Much of it — and we’ve seen this before in Boston — is about defensemen changing the game. The Orr-era Bruins (5.12 goals per game) helped the NHL hit the three goals per game mark for some 25 years, pushing toward four in the early-to-mid-1980s. Then came the frigid days of the mid-1990s and early-2000s, when bigger-than-ever players were allowed to smother opponents.
Orr was singular, but puck-rushing defensemen of his era helped crank offenses into high gear. Today’s grass-roots focus on individual skill development and skating has given the NHL more pace-pushers who happen to line up on the blue line. Glass-and-out is rare when everyone can skate and handle the puck.
As such, rigidly defined assignments are becoming less necessary. It’s hard to call today’s hockey positionless, since forwards still score the overwhelming majority of the goals, and defensemen are almost always the last skaters back. Perhaps position-light is a better term.
“At younger ages, there’s really only two roles in hockey: offense and defense,” said USA Hockey director of player development Roger Grillo, who played defense at Maine and coached at Brown. “Either our team has the puck or we have to get it back. How that looks is based on decisions made by the players.”
At the early-teenage stage, Grillo said, American amateur coaches should focus their players on understanding four free-flowing roles: a player with the puck, the offensive players without the puck, the defender who’s challenging the puck, and defenders off the puck.
“If you watch higher-end hockey nowadays, there’s really only one time you can tell who’s playing what position, if you don’t already know, and that’s off a faceoff,” Grillo said.