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The Malik Report

Many teams, the Red Wings included, are worried that puck possession hockey’s gone extinct

The Globe and Mail’s Roy MacGregor is on a crusade, as he always is when he writes about hockey. Whether he’s talking about concussions, fighting, prescription drug abuse, the nature of the game or his technical area of expertise in its “Canadianness,” and tonight, it’s no different. MacGregor took an interview most Wings fans have yet to hear, from assistant GM Jim Nill on Ottawa’s Team 1200 (even I can’t find it in their archives), speaking about the fact that it’s not just Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement that has the Wings reconsidering whether the tam should be built upon a blueprint of puck possession hockey played by sometimes smaller but always more skilled players.

MacGregor says that Nill all but “choked” on the air, admitting that the past season’s worth of an obstruction crackdown slipping into nothingness and playoff series where five skaters play goal without goal pads, one plays goal with pads, and concepts like “forechecking” and “backside pressure” have given way to trying to score the first goal and then playing soccer on skates for the rest of the game:

“Our heads are spinning,” Nill conceded.

The Detroit Red Wings are hardly alone, given the jaw-dropping gap between the way hockey was played in March and the way it was played in May. Last weekend, Wings general manager Ken Holland, Nill and the Detroit scouts gathered to discuss what Nill called “The No. 1 topic:” What sort of game will the NHL be playing when the league starts again for the next season?

Puck-possession teams – you know, the ones everyone picked to be in the Stanley Cup final – seem distant history today. The Vancouver Canucks and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the two eye-candy teams for those fans who prefer speed and skill – fell in the first round. San Jose fell. Detroit fell. What kind of team do we want to build on? Nill asked. And not only in the draft, but over the summer as Detroit, a team with enviable cap space, looks over the available players in free agency. Bigger? Stronger? And what style of play should we play? Skill? Shot-blocking? No wonder heads are spinning.

The hockey gods were kind this spring when even they, with their well-known love of mischief, decided it was time to put the New York Rangers out of our misery. But even so, shot-blocking, collapsing around the goaltender, chip-out, dump-in hockey is all the rage in the NHL – and causing rage among fans who naively believe that if NHL hockey is to have a financial value, it should also have an entertainment value.

As well, recent playoffs have argued eloquently that there is one rulebook for the regular season, one for the playoffs, and even one that gets thinner as the playoffs grow longer.

The NHL might argue that penalties were actually up slightly in these playoffs, but that point holds little or no ground against empirical evidence that transgressions, both called and not called, go way up. Officials, to a baffling extent, pop their whistles in and out of pockets, as if they themselves are as confused as the rest of us. It’s not just penalties, but even the definition of something as simple as icing has been lost. And as for what rights goaltenders and players have around and in the crease area, don’t even start.

For all the above reasons, it is heartening to know that it is not only executives like Nill and Holland who are concerned, but GMs as a whole. It took a year-long owners lockout in 2004-05 before the NHL decided it might be a good idea to tighten the nuts and bolts of this potentially magnificent game. This time, whether there is a lockout or a strike or labour harmony come fall, they will gather to tweak matters in August.

MacGregor, ever the champion of bombast, says that the game is “desperately in need of help,” and for once, this fan of puck-possession, up-tempo hockey where the smaller, more skilled guys are encouraged to play like Nicklas Lidstrom or Pavel Datsyuk instead of a shot-blocking, dump-and-not-chase robot has to agree with Mr. MacGregor.

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HockeyFanOhio's avatar

One of the reasons I like the Wings is their skilled play.  Clutch and grab teams are just not fun to watch.  Skilled skaters, passing and team work is very entertaining.  It’s that simple to me.

Posted by HockeyFanOhio from Central Ohio on 06/06/12 at 10:55 PM ET

Red Winger's avatar

But if you’re a good enough puck-possession team then you wouldn’t have to worry about chasing the other team when they get the lead too many times.

Is Nill and Co even insinuating Detroit played a puck-possession game this year? If so, when?

