For those that believe the current NHL product is fine, please stop reading.
For those that think the game can be so much more and have too much time on their hands to read the ramblings of a crazed fan, please continue.
Last nights Philadelphia-Montreal tilt was brutal. And I don’t mean ‘brutal’ in the 1974 Broadstreet Bullies sense. I mean ‘brutal’ in the worst possible context – BORING.
To keep my opinions in perspective I’m not a fan of either team. I don’t live and breathe Orange and Black nor Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. What I am is an NHL fan. I have the Center Ice Package. I purchased an XM satellite radio so I can listen to XM Home Ice. I scour the internet and newspapers reading as much on the sport as possible. I enjoy hockey at its highest level and I revel in watching the games stars perform.
So after watching last nights game, I couldn't hold my tongue any longer. Seeing the statistics after 40 minutes of play told the story; scoring chances for either club read ‘Philadelphia 13, Montreal 4’. FOUR!?!?! That's an average of one scoring chance for every ten minutes. Are you kidding me?
Yes, the game featured some nice hits and an edginess that belied a regular season game. Who cares? I want goals. Nice ones. If I want to watch a game for its physical nature alone, I'll watch an ECHL game, or a local Senior A tilt. And for a lot less money.
When I throw down my hard earned cash for an NHL contest, I want to see offensive skill as well as big hits. I certainly don’t want to waste my time watching players master the art of ringing another puck off the glass or engage in endless cycling. I want to see the games best doing what they’re paid for; create chances and even, <GASP> bury a few of them.
I'm of the belief that there absolutely needs to be more goals scored in the NHL. Hovering around the 5.5 goals per game is ridiculous. Some claim scoring chances are more important than actual goals. I find that reasoning to be absurd. However, even fans in that camp must have a hard time arguing over my dismay with last nights contest.
Sadly, it's not only last night’s game that needs to be taken into account. Having access to nearly every NHL game, I like to flip from game to game during breaks in the action. The last few days I began to take mental notes as to how much time transpired between legitimate scoring chances. Far too often my watch would reach four minutes or longer before a quality opportunity was generated.
Watch a game between 1960 and 1990 and tell me if you see that problem. It doesn't happen. Unlike in the Philly-Montreal game, you'll see four chances in four minutes or less.
Yes, the game was much slower in the past. But faster doesn’t always equal better.
Have you ever watched a local amateur minor hockey game? I've seen some beautiful contests put on by some of the areas best Peewee's, Bantams and Midgets. The action is fierce and the scoring chances are bountiful, despite being played at a fraction of the NHL’s pace.
What about the CHL? Again, it’s not as fast, but on most nights the hockey you'll witness surpasses the best league in the world.
Do fans realize that nearly 85% of today's games end with one, or both, teams scoring three goals or less? I'll give you the opportunity to check out past scores from 2007 and beyond. Peruse the box-scores and tell me how many 3-1, 4-1, 2-0, 3-2 games you see? Too many. Now look for games where both teams have scored three goals or more. Over the course of a week or two, you might only need one hand to count those.
What about the most important aspect; quality of goals? Tune into highlights from around the league and take note of the type of goals you see. A great majority of the time, a goal is scored by either deflection, rebound or screen. Boring.
Another problem with those types of goals is that few fans even know who scored them. Verses color man, Bill Clement, recently commented that even he can’t tell who scored most times.
Where did the 15-foot Wendel Clark snapshot go? How about the twenty-five foot blast that we saw from Mike Bossy or Guy Lafleur?
In short, scoring zones that existed for decades have dried up.
The game is played within a six-foot circumference of the crease. Unless the goalie is screened or a deflection occurs, outside of Alex Ovechkin, very few players score clean goals from ten feet out.
The issue with the NHL may be that it’s too fast and skilled. Sorry, scratch that. The issue is that today's NHL players and coaches concentrate all that speed and skill on one end of the rink. The games become far too congested. From goal line to blue line the game is fine. However, if a team doesn't score off the initial rush, the game spirals into a quagmire of endless cycling and chipping pucks off the glass.
This is what passes for entertainment?
Advancements in equipment have also had a negative affect on the sport. I'm not even going to bother tackling the goalie equipment. We all know it's ridiculous.
But what about the gear the skaters wear?
Nick Lidstrom uses skates that are grafted from the same material as today's composite sticks. He claims that he can take a slapshot off the toe or ankle and barely feel it.
Brad Stuart is trumpeting a plastic cover that goes over the boot of his skate that helps block shots with less risk for injury.
What about the shinguards, pants and shoulder pads? All are coated in hard plastic making shot blocking less risky.
Remember the 80's when players like Brad Marsh and Craig McTavish were renowned for sacrificing their bodies to deflect shots. That's because, with the flimsy gear worn a generation ago, you were crazy to leave yourself in harms way. Especially when getting in front of one of the "Al's" shots - you know; Iafrate and MacInnis.
Because of this we’ve seen the birth of the vaunted collapsing defense, or as some endearingly refer to it as “The Turtle Shell”.
It was only a few years ago when the bench bosses would scream at a player for getting into shooting lanes. Watch an old ‘Rock'em Sock'em’ video and you'll hear Don Cherry pleading for defensemen to get out of the way. You wanted your goalie to see every shot and pulled your hair when a puck deflected off a defender and in the net.
Not anymore. You certainly don't want to screen your tender, but players are expected to collapse on their netminders and block as many shots as possible. If a puck goes in off a bad deflection, well that’s only a minor sacrifice to be had - collateral damage.
I argue which is more boring; the neutral zone trap or the turtle?
