is hockey better today than it was 12 years ago?

So the unanswered question of the day is:

Has the quality of the on-ice product improved over that interval?

As a fan, do you believe you enjoy hockey more, or less than you did back in January 1993

 

These are, in fact, two different questions. And it’s important to understand why they’re different, and why that difference matters.

Is the quality of hockey played today better than it was 12 or 13 years ago? I would argue yes, without hesitation. Ask former players, and they’ll tell you that today’s hockey players are faster, stronger, bigger, better conditioned and better coached than any player from previous eras. The equipment has improved on almost all fronts (the one thing they need to kill are those self-exploding composite sticks that wait for power plays to disintegrate on a regular basis). Most fourth line NHLers today could skate down and take out all but the most elite players of old, and probably catch most of them, too.

That’s a problem when we remember the Good Old Days — everyone remembers Stan Mikita or a young Mario or Bossy or maybe the Sutter brothers. That defines the Good Old Days, not the third liners, or even the second liners. So we tend to remember the super stars and the super plays, and compare it to average play today, and think the Good Old Days were better. That’s a lot like comparing a John Lennon album to your shower singing, or maybe a church choir.

I’ve found it quite interesting to go and watch ESPN classic when they actually show classic hockey (and the 2002 cup finals isn’t classic, sorry) — you can actually watch ALL of the hockey from that era, not just highlights and named stars. IMHO, the hockey of today is a much higher quality of hockey than it was in the early 90’s, although even then, there were significant changes already made when you go back and watch the games of the 60’s or 70’s. By the 90’s, for instance, much of the brawling (hello, Bobby Clark) had already been removed from the game, along with bench clearing brawls and some of the more joyful aspects of the game in the Good Old Days.

One reason, I think, that the stars of before were able to succeed so dramatically is that the difference in quality levels between those elite players was wider then than it is today — the 2nd and 3rd liners just weren’t as good as the journeyman are today, and weren’t as able to contain the top players. As a result, it was easier for a top player to shine and thrive than it is today. If you think about it, if the talent level climbs, it’s a lot harder for the elite player to climb as far as the average player, so I think it’s normal to expect the talent gap between top and bottom across the players to narrow.

On top of that, there’s coaching. Today’s game can be attributed to (or blamed on) three key coaches:

Roger Neilsen, who brought us innovations such as the trap (which is incorrectly considered a bad thing — it’s not the trap, its the obstruction teams use to enforce the trap, folks) and defensive-first hockey. He was one of the first coaches to make players take defense seriously and use it as a strategy of winning games. Again, go back to older games and study the defensive play. Players are very passive, mostly playing a zone box, and rarely challenging the perimeter or against the boards. By playing passively, they allow players to freewheel and set up shots a lot more easily than today’s players that aggressively challenge the puck and remove space and time from the offense. you’d also see the defensemen being a lot more passive, and go back and see what Dmen could get away with as far as crease clearing in the past, and compare it to, oh, Chris Chelios or Derian Hatcher today. Much of what’s considered acceptable today in the slot was not only a penalty, but might have been a major — and since offensive players are allowed to be abused in the slot now, no wonder it limits offensive abilities. but I digress.

Mike Keenan, who may not be my favorite coach, but his impact to the game is unquestionable. He was one of the early coaches to push conditioning as a strategic asset, and more importantly, a coach that innovated the aggressive forecheck. Again, go back and watch classic games, you’ll mostly notice the defense playing a half-court defense, or maybe a 3/4 court. chasing the puck behind the net? throwing in a Mike sullivan type player to harrass the defenseman carrying the puck? Didn’t happen much, if at all. So teams were more easily able to get into the offensive zone and set up offense than they are today. Keenan also brought forward a more aggressive style of attacking the puck, makign sure offensive players couldn’t sit back and pick apart the defense.

Third is Scottie Bowman, who innovated off of both of these innovations (left wing lock, anyone? that freed up the center, who’s generally a more inventive playmaker) and added dozens of twists himself.

But when you’re done with this, the key coaching and strategic innovations in hockey from the 80’s into today were primarily defensive – so no wonder it became harder and harder for offensive players to thrive. The players they were trying to score against got better, their techniques improved, they got more aggressive, were better coached, and in better shape. All of which conspired to make it harder for the offensive skill players to thrive. and I haven’t even mentioned goaltending yet (don’t worry, I will).

And that ties into the second question — the QUALITY of hockey in the NHL is, without question, better now than 10 or 15 years ago. Better talent, better equipment, better coaching, better strategy, better conditioning. better better better.

but — is it more enjoyable hockey? probably not. I’m someone who loves a well-played, well-goaltended 2-1 game, but I think most hockey fans want fancy passing and flowery goal scoring, just as most baseball fans love homeruns over a pitcher’s duel. And today’s hockey is definitely NOT more interesting in the “highlight reel” aspect than it was 10 years ago, much less 20 or 30.

A big reason for that is the improvement in defenses I’ve talked about. but it’s not the only reason.

