TORONTO (Nov. 12) — It is disconcerting, yet inevitable, that much of the narrative early in this National Hockey League season surrounds the dearth of scoring. Disconcerting because goals provide entertainment. Inevitable because an entire decade has passed since the lost season of 2004–05, when the big thinkers in hockey had time to pause and examine ways of combating the first “dead–puck” era.
New initiatives worked delightfully for a couple of years… until the inevitable began to take hold. As expected, and though entrusted with a very difficult chore, referees gradually allowed more obstruction to prevail. Fans and media grew impatient with the gimmicky shootout. Goaltending equipment ballooned once again. And, most significantly, coaches — the ultimate survivors in hockey — discovered how to mitigate all forms of creativity. The latter trend is here for good. A coach’s prime objective in the NHL is simple: Do whatever is required to preserve one of 30–such jobs on Earth. Given that roughly four out of five players in the game today (or 80 percent) are marginally talented and therefore interchangeable, the path of convenience — and of least resistance — is to impede the remaining 20 percent.
With unlimited video scrutiny and the burgeoning science of metrics, this becomes way too easy.
Mike Babcock is pulling in an unprecedented $50 million to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs for eight seasons. His talent quotient is in the 20 percent field right now, but that could change with the anticipated development of such prospects as William Nylander, Mitch Marner and whoever the club drafts in the top four next June. With Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardner already on board, the Maple Leafs could evolve into a rather gifted team in the next two or three years. That’s the plan, anyway. Given that employment security is a non–factor, wouldn’t it be marvelous if Babcock fixated on devising schemes to embellish his players rather than thwarting the opposition? Clearly, it is much simpler to teach a plugger how to check, and pluggers — as mentioned — dominate the soon–to–be 32–team NHL. But, professional hockey’s cyclical nature is reliant on those that dare to deviate. Why not Babcock?
For many years, the NHL was blissfully stagnant — between 1942 and 1967 a regional, six–team endeavor comprised almost solely of Canadian–born personnel. With the advent and proliferation of TV (first black–and–white; then color), the game’s profile increased and expansion west of Chicago became inevitable. The cycle of professional hockey thus began in the first decade of the expanded NHL, which grew from six to 21 teams between 1967 and 1979. It was, at first, a downward progression during which the talent pool suffered amid the increasing demand of players from North America… and was initially exacerbated by the rival World Hockey Association. Ultimately, however, the WHA sparked an upward trend by virtue of its strong European influence. The NHL begrudgingly took note and began its own long and fruitful cycle, as the 70’s closed, upon absorbing Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg from the carcass of the WHA.
As more European hockey walls came down (particularly Czech and Russian), the NHL embarked on the most wide–open, entertaining juncture of its soon–to–be 100–year history. Goaltending equipment was of nominal dimension and coaches were just beginning to dissect video. In the 1½ decades that began in 1980, scoring numbers went through the roof. Not coincidentally, this era featured players that are today considered among the most creative and prolific the game has ever seen.
Have a look, for example, at the top ten point producers from the 1985–86 season:
All but Naslund and Broten are today in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Broten’s 105 points — 10th in the NHL of 1985–86 — would have won the scoring championship last season by 18 (Jamie Benn of Dallas led with 87).
Head coaches in the 80’s had one, maybe two assistants; there are four and five today. Once that element of the sport began to dominate with unlimited live access to games; when nine more teams were added between 1991 and 2001, further diluting the talent pool; when obstruction tactics were all–but ignored by officials, and goalies were allowed to blatantly cheat with equipment in front of the same–sized net as the pre–expansion era in the mid–60’s, the NHL cycle had no recourse but to plummet once again.
League officials denounced those that called attention to the “dead–puck” era. At its height — during the 2003 Stanley Cup final between New Jersey and Anaheim — commissioner Gary Bettman was asked by Damien Cox (then of the Toronto Star) about the “fundamental” problem surrounding the game — rampant obstruction, particularly in the neutral zone. As an annoyed Bettman began to answer, his prime deputy, Colin Campbell, nearly leaped at Cox from behind the dais. This had become an all–consuming issue and Cox had struck a nerve with his unvarnished query during the commissioner’s Stanley Cup address.
