In August, the NHL plans to round up a posse of general managers, coaches, players and officials to discuss the state of the game and how rules are enforced.
They might want to call in team doctors, as well, and leave the coaches at home. Who better than the docs to take the temperature readings, maybe prescribe statins for a sport suffering from clogged arteries. That is clogged shooting lanes, skaters restricted from skating freely, with or without the puck, defencemen latching onto forecheckers like airport security personnel doing a full body search.
Nice to see the league at least recognizes there is a problem (was it the sight of all those New York Rangers simultaneously sprawled on the ice blocking shots during their lengthy playoff run?). The last time the NHL was this serious about addressing rule enforcement, obstruction issues and limited scoring it brought in strict measures to prevent defencemen from holding up forwards. Stick offences — slashing, hooking —were verboten. Life was good.
While it lasted.
Little by little, year after year, the application has slipped, as though the enforcement types have been replaced by substitute teachers. This is especially evident if you’re at a game live and get to see it from a high vantage point (say, the press box). Defencemen are free to obstruct those forechecking forwards to a degree that isn’t far off the pre-lockout style.
Of course, applying the rules of hockey can only go so far to open up play.
Consider what San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson told reporters after the GM meetings in New York on Wednesday.
“I have an opinion about how I’d like to see the game played, and we try to build our team a certain way, but you also have to understand, the second whatever package we put in, which we did seven years ago, as soon as the ink is dry coaches are saying, ‘Here is how I can strategize with our group of players.’
“As a manager, you are looking at the big picture with who you draft, who do you acquire, who do you keep is based on our identity and how we’re going to play. You have teams around the league that all have different identities, and then they should be able to have identities; but you do want to have a pretty good vision on how the game is going to be called and enforced going forward.”
Mr. Wilson, you just nailed it.
A GM can draft the most stylish, offensively gifted player available, but how much sense will it make if officials lose their whistles in the third period? How good of an investment is a long-term contract for a goal scorer if teams coached by John Tortorella or Ken Hitchcock or any number of defensive zealots will simply scheme to squeeze the life out of that offensive talent, make sure he doesn’t get a sniff of the net?
A graduate of the OHL Ottawa 67’s (a team he continues to tap for talent), Doug Wilson was himself a stylish defenceman with a thunderous shot. In 1981-82, he scored 39 goals (20 more than the Senators Erik Karlsson scored this season) and produced 85 points for the Chicago Blackhawks, a franchise with a history of playing the game the “right way” (change your slogan, Torts). The ‘Hawks didn’t always win the big one (we won’t bring up those Stanley Cup losses to the Montreal Canadiens in the early 1970s), but my God, were they fun to watch.
They still are today, with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.
A GM that assembles and pays such talent wants to ensure these players get a chance to show their skills without the shackles of uncalled penalties and coaching systems.
Consider this example. In the four years following the lockout, the great Pavel Datsyuk produced 87, 87, 97 and 97 points for the Detroit Red Wings. In the past three seasons, he has had 70, 59 and 67 points. Yes, he’s battled injuries the past two seasons, but so has the game impeded his special talent.
I recall a conversation with Senators GM Bryan Murray after a team practice this season. Murray was lamenting that the game is less about breakout passes and puck control, often reduced to a long, sharp pass to the forward at the far blueline who simply redirects the puck into the zone. A glorified dump and chase. Nearly all teams are doing it.
Steve Yzerman, the Tampa Bay Lightning GM, believes the league needs to feel free to discuss a range of possible improvements.
“I think the extreme is not going down to block shots, and I don’t agree with that,” Yzerman said. “I think shot-blocking is a skill and a talent that shouldn’t be taken out of the game.
“I think it is worthy of discussion to what can be done to change it. Basketball has an illegal-defense rule. We really haven’t had any serious discussions, but I think it is worth looking into further how we can generate and get shots through, create more offense in the game and create more scoring chances through skill and nice plays. But defence wins.”
A lot of hockey fans are hoping a suddent gust of offence rears up to make a difference in this Stanley Cup final.