look at what’s happened. Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin all were drafted out of Russia in 2004 or before, and they are amazing talents. But since then, in the last seven seasons, who would you say has been the best player out of Russia to play in the NHL?

Is it Nikolai Zherdev, who flunked out of the NHL? Nikita Filatov, who so far has done the same? Artem Anisimov, 18 goals last season? Dimitry Kulikov, a defenseman? I like Kulikov and Anisimov, but this is a pathetic list! Russia once perhaps matched Canada in developing top-level talent. Now they’ve gone seven years without giving us one single 20 goal scorer, if I’m not mistaken. And you wonder why the league is suffering? As an aside, I do believe Evgeni Kuznetsov will soon be rocking Capitals’ fans worlds, but even so, one or two (Tarasenko) good Russian forwards over a seven-year period is still plain awful. Either the development system is broken, or all their best players are going to the KHL. Either way it’s a huge problem.

In fact, forget the last seven years for a moment. Just ask yourself this question, after Pavel Datsyuk, who is the best Russian skater in the Western Conference? Or better yet, is there one? Only Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin and St Louis rookie defenseman Nikita Nikitin come to mind. What about a forward? I’m not even sure there is one!

See the problem? That’s a whole Conference, 15 teams! Analyzing the last seven years only tells you the last seven years have been bad. But looking at an entire Conference only to find one top Russian forward, that paints a complete picture. And a very dismal one.

What about Sweden? Nicklas Backstrom and Patrick Berglund were drafted in 2006, five years ago. Since then, Sweden has done much better than Russia, but have still lacked top-tier talent up front. The best players we’ve gotten out of Sweden have been Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson, Magnus Paajarvi, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, David Rundblad, Mikael Backlund, Mattias Tedenby, and Marcus Johansen. Karlsson and Hedman are the two best, but both are defenseman.

Any of the rest could turn out to be very good players in years to come, but not yet. Lots of good future NHLers, but not many elite offensive weapons. But it’s definitely a resurgence compared to the much better question, which is who came before Backstrom?

Think about it, who are the good swedish forwards in our league. The Sedins, Nicklas Backstrom, Loui Eriksson (drafted 2003), Henrik Zetterberg, Mikael Samuelsson, Tomas Holmstrom sort of…everyone besides Eriksson and Backstrom were drafted over ten years ago. So since 1999, twelve years ago, we have gotten only two top Swedish forwards, one of whom hasn’t even gotten 80 points in an NHL season.

It’s similar to the Russian situation, Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, and Semin all came in the early 2000’s, but for years before and after them there’s been almost nothing in terms of top offensive talent to my memory.

Even the Canadian talent pool, while overall strong as ever (give or take), is getting physically smaller. Just look at the recent top draft picks. When I think of prototypical 1st and 2nd overall picks in the NHL draft, I think of players like Rick Nash, Eric Staal, Vincent Lecavalier, Dany Heatley, John Tavares, (or Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin for Russians). Approximately 6’3″, 225 lbs (sometimes bigger) hulking athletes with immense skill, who can beat you any way they want, who will dominate you along the boards or in open ice.

I’m not saying smaller players can’t be deserving of a top draft pick, because they can. But make no mistake, being undersized is a weakness you have to overcome. Prototypical 1st and 2nd overall picks aren’t supposed to have weaknesses, at least not ones so blatant. The last five seasons we’ve gotten smaller players for top picks, like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Patrick Kane, Tyler Seguin, and Gabriel Landeskog, even Taylor Hall. Great players, some could even turn out better than some on my list of “prototypicals.” However, as good as they are at their current size, they would be even better if they were the exact same players, just bigger. It just seems like you used to be able to have it both ways a lot more often than you do now.

It’s a miniscule complaint compared to the lack of European talent, but I think one worth noting. It just seems almost every country’s talent besides the U.S.’s is, or has been, in decline, whether in very small, subtle ways like with Canada, or in blatant ways like with Russia. And the U.S., while much improved in its player development, is still far from delivering the star power to make up for Russia’s absence, let alone pick up the slack everywhere else.

Ultimately, I am no hockey historian, but from what I can tell, the amount of talent in the NHL has been in decline for awhile now, and it’s reached a tipping point. There are now more teams in the NHL than ever before with 30, and the talent is being stretched too thin. In any league, increasing the number of teams when you have even a constant talent pool would probably still be a bad idea; doing it with a declining talent pool is a recipe for disaster. And when you add to that ever-more tight-checking systems and evolved defending because of the lockout, and add to all that an NHL playing-surface size that was always too small to begin with, you get what we have in the NHL today, a mess.