Another is goaltending — and it’s a huge problem. Just as other players have improved, so have goaltenders. They’re better skaters, in better shape, with massively bigger and lighter gear, and they’re bigger (3-4″ and 30-40 pounds) themselves. They’re much better coached and in most cases have become students of the game. So if you can get through the forecheck, break the trap, set up the offense, create a screen in the slot without Chelios breaking your cheekbone and actually get a shot off against that aggressive pressure on the puck — you still have a goalie that understands positioning and angles better so is less likely to be caught out of position, and if he is, his gear is much larger, so his reach is imrpoved and his ability to get to the puck ANYWAY is better. And if all that fails him, the goalie’s now 6′ tall and 230 instead of 5’8 and 190, so the damn puck is just as likely as not to hit him and bounce off.

and so scoring has tanked. it now requires almost a perfect shot to score, and the aggressive defensive techniques make perfect shots impossible. And people wonder why scoring is falling over? A starting goalie’s GAA and save percentage in 1990 would earn him a backup role in the AHL today.

If that wasn’t enough, let’s talk about expansion coaches a bit. To name just two, Kevin Constantine in San jose and Terry Murray, who took the PAnthers far into the playoffs in 2000. They built on what went before them with Neilsen and Keenan and Bowman, but also realized their job was to win, and winning had no style points. and they realized that if you wrapped your arms around elite players, they had trouble being elite. The clutch adn grab got Florida deep into the playoffs, and the league told the refs to allow it. This is not the coach’s fault, or the team’s, or the referee’s fault. Blame it right on management in the NHL offices, who are the ones who tell the referees what are and aren’t penalties and how to interpret things. And every time they claim to be cracking down, the lower echelon team coaches and GMs call and whine and moan and complain, and the league backs off — encouraging mediocrity to get quiet, not justice. This lack of guts from the league is discouraging, but not surprising. After all, who sets these rules? The board of governors. Who are they? the owners direct representatives. And if you’re the governor from Columbus or Tampa, are you going to say “hey, sure, we’ll enforce things tight, even though it’s bad for my team? It’s for the good of the game”. hell, no, you’ll try to seet things up so your team can win – and the lower echelon teams outnumber elite teams, and nobody has the guts to stand up and say “a penalty in the first period is a penalty in the third. shut up and get better players”

Now, having said that — go back and watch the 2000 playoffs. the league HAS made signfiicant strides in obstruction and other problematic aspects of the game. They just haven’t done close to enough. Reffing in the NHL has a long way to go to become what the NFL has, and don’t for a minute think that’s because I think the NFL is the pinnacle of quality. And I don’t blame the referees themselves, but the people who set policy for (and at) them. it’s an office problem, not an on-ice one.

Reffing in the NHL itself is it’s own essay, but it ties in here as well. suffice it to say, it needs to get better. the move to two refs has been sometimes painful and sometimes frustrating, but I still think it was the right thing to do, but not all of the refs were ready or able, and ALL refs have a learning curve before they really understand and can handle the NHL game and it doesn’t matter how good you were at other levels. But I also think the NHL has screwed around and to some degree screwed up the 2 ref system the last year, adn their early attempt to ‘standardize’ and ‘make objective’ the reffing (in other words, take any personalilty and subjective judgement out of the refs) was an utter disaster, the only greater disaster being the no-tolerance crease rule we all suffered through for a few years.

So I think the hockey is a much higher caliber overall — but less interesting for most fans, unless they are goalie geeks (like Laurie and I are). Defensive play and goaltending have gotten much better in comparison to offense, so offense suffers, and that hurts the game.

it’s something that can be fixed. I think the proposed rule changes (no touch icing, the AHL no-touch areas for goalies, blueline touchups) are all good ideas. We need to go further. If they asked me (which they won’t), I’d focus on two things:

1) bring goaltending back into balance. Goalies have gotten too good. This not only has the obvious problems, but the mental aspect of going up against a modern goalie makes players try too hard, too fast, making good offensive chances even harder. You can’t make goalies go back to being 5’8″ bad skaters with no coaching, but you can limit some of their improvements. smaller gear, moving back to more traditional sizes for blocker, leg pads and catcher is a start. Limiting the goalie mobility is another. If it were me, as soon as the goalie crosses the goal line after the puck, he’s fair game for checking like any defenseman. that’ll never happen, though. too bad. Id’ even go further, and put an extended crease about 5′ beyond the paint. any time the goalie leaves THAT area, he’s fair game. And any time a goalie stops a puck outside of the crease (if you can’t touch the paint, you can’t stop the puck!) — that’s a delay of game penalty. the goalie today has too many advantages, the game has lost its balance. I think we can rebalance that without things like making the goal bigger, but if it takes that — do it.

2) fix the reffing. enforce what’s on the books, in the third as well as the first. really crack down on obstruction. Remember when the NBA outlawed zones? We’re at that point, folks. we need to get the offensive back in the game, somehow. In hockey, aht means removing some of the goalie’s advantage — and limiting the defense’s ability to stifle the offense. I don’t want arena-football-hockey by any means, but it wont’ take too much to get us two goals a game back. tell the lower-caliber teams to learn to play better, not clutch and grab. Give the offense a little more space and time, but not free reign.

All sports go through these cycles. you have to react to them, but not over-react. That’s why the NBA went to no-zone defense (and now that it seems the NBA is street basketball isntead of technical basketball, changing back), and why the NFL is constantly tinkering with pass interference rules — because both leagues understand the need to keep the offense at an acceptable level. it’s time the NHL figure that one out, too.