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Can We Give The “Bigger Nets” Debate A Rest?

Jason Kay of The Hockey News is banging the drum of what seems to be hockey journalists’ favourite pet project—proving that the hockey media “knows what the fans want” by convincing the NHL, through the sheer will of proffering a stance, and bolstering it through endless iterations of the same damn column, to make bigger nets a reality, given the collective theory that more goals = a more entertaining product.

As far as I’m concerned, many mainstream media correspondents are not unlike small children—toss a shiny quarter in front of ‘em, and they’ll scramble after it; toss a juicy story in front of them, something which they think will sell papers or generate web hits, and they go after what they call “sexy” (has there ever been a worse instance of the introduction of a metaphor to describe an appealing idea or interesting opinion being offered up by candidates for the Professional sports coaches and media swimsuit calendar than “sexy?”) concepts.  If you think a sports fan’s attention span is short, man, wander into a media scrum, and watch what happens when one person asks a coach or a question, and, thirty seconds later, somebody repeats the exact same question, as if they were standing in a parallel dimension when the coach or player gave a thoughtful, nuanced response.

Darcy Regier is the media’s favourite GM for a reason:

“It’s not about whether we’re winning or losing,” Regier said. “It’s about when I watch games, it’s about the excitement. It’s a great game. Even now it’s a great game. But we’ve got an opportunity, I think an obligation, to make it more exciting.

“I don’t want to go back — no one does — to an era where we just kind of clog the game up. It’s important to create the flow and the excitement, and the skill players to have the room to demonstrate their skills.”

The Sabres’ goals-per-game average has dropped from 3.63 last season to 2.75 entering Thursday’s meeting with Ottawa. There is a slighter dip throughout the league, but there’s a dip nonetheless. History suggests scoring will continue to drop, and Regier wants to prevent that.

“Goalies have to get smaller or the nets have to get larger,” Regier said. “That goalie has to get significantly smaller for the likelihood of an outside shot to go in. If we can’t make the goalies smaller, then I don’t know what other options we have but to consider making the nets larger.”

What planet is Darcy Regier speaking from?  A GM not telling his coach that his job security is based upon winning or losing?  A coach abandoning the concept that “defence wins championships” as less than fundamental, or that you can’t teach offensive skills, but can teach low-risk defensive plays?

If we were to see that sort of cultural change take root in the NHL, we’ll start seeing 10-8 games, regardless of whether the net takes the dimensions of a newspaper or a soccer goal, or whether we see goalies returning to Garth Snow-sized dimensions or to the media’s demand that they wear nothing more than loincloths and wield nothing but caveman clubs.

That’s never going to happen.  It’s easier for coaches to teach defensive hockey and to teach players defensive tendencies than it is for them to say, “You know, maybe we’ll give up another goal against, but I want you to just go for it, making plays that I, as a coach who worries about winning and keeping my job, see as risky, because I’m worried about the aesthetic value of this game.” 

It’s the fact that the media believes it can change such an ingrained culture that pisses me off, frankly, because there is no number of “thought balloons” that can be floated which will change the cliche that every coach holds as gospel truth…

And what we saw back in the days of the Oilers setting bigger and better offensive records each and every season was and is not the gold standard.  Given the parity-enforcing nature of the CBA and the advent of video scouting that’s become so nuanced that players can receive DVDs assessing their individual performances, and coaches can spend hours breaking down the tendencies of each and opposing player, depending on the line combinations, match-ups, in-game situation, and even fatigue level, it’s much more likely that late-80’s-style barn-burners were one-time events that shall not return.

Jacques Lemaire, Ken Hitchcock, and whoever’s coaching the New Jersey Devils until the end of time will always find a way to clog up the neutral zone, stack players and their sticks and skates between a shooter and the net, five men at the blueline, and dump-and-not-chase their opponents into submission, even if there were no goalies at all. 

Coaches whose jobs depend on winning or losing and milking as much talent as possible out of a less than ideal roster have only very rarely subscribed to the theory that offensive skills can be taught and developed just as a defensive acumen can, and the marrying of offensively-inclined coach and offensively-gifted team happens as rarely as a stable celebrity marriage.

The kernel of my dissent, however, comes from actually watching hockey this season, and watching it with rapt attention.  While we’re seeing similar pre-lockout numbers in terms of goals scored, we’re seeing a game that is faster in pace and more exciting than it’s been in a long time, to the point that the entertainment factor and “aesthetic value” of the hockey that’s being played this season, by and large, is better than what we saw pre-lockout by an order of magnitude.