You see, I believe that hockey, at its purest, has the potential to be a nightly spectacle unlike anything else, the most exciting of all sports. This is because, when ‘done right,’ hockey is a sport unrivaled in its combination of speed, skill, creativity, and brute force. We’ve all witnessed this in the past, but right now, that’s not what we’re getting from the NHL-product. Instead, the planet’s dominant version of the sport has been reduced to this slow, sluggish dump-and-chase game that barely resembles (ice) hockey at all as it was first conceived on large frozen ponds. Knowing the potential exists for so much more is what makes this such a shame, and makes me long for a solution.

But is there an easy fix? The NHL game is being pulled down by so many factors right now, and not all of them easily remedied. The player-development issues in Europe could take a long time to fix if they that process hasn’t already been set in motion, and you can’t just magically make defenders unlearn the new tricks they’ve picked up since the lockout, nor should they have to. You can’t make anyone unlearn anything once they’ve learned it, that goes for coaches and their strategies as well. Now that most every team has learned to strategically implement the neutral zone trap when it favors them, they will keep doing just that as long as it continues to favor them.

The one and only thing you can do to immediately improve the game is to remove either the incentive or ability (the two usually go hand in hand) of teams to execute game-stalling strategies like the trap. Teams will never willingly stop doing things that benefit them; you have to make it so those things no longer benefit them anymore. So many teams are trapping right now because it’s so easy to trap in today’s NHL, and with little downside. The way the NHL game is currently constituted favors defense; it is too easy to slow the game down, and too hard to score. To fix this, you have to change the dynamics of the game to allow for skill again, even to favor it.

And what skill requires more than anything else is room to operate in. Space is like the oxygen to skill’s flame. Without it, skill will die, and that’s what we’ve seen. The current NHL-ice surface is too small, especially the neutral zone, and this has aided in turning our game into the dump-and-chase charade it’s become.

How? You’ve probably heard the hockey term “clogging the neutral zone.” You’ve also heard the… “plumber term” of a “clogged pipe.” What’s the relevance here besides that I would rather watch a plumber do his work than sit through a current NHL game? (A little humor for those who have read this far). Well, the smaller the pipe, the easier it is to clog. Same with hockey. The smaller the neutral zone, the easier it is for defenders to cover it. You make it bigger, they have to cover more room, but they don’t get any extra players to do it. Therefore, it’s harder for them. Thus, making the neutral zone bigger makes it harder to trap, which makes for faster, more exciting hockey.

This is a concept that applies to the entire ice surface, and it is the one and only true fix that can improve the NHL game immediately. It is too easy to defend and “limit space” on attackers and puck-carriers right now, and my brilliant calculations are telling me that might just have something to do with there not being enough space, period. Skill needs space to operate in, and if we want to improve the game, this is only way short of waiving a magic wand to get better players in our league, or using that same wand to make coaches and players unlearn everything they’ve learned. Making the nets shallower won’t fix anything, it’s just a faux way of increasing the playing-surface size by a couple of inches without making the actual rink bigger. Slightly reducing the size of goaltending equipment is definitely needed, but that will only fix the scoring issues to a limited degree, it won’t fix the speed, skill, scoring chances, and excitement issue/s.

Nothing the NHL does, nothing they can reasonably do that I can think of, will ever fix the game’s problems and bring out its true potential other than increasing the ice surface.

Many are of the opinion that the international ice surface is too big, which may or may not be true as we haven’t seen NHL quality teams play on it recently, but it’s quite possible that size would be too big. All I know is the current NHL size is too small. The NHL needs to start testing to figure out a good happy medium between the current size and the international size many feel is too big.

There is a sweet spot in there that must be adopted for the sake of the game. Until the NHL makes this change, the game will continue to suffer, as will the fans who love the game.

Change is not always obvious. When it happens gradually, it can be hard to spot. A ten-year-old boy will never wake up one morning to find he’s grown noticeably taller, but after 365 of those mornings, each absent any apparent change, he may measure his height to learn he’s grown four inches. Likewise, it is time for NHL fans to “measure” our game. Slowing but surely, the game has decreased in pace and become more tight-checking, more sluggish, and more boring. However, because the rate of change has mirrored the speed of the game’s current pace, it has been hard to notice day by day. For many, it is impossible to notice at all without getting out the tape-measure. But sure enough, it has been happening right in front of our noses, and the only way to fix it is to first recognize and admit the problem.

Ultimately, only the NHL can make the necessary changes, but the awareness of fans cannot hurt. So get out your measuring device of choice, folks. The game is in trouble, and by a lot more than the height-equivalent of four inches.

Written By Shark Circle