Shooters of today not only have to try and beat the super-conditioned, well coached and extremely inflated goalies of today, but now they have to beat three or four defenders as well. As some current NHL coaches have grown fond of saying, "you no longer have one goalie to beat, you've got six".
And please, don’t get me started on today’s sticks. Accuracy and dependability have been sacrificed for harder and quicker shots. How many times have you seen a scoring chance implode because a $300 stick has broken into pieces? Just the other night I was watching the St.Louis-Detroit matchup when Blues forward BJ Crombeen had a chance to put the game away with a partial breakaway before his stick exploded in his hands. (For those wondering, that game ended in a St.Louis 1-0 victory. It was one of four shutout performances that occurred that night across the league).
Not only do these sticks collapse at will, but because of their lightweight composition, you’ll see players constantly looking down at their blade to make sure the puck is there after receiving a pass.
In a game that’s never been faster, where a split-second can mean the difference between glory and agony, how is it progress when you have to use up precious seconds to make sure the puck is even on your stick?
I don’t recall seeing Mario Lemieux or Gordie Howe ever having that problem.
Don’t get me wrong, the NHL has made some excellent strides in opening the game up.
The redline was removed, goalies were prevented from handling the puck in corners and they finally did away with all the hooking, holding and interference that plagued hockey from the mid 90’s to the latest lockout.
The 'Dead Puck Era', as it's referred, was arguably the most boring era in all of sports over the past century.
I will forever be grateful to Brendan Shanahan and the Competition Committee for putting an end to that horrific decade.
However, there is more work to be done.
The hardest part of making changes is convincing the old guard that change is good. Unfortunately, some of the hardest-headed run the league.
They forget that the game was once played on much smaller ice surfaces with no bluelines, seven skaters aside, goalies that weren't allowed to leave their feet and rules that prevented forward passes.
With the evolution of bigger and faster players, changes were made. The ice became longer and wider, fewer skaters were instituted; rules were changed to allow more skating.
And what's the purpose of opening the game up?
To score more goals.
Back to my original question; what can be done to help the game?
Let me ask you this; what do you think the reaction would have been, if in 1980 the NHL decided to shrink the nets by 50%? Do you think there would have been major outrage?
I would have to think so. Go to one of the more popular NHL message boards on the web, HFBoards.com, and start a thread that suggests the NHL should change the size of the nets. It won't take more than 30 seconds before some of the vilest insults you’ve ever heard are directed your way.
The funny thing is, the NHL has reduced the size of the nets. If anyone out there thinks that Sidney Crosby has the same amount of cubic space to shoot on as Bobby Orr had, you're either ignorant, blind or both. And doesn’t that, in a way, taint or change the history of the game?
So why doesn't the NHL make the most obvious change of all? Change the size of the nets so that players today are on an equal playing field as the men that played before them.
Talk to any current NHL goalie not named Marty Brodeur and you'll be told that goalies need the inflated equipment they wear today.
Apparently, with today's composite sticks, players today shoot way harder than former shooters such as Bobby Hull and the aforementioned MacInnis and Iafrate did. You know, when goalies wore equipment that didn’t resemble an inflated sumo suit.
Somehow, thank goodness, they survived such a hazardous and dangerous time in the games history. I mean, it’s a miracle nobody was killed. (note sarcasm).
So instead of making the easy compromise of banning composite sticks for shrunken, human sized goalie equipment, just make the nets larger. It doesn't have to be by much. How many posts do you see get rung in a typical game; three, four, five? Imagine if you reduced the diameter of the posts by an inch or two. Theoretically this alone could translate into an extra goal or two per night.
I've often heard that we need to go to Olympic Ice to create more room.
It isn't necessary. First, what's the point of having a larger playing surface if all 30 teams play the turtle defense? Just because you can stand ten feet further away from the slot doesn't mean you're suddenly going to have more scoring opportunities.
What can be done is to utilize the space we have available to us now.
During the last lockout, Scotty Bowman suggested replacing the bluelines with a thin line that runs atop the offensive circles.
Along with this, once you cross the redline, you are now in the offensive zone.
So not only are you allowed to pass the puck all the way from your goal-line to the far reaching ‘Bowman line’, but once you gain the redline, you now have 100 feet to play with.
The effect of this change is three-fold.
First, you stretch out the other teams’ defense an extra twenty-five feet. Playing a 1-2-2 will be harder due in part of sheer territory to cover.
Two; teams will want to forecheck more aggressively in preventing the opposition from gaining speed through a much larger neutral zone.
Anytime you can force teams to utilize more than one or two forecheckers is a good thing.
Lastly, now that the offensive zone is 100 feet in length, teams will be less inclined to collapse into the ‘Turtle Shell’. With 25 extra feet to deal with, clearing the puck won't be nearly as easy having all five defenders camping in the slot.
In conclusion, the game is fine in many areas. It’s fast, physical and every player is giving 100% on every shift (Mr.Kovalev, you’re excused from the discussion).
However, does it matter if the league has some of the finest talent ever to don skates, only to handcuff them with rules that prevent them from utilizing such skill?
Are power-play goals just as exciting as even-strength goals?
I don’t believe so. Fans want to see more clean, even-strength goals by some of the leagues best shooters.
Finally, why is the word ‘goals’ such a dirty word? Can’t the game be just as good with one or two more goals per game?
And if we’re seeing more goals, odds are we’re seeing more scoring chances.
For those that have made it this far without losing their patience (or consciousness), thank-you.
I hope I didn’t bore you as much as the Flyers and Canadiens bored me.