More and more, the thought process among high-level players is, “I’m going to get the puck way back here and carry it 140 feet,” and that has a trickle-down effect. The “passing game” Kovalev misses today is likely disappearing because players are so improved, physically and mentally. The NHL now has the most talented player pool in the history of hockey and it’s tougher to make tic-tac-toe passing plays because guys are faster and smarter than they ever have been. The stuff Kovalev dazzlingly got away with in 1995 probably wouldn’t cut it today, in other words. The lanes that allowed teams to make three touch passes in the neutral zone get filled a lot quicker than they used to.
But again, it’s that old coaches’ mindset. How many times in the last few years have we seen guys like PK Subban and Erik Karlsson get criticized for a turnover because they tried something no one outside the top 10 percent of players in the world could pull off? How long did we have to argue that just because those two guys were really good offensively didn’t mean they weren’t bad defensively? And how often do we hear the phrase “gambler” applied to them despite the collective progress we’ve made in the hockey community?
I think coaches today, especially the ones who have come into the NHL in the last five years, are far more likely to give guys slack to make mistakes that Bylsma wouldn’t give Kovalev in 2011. But there can always be more, and I don’t know if it’s something that’s going to change anymore.
People decry the lack of scoring in the past few decades of hockey and there’s no arguing it’s down from the high-flying days of the mid-80s, when baby boomers were watching games with their Gen X kids and poisoning their brains forever about “This is what hockey should be like.” Maybe if there were still only 20 teams or whatever, scoring would be up because it would just be the top 400 players in the world playing each other six times a year.
But as always, if you want to blame anything for the decline in scoring, blame the rise of goaltending as an actual science instead of something with little to no coaching. That started in the 90s, bud. At the same time, the reverberations of coaches choosing to become ultra-conservative in the Dead Puck Era are still being felt.
Justin Bourne wrote something for the Athletic this week about how the league is changing to emphasizing skill (which is good!) but that the Leafs might have “over-corrected” by dumping every guy who might be mistaken for a refrigerator on skates and basically going with as much of a “skill-only” lineup as they can. It struck me as absurd.
The idea that a team can have “too much” skill is, of course, silly and if the Leafs don’t live up to the hype this year (i.e. if they don’t at least make it to seven games in the second round of the playoffs against the Lightning) that will certainly be cited as the biggest reason why. They’re trying something and it might not work out right away, and it’s bold enough that people are gonna be mad about it, insofar as “having a lot of good-to-elite scorers” is bold.
Maybe it’s not the best example because of how good he is and his general style of play, but didn’t Sid Crosby in the Olympics kinda prove that you can get high-talent players to excel at a 200-foot or even shutdown game if you get the right buy-in? And didn’t Kris Draper in the Olympics kinda prove that just because you’re good at being a shutdown guy in certain situations that doesn’t mean you’re going to help a team succeed if it’s not built properly? Put another way, I’d rather have skill guys playing fourth-line minutes than guys who only play defense-first. I’m not sure you can make a legit statistical case that “shutdown” guys actually prevent as many goals as people think they do. Moreover, whether you win 5-4 or 2-1, you still win, and the margin for error increases as you score more goals.
I’ve said it before, but the game we watched even three or four years ago really doesn’t work today as the league gets faster. Five years from now, I’d imagine today’s brand of hockey will be almost unrecognizable as more “Coke machine”-type players, almost all of whom are already 30-plus anyway, get filtered out.
If we don’t welcome the Leafs’ kind of experimentation, and tsk-tsk any attempts to get smaller, lighter, and faster in the sport, then won’t we be stuck forever with the same kind of hockey people have been grumbling about for decades?
Perhaps this is a thing we all fall prey to. Thinking back to our younger and more vital years and having no way of connecting the things we see in our golden years, such as they are, to what we see when we’re young.
If — barring the kind of predictable large-scale ecological disaster toward which society now seems to be barreling with grim determination — I’m still writing about “Ah, when the Leafs signed Tavares in July 2018, those were the days…” in the mid-2040s, I would hope someone would come along and put me out of my misery.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.
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