Defence First, Ratings Last

NBC’s ratings were up a whopping 50% mid-way through the first round of the NHL playoffs. Savour those ratings NBC.

While the first round has featured such gripping matchups as Penguins-Flyers and Washington-Boston, the Western Conference has seen, to put it nicely, its more defensively aware teams succeed. The St. Louis Blues, Phoenix Coyotes, Nashville Predators and L.A. Kings have all prevailed against offensively superior teams.

Thus, the problem associated with modern day hockey.

Defence is being rewarded and offence is being punished. While the NFL and NBA continue to make the game easier for high octane offences, the NHL is devolving. Teams heavily reliant on goaltending and sound defensive strategy are reaping the benefits of the NHL’s slow but steady return to the obstruction and hooking that made hockey almost unwatchable in its pre-lockout years.

While Tom Brady throws touchdown after touchdown and Blake Griffin, well, throws down, the NHL highlights are featuring save after save from robotic…sorry, technically sound goaltenders. I like a great save as much as the next guy, but enough is enough. Actually that’s probably a lie, goalie saves are overrated.

Nevertheless, the NHL is now going to have to make it through these Dick Cheney waterboardingly painful Western Conference matchups.

There is not one team left in the Western Conference that plays an entertaining brand of hockey. The West will be riding their new defence first motto all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. No matter what, some team that you couldn’t pay most of America to watch will have a very good chance at hoisting Lord Stanley.

The defensive mindset issue has been getting out of hand recently. Peter Laviolette boldly stood up to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 1-3-1 trap system during the middle of the season. I wrote about the lack of goal scoring plaguing the NHL in late October and what they should do to fix it.

Goal scoring is still a big problem. The average goals per game in the NHL has decreased once again in the 2011-12 season and is at its lowest average since the 60’s. The goals do not stem from a lack of shots as that number has kept steady for the past half century.

The players are bigger and faster, the goalies are just too big and there’s not enough room out on the ice for skill players to be skill players. Defensive hockey is not a bad strategy, it’s just boring. In no way am I saying that we should be blaming the coaches for implementing this brand of hockey.

Blame the NHL for allowing this to develop.

This is the NHL’s problem and they seem content with ignoring it. I guess they figure if they ignore it, the problem will go away, you know, like headshots.

The fact that the defensive teams are being rewarded for playing their watching grass grow on a sunny day style of hockey is not good news for hockey fans. It is possible that this year’s playoffs could be chalked up to an anomaly but it appears to be more of a trend than anything else. If this trend does continue, more and more General Managers will be forced to build their franchises around goaltending and defence rather than skilled offensive players.

The Washington Capitals for years have been an underachieving playoff team despite their ability to be one of the most exciting teams in the NHL on a nightly basis. The Chicago Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup 3 years ago but have been ousted in the first round the last 2 seasons after losing a considerable chunk of their Cup winning core. The Vancouver Canucks are still without a championship in their history despite being one of the best offensive teams.

The leading regular season scorers of the Western Conference teams advancing include 39 (soon to be 40) year old Ray Whitney (77 points), Anze Kopitar (76 points), Martin Erat (58 points), and David Backes (58 points). The 2nd leading scorers for both Ray Whitney’s Coyotes and Anze Kopitar’s Kings have less than 60 points. It also isn’t coincidental that the Predators and Kings have 2 of the 3 Vezina nominated goalies for the 2011-12 season.

The cliché defence wins championships could not be more true at this moment in time for the NHL.

I said in late October that the NHL would be best served to significantly reduce the size of the goalie’s pads in order to help buck this trend. Not enough to compromise the safety of goaltenders obviously, but enough to make a difference for goal scoring in the NHL.

The effect that poor goaltending can have on a series was on full display in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series in the first round. That type of goaltending is rare in this era of the ridiculously sized and robotic, R2D2-like goaltenders. Smaller pads would make the unpredictable excitement of the Penguins-Flyers series more of a common occurrence.

Mike Smith, Pekka Rinne, Jonathan Quick, Craig Anderson. They have been the story of the NHL playoffs so far. The Great 8, Alex Ovechkin, was benched for the entire 3rd period of the Capitals game 4 victory because coach Dale Hunter felt that would be best for preserving a 1 goal lead. He was right.

Fantastic. Just…fantastic.

Right now, there is a fork in the road and the NHL is clearly headed down the wrong path.

NBC brace yourselves. This is going to be a long month.

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6 Responses to Defence First, Ratings Last

  1. Rob Kotaska says:

    My problem is that the interference calls that were made in 05-06 season have dried up. They need to call the game tighter, players will be able to skate and if they are not allowed to: onto the power play.

    I love the new blood in the West. It may not be all highlight goals, but at least it is not the same warmed over teams going for the best trophy in sports.