That Anaheim goalie Jean–Sebastien Giguere wore a jersey big enough to cover the infield of a Major League ball park — and that the few gifted players in the Cup final were being molested with impunity by those who couldn’t carry their skates — seemed oblivious to Campbell, who upbraided the a bemused Cox. But, it was clear to all at the news conference that the NHL understood it had an enormous dilemma.
To its everlasting credit, the Bettman administration took action… though it required an unprecedented maneuver — becoming the first professional sports league to cancel an entire season and playoffs in the throes of labor strife. Out of the lost season came a impassioned effort to preserve entertainment. The center red–line was done away with in all–but appearance, thus enabling stretch passes across two lines (blue and red) that were previously called offside. As an olive branch to fans, the shootout stunt was introduced to eliminate overtime draws. After three fruitless promises and attempts, the league and its officials finally clamped down on obstruction — typically going from black to white; the slightest tap to the front of an opponent’s equipment sending the perpetrator off for two minutes. More stringent efforts were made to police the absurd size of goaltending equipment. And — wouldn’t you know? — it worked.
For two glorious seasons — 2005–06 and 2006–07 — the NHL returned the game to its relatively few stars. Whereas no player in 2003–04 had recorded 100 points (Martin St. Louis won the Art Ross Trophy with 94), seven of the top ten scorers in ’05–06 hit the century mark: Joe Thornton (126); Jaromir Jagr (123); Alex Ovechkin (106); Dany Heatley (103); Daniel Alfredsson (103); Sidney Crosby (102) and Eric Staal (101). Crosby and Ovechkin became the most heralded pair of rookies since Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne in 1971. Hockey fans were treated to a wide–open, unpredictable Stanley Cup series in ’06 between upstart teams Edmonton and Carolina. The series went seven games before the Hurricanes prevailed on home ice.
The cycle had turned decidedly upward.
During this time, however, coaching staffs expanded throughout the league. The game was far too disorderly for these creatures of survival. Slowly but surely — as the obstruction standard inevitably declined and less attention was paid to the size of goaltending armor — coaches discovered ways to crush excitement. New forms of the “trap” or “left–wing lock” were introduced. Elite players were “shadowed” as during the six–team NHL. Significantly, while new arenas popped up throughout the league, no attempt was made to increase the 200 x 85–foot playing surface. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are today skating in the same confines as their ancestors of 60 years ago. As goalies and equipment suppliers continued to cheat, scoring plummeted. And, now, in the obsessively over–coached NHL, we’ve returned to a “dead–puck” era during which 20 goals — the standard of achievement in the 1960’s — is again a benchmark.
THE FOREVER–PENSIVE MIKE BABCOCK — COACH, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS. TORONTO STAR PHOTO
Guiding the cyclical arrow northward this time could prove the ultimate challenge.
Though a salary cap endures among players, there is no such restriction for off–ice personnel — coaches, assistants, analytic gurus and other tall foreheads. Right now, the game is being “thought” to death and policed simultaneously from the arena and beyond. Ensconced as they are in paraphernalia that would deflect bullets, goalies have nonetheless become the equivalent of endangered species. A strong breeze from a passing skater is enough to overturn — upon video review — precious scoring plays. With no original recourse, the “thinkers” will again turn to the size of goaltending equipment… and will again fail. As time passes and other concerns prevail, goalies and equipment suppliers will invent new ways to defeat whatever guidelines exist — claiming (with some validity) safety issues. It’s a battle that cannot be won.
The notion of bigger nets causes many in the game to recoil. It would alter, they contend, the essence of the sport and render immaterial the existing record book. When examined more openly, however, the record book has already been compromised, beyond measure, by the bulk of goaltending equipment and the universal shift from wooden to composite sticks. Change is progress. It is nearly impossible to envision an upward trend in scoring without raising the crossbar and widening the goal–posts. The idea dates to the lost season of 2004–05 and a gathering of NHL people at a hotel near Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Several models and sizes of larger goal–frames were on display. More than a decade later, the concept still invokes a shiver. Yet, it is likely the only viable means for added production… and, therefore, entertainment.
Ultimately, what the NHL needs most is “coach killers” (tongue now in cheek).
It is no coincidence that players of recent lore having earned such a tag — Alexei Yashin, Phil Kessel, Alexander Semin, Marian Gaborik, Alex Ovechkin (at times) and others — are among the most gifted, offensively. They perform with a mind-numbing blend of puck–wizardry and unconscionable indifference.
Just what today’s robotic coaching phenoms deserve.