Set plays in any sport take the idea of practicing one moment so often and so repetitively that when it comes to that moment in a game, you will execute it to perfection. What happens when the whole game becomes a set play? When practice of systems and styles become so repetitive that the whole game just looks like one giant chess match? The NHL is definitely there yet, but it seems like it might eventually get there, doesn’t it?
The importance that is being preached on defense in the NHL is understandable. It is what wins championships these days. The league is far removed from the high flying seventies and the free wheeling cup champion Oilers of the eighties. The Devils figured it out earlier than everyone else in the mid nineties and from then on, there was a bit of a mix between the defensive Devils and the somewhat gifted Red Wings and Avalanche for about a ten year span. After the lockout in 2005, the NHL was supposed to open up and allow players to skate more freely and speed the game up. It worked, the game seemed faster and the players were flying. Defense however, still won almost every single cup. It is in fact just getting worse, and defensive play is not the reason. It is the preaching and practicing of systems that force the entire team to sit back and wait for golden opportunities that may never end up coming.
The trap! Everyone remembers it, everyone knows it and long ago the idea was that there had to be a way of beating it. Coaches sketched out plays to circumvent the trap. A quick pass across and a chip into the middle, where your center would be flying with speed, was deemed the best way to break the trap and gain the zone. Less skilled teams started dumping the puck in early and chasing vigorously. Not the most entertaining brand of hockey, but smash mouth teams would grind you out and wear you down and that can get a team goals. One day however, coaches decided, this trap is working and there doesn’t seem to be a great way to beat it, so why not just give up and play the trap ourselves? What you get there is two teams sitting back and not forcing each other to do anything. How exciting can that possibly be? Not very is exactly right.
So with all these coaches just doing what works, what happens to the game? Well, teams want and need success. Success comes at the price of anything and everything. Bored fans will yawn at their teams play, then jump out of their seat when being awarded the Stanley Cup and be done with it. Even die hard hockey fans from cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal would surely accept victory before exciting hockey. If that is the case and coaches continue to preach these defensive systems, the game will eventually come to a standstill. Not literally of course, players with supreme talent will always rise to the top and be able to do something about that, but it isn’t enough anymore. No teams have that superstar that is allowed to simply run wild and do whatever his creative mind can come up with. Sure, in the offensive zone you can see a flash of brilliance from a Malkin, Crosby, or Getzlaf, but once that puck is turned over, get into your defensive post and wait, and wait and wait. We don’t have to go too far back to remember when Chris Pronger humiliated the entire Tampa Bay Lightning staff and players by just waiting with the puck in his defensive zone while no one came to attack him. The one-three-one system that Guy Boucher had instilled in his team was engrained so deep into their mind that they took their positions and waited. Just waited. The fans started booing and Pronger cracked a smile and was urged to move the puck by the linesman. That isn’t normal, a player can do whatever he chooses with the puck. The game is to entertain, but that is not up to the referees. Then again, they sometimes take it into their own hands, but that is beside the point. The point is that the Lightning chose system over entertainment, and while entertainment is not what they are there, there has to be some sort of line drawn at a point. No one can argue with it in the results aspect however, as just one season previous to the game where Pronger did that, the Lightning went to the Eastern Conference Final. Success over entertainment all the time! It’s too bad there aren’t too many Chris Pronger’s out there. The NHL may be in better shape.
So when is it enough? When do coaches get back to trying to break the trap instead of just caving in and playing it because it works for everyone else? Perhaps never, as it will always be easier to stifle offense than to generate it. To bust open the trap, your team needs to have a ton of skill guys. Skilled NHL forwards do not grow on trees. Just take the Olympics as an example. Canada won, sure. Everyone in Canada was happy. Yes, there was a lot of skill on that team, but it was their style of defensive system that worked to perfection and shut other teams down. They just happened to sprinkle in more goals when it mattered the most. This tournament was the best players in the world playing against the best players in the world. The trap was built long ago and whenever someone comes up with something, someone else will always come up with a way to break it. But if the best players on earth combined with the best coaches on earth could not find an offensive way to break down the four man line at the defensive zone, what chance does this thing have of ever being broken down?
The future of the NHL is what is important. Fans today are loyal because they have watched hockey for generations and it will always be passed down to their kids or the next generation. That is not enough however, as new fans need to be attracted and the sluggish wait around style is not the way to do it. The danger the league might face is that coaches who are coaching amateur hockey now are coaching the same systems that they have in NHL. Kids are learning these systems as early as thirteen years of age. It is good to learn and to always be prepared for what your future might bring. However, if that is all you learn, then it may become boring and what is worse, it may become predictable. If everyone is doing the same thing all the time, how will anything advance? If creativity is being stolen from players as young as thirteen, when will they ever express it on the ice? When they reach the NHL level? Where a mistake can cost you a career and millions of dollars? Definitely not. The path to the NHL is grueling and everyone wants to be there, so they will do whatever it takes. The fighters will fight, the scorers will score (while always paying attention to defense of course) and the rest, well get in line, do your job properly and you may be able to be a “role” player, otherwise known as a good skater who knows how to be in the right spot on the ice at the right time. The danger will be years down the line, if this trend continues, when a GM debating his first choice overall in the draft, will have to decide between a purely gifted offensive player or a guy who doesn’t do everything well, but always plays the system to perfection. Is the NHL headed down that path? That is something we may not want to think about.
Imagine a future where programmed robots play the game we used to call hockey, now called space hockey because everything in the future seems to be about getting to space. Only robots play, because they do it better than humans. Robots who calculate percentages of making a pass or taking a shot and are all designed with a defensive system in place in their CPU. Every game would be the same; every play would be something you’ve seen before. This is a extremely exaggerated scenario, but that is the path that the NHL seems to be headed toward. Have you ever seen a zone breakout where you’ve said, they do this play all the time! Or noticed patterns in the game where you know what the player will do because THEY know what they will do because that is what the coach TOLD them to do. Those aren’t the plays that excite fans and make hockey fun to watch. What about Mario splitting the Minnesota defense in 1991? What about Jagr dancing through three guys and one of them twice before stopping up to beat a goalie? What about anything Pavel Bure or Pavel Datsyuk has ever done? Is the NHL drifting away from skills like those guys had? There are some amazing talents in the league today, young ones too, like your Patrick Kane’s and your Matt Duchene’s who are highly skilled players. The road to the robot hell described above is when players will start to be punished for making creative mistakes. We have seen it already, it starts on the defensemen *cough* P.K. Subban or *cough* Erik Karlsson and will eventually creep into the forward position. Before we know it a GM will utter to his chief scout “sure this kid has insane skill, but is he too risky on offense to play in our system?” And on that day, well, let’s not even talk about it.