Check first, score later.
Right now, the NHL is in the midst of an era of remarkable parity. Even 20 years ago, a bad team was a BAD team. It was not uncommon to see the cellar-dwellers with -150 goal differentials and sub-20 win seasons who were mathematically eliminated by Christmas. This year, the Montreal Canadiens were last in the Eastern Conference, were only four games under .500 and suffered only a -14 goal differential.
So what has closed the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots"? Is it the salary cap system? Are players now all about roughly the same skill level? Goaltending, maybe?
With major pressure from ownership and management to ice a winner, most bench bosses live in constant fear for their jobs. Over time, they have been forced to concoct schemes that maximize their potential to win against teams vastly more talented than themselves. That has meant that if you can’t score, prevent scoring. With an under-skilled roster lacking legitimate offensive threats, risk and skill must be coached out of the game in favour of patience and positioning—after all, you can’t coach skill or talent, but you can sure coach against it. You might even find a measure of success.
Over the last 20 years, we have seen the NHL go from a league where the top 10 scorers routinely potted 50 and cracked the 100-point barrier to a league where the most talented offensive players are shackled to constrictive defensive systems and are being asked to abandon their instincts. Coaches dream of a roster full of Bob Gainey clones, stick-checking relentlessly, diving in front of every shot, grinding out every shift.
Alexander Ovechkin is an excellent case study. A sublimely gifted player whose talents should place him—in what should be the prime of his career—head and shoulders above his peers. His former coach, Bruce Boudreau, was blessed with a terrifying lineup featuring Ovie, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin, and for a few years, they terrorized the league during the regular season. However, they failed to achieve playoff success, highlighted by their unceremonious ouster at the hands of the under-skilled, eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, who stick-checked and shot-blocked their way to victories over not only the Caps, but also the high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins.
After another early playoff exit, courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the following year, Boudreau and management felt they needed to re-evaluate their approach. During free agency that offseason, clearly signalling the direction they were heading, the Caps brought in grinders Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and former nemesis Roman Hamrlik—it was time to fight fire with fire (or at least defense with defense).
Enter the 2011-12 season and what is to become the least productive campaign of Alexander Ovechkin’s career. With the introduction of a tight-checking, defensibly responsible, low risk style, Ovie, as a team leader, was expected to not only buy in, but to set an example for his teammates in a system that was completely antithetical to his style and skills. The increasing friction between Ovechkin and Boudreau was no secret, and ultimately, when Boudreau’s attempt to change the leopard’s spot failed, he had to go.
Enter Dale Hunter and the well-documented reduction of Ovechkin’s role during the 2012 playoffs, and the Capitals’ almost complete reliance on Braden Holtby to propel them into their ill-fated second round matchup against the New York Rangers. This series has to represent the absolute nadir of Ovechkin’s career, and is the prime illustration of coaching’s continual march away from skill and offense to grit and defense—away from scoring as a means to win towards the prevention of scoring as a means to win. Turning a four-time 50 goal scorer, two-time league MVP and arguably the most electrifying player in a generation into a checking forward for the sake of a system is an abject waste of talent, and robs every fan of the game.
There is remarkable parity in today’s NHL. Virtually every team in a given season has a chance at making the playoffs, and a low seed upsetting a high seed is certainly a rarity no more (as this year illustrates perfectly). On one hand, this is good for the NHL, as most fan bases feel they have a legit shot at the playoffs—if not the Cup—every year. On the other hand, the era of dynastic teams—Canadiens, Islanders, Oilers—is long gone, and with it the opportunity to build new mythologies that so enrich NHL history.
Also gone is the game that allows the best players to be the best players. With the nature of conservative counter-attacking schemes and a focus on goal prevention, NHL talent has been reduced to the lowest common denominator from a skill standpoint, with grit, heart, determination and willingness to buy into a system considered the most valuable currency.
This mentality has been so bred into players, coaches and management that skill development seems to have taken a backseat to defensive responsibility, physicality and grit, even at junior levels. The selection criteria for Canadian international hockey teams is another illustration of this. In choosing a squad for the World Junior Championship, a high-scoring forward from Rimouski who leads his league in goal scoring will almost always be passed over for a rough and tumble defensive forward from Saskatoon.
Canada’s failure at the World Championship speaks further to this trend. The country that was once regarded as world’s hockey heavyweight, Canada meekly succumbs 4-3 to a Slovak squad led by goalie Jan Laco, and whose leading scorer is defenseman Andrej Sekera. Who?
There was a time when where a 3-2 Canada victory over Switzerland would be considered a failure. How does Canada only outscore France—FRANCE—by 5? Conservative, low-risk, defensively responsible hockey. Even at tournaments such as this, in games against lowly, often dismal competition, the instincts bred into hockey players that scream risk aversion, the avoidance of taking chances and defense first cannot be turned off. Coaches certainly won’t encourage it.
As the Conference Finals grind on between four defense first, goalie-centric, shot block-happy teams, we are seeing the blueprint for future competition. When goal scorers, be they Ovechkin or Gaborik, become expendable on playoff teams when you need to score, what does this say about the potential future composition of teams, the scouting of players and the development of future NHLers? Is this a future the NHL will use to market the game? Is this the kind of game that will appeal to fans of a game that can be so much more than what it has become?
Players and coaches often talk about paying the price to win. We now know what it takes to win in the NHL. As long as coaches coach, and players are willing to pay the price, teams will find a way to win—but at what cost?