NHL: Why So Defensive?

Ken FossAnalyst IMarch 12, 2008

As of late, when my hockey watching friends and I get together—both of them—we have started the discussion again, the question we beat to death during the lockout.

Why is it so hard to score in the NHL these days, what the NHL can do, or not do to open up scoring, and make the game more marketable here in the states?

A few seconds of silence followed and a then bunch of radical, and frankly, awful ideas followed. Eliminate fighting, bigger nets, illegalization of goaltenders handling pucks, line changes can only happen during stoppages. I half-jokingly added, "No cups. That ought to take care of shot blocking."

So we reformulated the question, why is the game more defensive today than it was in the past?

The first thing that came to my head is the players take up a lot more cubic space on the ice then they did 15 years ago. Spotlight the man in the photo, the introduction of bigger, lighter pads means that the players can move faster, and be less hindered while doing so. 

The second was that players themselves are much stronger than they have been at any other point. With more and more players committing to full time off-season training regimens, it now takes far less effort to cleave puck from man. 

Thirdly, and probably most notably, the goaltenders are massive by former comparison. For the goalies of yonder, extra padding was a thin chest protector, blocker, a goal stick, a small glove, and two leg pads that were half the size of today; and that was it. Here's a great visual comparison.  Also, the invention of the Butterfly, and the later refinement of it by the Finnish has also had a major effect.

Lastly, and what in my opinion was the biggest factor: the invention of the neutral zone trap. The bane of all fire wagon hockey fans everywhere, it's ingenious. The 1-2-2, when done correctly, allows four players to defend five entering the neutral zone, leaving the fifth for the inevitable dump collection. Some teams have the luxury of have puck moving goaltenders; these further allow the clogging of the neutral zone, suffocating great skaters and great effort in trying to gain entry to the offensive zone. 

So let's run through this: entering the neutral zone was much easier, the players were smaller, and it was not as easy to take the body then, skaters could use their speed much more, defenders didn't have the ice coverage they do now, causing much thinner passing lanes, and goaltenders are much bigger and far more skilled.

It's a wonder anything gets put in the back of the net at all these days.