    • Chris Ross says:

      I think that is exactly right as well. Professional Sports are driven by superstars and indivudal talent thriving but hockey doesn’t have nearly enough of that. And part of that is because they don’t let the individuals thrive with the way the game is called. You don’t get enough superstars because the guys who have superstar ability are not capable of playing to their star potential. People watch teams based on the individuals players but the teams that are thriving now are the ones that rely on team, trap hockey with help from the refs who are so reluctant to call the game how it is meant to be. Hockey needs more stars but they aren’t getting them. There is new blood in the West but it is new teams, not young star blood and I think that is a big issue in the NHL right now.

  2. I actually agree in part with what you’re saying, but does the issue just stop with goaltenders? Lets look at the cliche first ”Defence wins championships” Lets be honest this isn’t a new trend is it?
    Defence has always won championships, in any sport, whether it be Football, Basketball or Hockey. Sure, there has to be offence to put the puck in the net, but once you’ve succeeded you have to be good enough to shut the opposition down. The trend I see is one in which the Western Conference sides favour that more than having an unbalanced team overloaded with offensive talent. Or in the very least the Western Conference managers realised it before the Eastern Conference managers did. In the last 10 years has this favoured either conference when it comes to the eventual winners in the playoffs?
    Doing a quick count, 5 Eastern Conference winners and 5 Western Conference Winners, so no.

    Having said that, as you pointed out the Eastern Conference winners haven’t tended to be overly loaded on offence either, the Bruins and the Devils are in my eyes seen as defensive strategy sides. What does this say about Boston offensively? In their conference only the Penguins managed more goals than them, so them being a defensive side, it’s not had an effect on them offensively at all. The fact they scored +5 more goals than the Flyers who were seen as one of the best Offensive teams.

    The Rangers had the second best defence in the NHL in the regular season, only bettered by the St.Louis Blues. IMHO I actually think the issue doesn’t lie with the NHL as such to reduce the size of goalie pads. The issues lie with the actual strategies and picks the coaches make to their sides.

    For example:
    The Flyers had issues with their goaltending, they went out and got a goaltender (Bryzgalov), so for me it’s up to the coaches to make the right changes to the team they think will get them success, it’s always been this way.
    If a team is overloaded on offence and scores 6 but concedes 7 in the same game obviously they do need to tighten up. The Flyers Vs Penguins game was a joke defensively, it was only when the Flyers came out and began to work harder in each period, noted mostly in game 5 they began to get that edge over the Penguins, I think the 10-3 was a wake up call, I mean sure its great to see the skilled players perform but 10 goals? Really?

    In the Flyers case, there are some shots you just cannot stop, especially from a goaltending point of view, we knew going into the first couple of games it wasn’t going to be about the defenders or the goaltenders, as both teams traded punches offensively the Flyers punch was definately there to be seen, but when it actually came down to it, once the 10-3 had been registered by the Penguins the Flyers were the first ones to shut down and get the series won, did they do this because of Bryzgalov? a little but they made sure that defensively they were working harder so that the Penguins chances weren’t as clear cut.

    I think with any side a true measure of their ability isn’t when they are winning, it’s when they are losing with their backs against the wall, the coach or manager needs to look at the side and see where the improvements need to be made, this works on both sides of the fence too, not just defensively, perhaps if you’re the Florida Panthers coach you’ll be looking at them to improve offensively, because they only managed 203 goals in the regular season (this is a Eastern conference side btw). Lets put that into perspective shall we? Florida who claimed top spot in their division and 3rd in the Eastern Conference only managed 1 more goal than Columbus, who finished bottom of all teams in the entire League.

    Some times sides just get outworked, looking at the recent Bruins & Capitals game few would of predicted the Capitals advancing. In the regular season the Bruins had 269 goals scored where as the Capitals managed 222. a difference in offence of 47 goals. Defensively Boston conceded 202 goals where as Capitals conceded 230! So Bruins were by far the better side both offensively and defensively and they still got eliminated and this is an Eastern Conference matchup.

  3. It’s definitely a concern, and considering how copy-cat all professional sports leagues teams tend to be, you will probably see more teams try and mould their teams around strong goaltending and defense. It’s not going to get to the point where we are back to the mid-90’s where all teams will trap their way to a Stanley Cup, but look at the game last night between Washintgon and Boston. The Bruins were playing the 1-2-2 for a good part of the game, and look where it got them? They have plenty of talent upfront to score, but a defensive style seemed to hold them back in the series. Nothing against the performance of Holtby, because he was outstanding, but the Bruins style limited their offense.

  4. Andrew Baumgarten says:

    First of all,a well written informative post.i think you will see a little more scoring than you think for parts of the rest of the playoffs.However,you make some good points about defensive dominance.All the truly great teams I saw starting with the Orr/Espo Bruins had great offensive players.The better defensive teams among the offensive greats(ie The Habs with 3 great defense men,The Isles with Billy smith and even Edmonton’s key win was Game 1 at Long Island in ’84 when they won 2-1 or 1-0 I believe.) won at least 4 Cups.Of course Edmonton was known for its offense.My point is that it takes both.i say the Flyers with their potentially great offense wins it all.Hope I am wrong.

  5. Jo says:

    Which is why i think the aggregate score is a better way to determine the supeioir team. Defense will be emphasized no matter what

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