Posted by Red Winger from Sault Ste Marie, MI on 06/06/12 at 11:13 PM ET

Red Winger's avatar


Posted by Red Winger from Sault Ste Marie, MI on 06/06/12 at 11:13 PM ET

joedaiceman's avatar

Buttman will shout from the rooftops that the game has never been better. He is in total denial as are his multitude of boot lickers. There was only one compelling series in the playoffs - Penguins/Flyers. The rest of it has been sleep inducing and it is because the game is in serious trouble. The path to winning is to sacrifice your body - Skill be damned. Soon the teams will be stuffed with goons who have no skill - are paid 500K per year but will gladly throw themselves in front of the puck.

Posted by joedaiceman on 06/06/12 at 11:19 PM ET


God i hope they do something this august and get officials to call obstruction penalties again. I cant take watching the NY Rangers play another season of collapse at all costs hockey. Shrink the goalie gear a bit would be nice as well.

Posted by patrick oneill from yonkers ny on 06/06/12 at 11:22 PM ET


Wings need 2 lines puck possession that can score 1 speedy grind line 1 cheep goon line

Posted by smallfry 46383 from valparaiso indiana on 06/06/12 at 11:41 PM ET

Hootinani's avatar

Bettman has only one barometer when it comes to the health of the game: are the franchises worth more now than they were last year?  If so, he’s done his job, and the actual state of the hockey being played on the ice be damned.  The game must be entertaining if league value is up, right?

Posted by Hootinani from the parade following Babs out of town on 06/06/12 at 11:51 PM ET


1)Puck-possession requires skill.

2)Skilled players are more expensive than lesser skilled players.

3)Every team in the NHL plays under a cap, and the salary window is pretty narrow.

Those first three points make a purely (or even primarily) puck possession style pretty tough to pull off in the best of situations, even if it wasn’t for point #4.

4) NHL refs are pretty bad at their jobs, are probably the worst or second worst group of refs in major sports (possibly above the NBA’s, but unlikely), and routinely completely change the way the games are called, making a puck-possession style that was difficult to maintain in the first place completely pointless.

Good for LA, of course, but if that’s the kind of hockey that’s going to be the norm now… meh.  These playoffs have been so passive in-play that it’s been difficult to get too involved in the action… unless the teams were thugging it up out there, which carries it’s own dangers.

Posted by HockeyinHD on 06/07/12 at 12:00 AM ET


HOOTINANI is so right. Under Bettmans tenure the on ice product has almost never been the leagues concern. With the exception of the changes after the lockout, the league has been completely inept. And we all know that those changes have faded into the past. So lets review the Bettman era. Trap “dead puck era” that lasted seven years. The in the crease rule, it was so bad the league used it for two seasons. Head shots going unpunished for many years until recently. A missed season and lets not forget94 95’s half season. Nothing like killing the games momentum after the 94 cup. Oh yea goalie gear that keeps growing. God when will he retire.

Posted by patrick oneill from yonkers ny on 06/07/12 at 12:10 AM ET

Hippy Dave's avatar

Here comes the left-wing lock again.

Actually to say something productive:
- I really hope some day we are able to recruit another Brett Hull type of player, a guy holding the shotgun at the top of the circle that only requires someone to get him the darn puck before his arms fall of from holding the stick up behind him.  Better yet someone with a little Shanahan in him, a big guy who can move and push guys out of the way and pick up some defensive slack in their spare time.  If they can drop the gloves, even better. 

But that guy doesn’t really exist in the league right now.  Not any available guy anyway.  Any ideas?

Personally I wouldn’t mind if we picked up Bobby Ryan and started playing go-to-the-darn-net-already.