It’s FUN to watch hockey these days.  As a Wings fan, I’m spoiled—I haven’t had so much fun watching my team play since the days of the Russian Five.  Sure, the Wings are winning 2-1 and 3-2 games, but the action is just riveting 80% of the time…

But Sunday’s 5-4 shootout win vs. Columbus was dreadfully boring at times, because the Blue Jackets trap the life out of the game, and, despite the fact that eight goals were scored in regulation, the game’s actual entertainment factor, in terms of aesthetically-pleasing, fast-paced hockey where scoring chances were exchanged was, at times, absolutely putrid.  There were stretches when Chris Osgood and Pascal Leclaire were the story of the game, but there were also long stretches when the Blue Jackets would dump the puck in, not chase it, and stack five players in the neutral zone, hoping to prey on a turn-over.

The only truly sustained offensive chances the Blue Jackets generated were when they were on the power play—one of the few times that Hitchcock commanded his team to actually put some effort into scoring—when they lit the lamp three times.

The same could be said, to some extent, of the Red Wings, who scored two power-play goals themselves, but were a bit gassed after playing the Chicago Blackhawks 19 hours before, and were less than cohesive thanks to a three-game losing streak.  The Wings were lucky in that Osgood was solid, despite giving up a few softies (neither Hasek nor Osgood have been stellar of late), Nick Lidstrom, who had a goal and two assists, took the team on his back and worked his ass off., and the boys got big goaltending from Ozzie in the shootout and big goals from Datsyuk, Hudler, and Franzen in a setting where they didn’t have three guys trying to latch onto them—and there was a ton of hooking and holding that was let go in the game, despite the fact that eight power plays were doled out.

It still wasn’t an exciting game to watch, despite the fact that the goals scored reached the media’s requisite number in which they believe “fun occurs.” 

The Wings have had 2-1 games that have been just dazzlingly gorgeous, doing all the things that fans talk about—making big plays, trading quality scoring chances with the opposition, skating fast and furiously on the rush, sustaining possession and control in the opposing team’s end, cycling the puck and performing superb passing plays, and doling out big hits and partaking in a scrap or two. 

There’s the rub, of course, the rub that the Bowmans of the world, the guys who’ve been around the game for ages, consistently reiterate—entertainment value in hockey isn’t about seeing 8 or 9 goals scored per game, and it’s not about the so-called “gold standard” that these journalists are convinced occurred when the Oilers were setting scoring records.  It’s about games that embrace the amazing balance of speed, skill, skating, and violence that makes hockey the most exciting game on the planet when it isn’t being trapped to death. 

My bottom line as a fan and a writer is simple—I watch hockey because it’s tremendously entertaining, and I became addicted to the sport through the Red Wings because they’ve been a team who’ve been built on puck-rushing defencemen and skilled, speedy, gritty forwards for the last fifteen years, all while pushing the bounds of space and time in terms of what constitutes a core player being “too old” to meaningfully contribute to the cause.

The fact that they’re not scoring as much as they used to doesn’t really matter to me.  In all honesty, I’m making a harder effort to spend my spare change going to games in person because they’ve pushed the entertainment factor to, “Even with gas at $3.25 a gallon, it’s totally worth dropping $100 for tickets, gas, and parking while avoiding the concessions so I don’t spend $20 on what is a $5 ‘Hot and Ready’ Little Caesar’s pizza outside the Joe’s doors.”  They’re more worth my money in terms of “bang for my buck” than they’ve been in a very long time, since the Cup runs of the late 90’s and early 00’s.

The concept that bigger nets and more goals are the answer to hockey’s attendance, popularity, or “entertainment factor”/“bang for your buck” factors is the “short attention span theatre” answer to the fundamental problems which represent themselves in the roadblocks of defence-first coaching and skill development.  I don’t see how a de-valued 8 or 9 goals per game would address the fact that trap hockey is dreadfully ugly, or that players playing what Bobby Holik of all people called “robot hockey” detracts from all that is good about the game—a game that is, despite the attempts of the league to enforce parity and fast-twitch management bad moves by so many GM’s, plain old “fun” right now at the 5.5 goals-per-game pace that sends that short-attention-span media into a tizzy.

Before the media assumes that its aesthetic tastes as people who are paid to chase “sexy” stories (bleh!) while expecting different answers when they ask the same questions to GM’s and players in locker-room scrums, they should ask fans whether they’re having a good time watching and attending games.  This season, the answer seems to be, “Yes,” and that’s what really matters, not some magic number that is, for all intents and purposes, a shiny quarter on a string, being pulled along by the leaders of the collective media pack. 

Maybe that’s what happens when you take yourselves too seriously, but that’s the beauty of the game—no matter how many blustery columns are written by any of those of us who write about the game, none of it matters once the puck drops.  The game’s present is always written on the ice, and so far this season, there are less goals being scored, but it’s “so far, so really, really good.”

Filed in: NHL Talk, Hockey Equipment, | KK Hockey | Permalink
  Tags: darcy+regier, goaltending, hockey+nets, media


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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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