Posted by Hippy Dave from Portland by way of Detroit on 06/07/12 at 03:07 AM ET

George Malik's avatar

For the moment, his name is Teemu Pulkkinen. I don’t know if Datsyuk could make Alex Semin into the kind of player he was at the World Championships.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 06/07/12 at 03:30 AM ET

Hippy Dave's avatar

Re: Pulkkinen—man, after watching this I’m kind of a believer.  Too bad this years stats weren’t as good as last…

I really believe in Semin, and would be happy to have him on the team for the right price.  I think the organization has the tools to pull him into line.  But I wouldn’t pay a premium for the guy.

Posted by Hippy Dave from Portland by way of Detroit on 06/07/12 at 04:23 AM ET

Michiru Kaioh's avatar

Puck possession style isn’t going away, it’s just transforming into something different. Now the way you possess the puck enough to control the tempo of the game the way the Wings have done for years is to get big strong guys that don’t get knocked off the puck.

It’s no longer about having small, quick guys who make smart plays and play keepaway. It’s become a game where those players just get picked or hooked or knocked off the puck. Size has become more important.

Posted by Michiru Kaioh on 06/07/12 at 06:03 AM ET


The worst playoffs I’ve ever seen. Whereas last year’s final between Boston and Vancouver was riveting.

Posted by manitobaredwingfan on 06/07/12 at 07:43 AM ET

awould's avatar

I would love to see them increase the size of the ice.

Posted by awould on 06/07/12 at 01:56 PM ET

Hippy Dave's avatar

I would love to see them increase the size of the ice.

Posted by awould on 06/07/12 at 11:56 AM ET

I remember thinking this would be a good idea during the last lockout.  What stopped me from continuing in that line of thought was that it would invalidate nearly a hundred years of hockey records and force tons of youth and community hockey programs to spend money they don’t have to rework their rinks.

Posted by Hippy Dave from Portland by way of Detroit on 06/07/12 at 04:18 PM ET


Its nice when the Wings win in the playoffs, but I would rather watch 87 interesting, skilled games than 95+ boring, dump-and-chase games.

Posted by Nick from AA on 06/07/12 at 04:28 PM ET

Leo_Racicot's avatar

I’m of the opinion that teams that have rosters that are equipped to play puck possession hockey and coaches that coach it have no less of a chance of winning the cup than they did six weeks ago, last year, or four years ago when the Wings last won.

We all agree that puck possession starts on the blueline.

If you look at the defensive personnel of the four teams that made it to the conference finals this year, the best team equipped to play possession hockey (by Bowman standards) was the LA Kings.

Scuderi, Greene, Martinez, Doughty, Mitchell, and Voynov all know how to move the puck in their own resourceful ways.

Sutter and the Kings have thrived on counter-attacking all playoffs long, and they do it by making crisp passes deep in their own end starting from behind the goal-line and typically sourced by their defensemen.  They outwork you with their size along the boards, and within two passes they are out of their own end and putting you on your heels. 

Last year, it was the Vancouver Canucks that played their own version of possession hockey effectively until three critical injuries hit the blueline:

- Hamhuis done for series after hitting Lucic and tearing his
- Ehrhoff shoulder in SJ series, required off season surgery
- Edler breaks hand in game 6

The possession game radically transformed during the series when the Bruins could cheat on their forecheck knowing that guys like Rome and Ballard couldn’t resource the kind of effective “possession game” that the Canucks were playing all season and post-season heading into the cup finals.

Posted by Leo_Racicot on 06/07/12 at 06:02 PM ET

Leo_Racicot's avatar

The Wings had the best puck carrier in the modern era over the last 20 years and they had a few hall of fame compliments (Coffey, Fetisov, Murphy, Ralfalki) along the way.

I do wonder if Nill’s observations come more from the notion that his defensive personnel no longer suits the kind of possession game that Bowman espoused as opposed to obstruction (which the ‘07 Ducks did more effectively than any teams that have made it to the “final four” in the past five playoffs, including Tortella’s Rangers) hooks chutes,, ladders, and whatever else that is “plaguing” the game.

Posted by Leo_Racicot on 06/07/12 at 06:12 PM ET

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About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.