Remember all the talk of the new NHL coming out of the lockout a little more than two years ago? The new rules and enforcements of existing rules were supposed to change the game for the better, creating more offense and eliminating strict defensive systems.
For a year, they accomplished their goal.
Does that ever seem like a long time ago now.
In the third season with the new rules and enforcement standards, it is becoming clear the desired effects – which were the initial effects – are no longer around. The wide-open hockey of the 2005-06 season has become replaced by… you guessed it, strict defensive systems.
When the league increased enforcement of interference coming out of the lockout, the thought was the elimination of clutch-and-grab hockey would lead to a more wide-open game. For about a year, that worked very well. Games were wide-open, physical, end-to-end, and the fans responded in a great manner, considering the lost 2004-05 season.
In the playoffs that year, the Edmonton Oilers reintroduced the trap, or at least a variation of the much-maligned system. Yet the eighth place Oilers fell to Carolina in the Stanley Cup Finals, and it seemed wide-open hockey was the new norm.
Over the next year and half, coaches figured out the lack of clutch and grab did not mean teams could not play a tight defensive system. In fact, what it really meant was teams had to play even more conservatively in order to be defensive-oriented, as players could no longer hook and hold if they were beaten by an opposing player.
The result has been less than positive. While a traditional New Jersey or Minnesota-style trap features puck pursuit between the bluelines, many of the new systems have the sole goal of forcing the opponents to play a dump-and-chase style.
Instead of talking about the trap, the talk is about defensive postures, as if it were a basketball game. The term 1-2-2 refers to a system with one forechecker, two forwards by the near blueline, and the two defensemen by the far blueline.
As dull as that system can be, especially if the forechecker is passive and retreats quickly upon a breakout, it is falling by the wayside in favor of the even more conservative 1-4.
In a 1-4, there is a lone forechecker, and the other four players set up on the defensive side of the red line. More times than not, they create a wall at the blueline, forcing the offensive team to chip the puck into the offensive zone. Badly outnumbered, the offensive team rarely regains possession.
While the term 0-5 has not been used as of yet, that could change in the future. Some teams retreat entirely when they have the lead, posting four players between the bluelines with the fifth almost posing as a forechecker. The fifth man usually retreats to the neutral zone once it appears the breakout is about to begin.
Exciting stuff, isn’t it?
Anyone who goes back a generation or so remembers the old system employed by virtually every team. A two-man forecheck – the first man takes the man, the second man takes the puck. Third man stays high. Defensemen stay back.
Oh, for those days again.
It is not that the NHL is devoid of excitement these days. Yet the phrase “new NHL” has more or less disappeared. The reality is, today’s NHL may be less exciting than the much-maligned days before the lockout.
Scoring is still low, shots are still low, and scoring chances are still low. The difference is, instead of the clutch and grab at least creating some interesting one-on-one battles, too many coaches instruct their players to take such a conservative defensive posture that they cannot be found out of position.
For a league that is trying to increase its fan base in much of the United States, this is not a good thing. The Dallas Stars have been one of the league’s most successful franchises on the ice for the past decade, yet empty seats about by the thousands in the American Airlines Center, an arena that was once a guaranteed sellout.
Despite their on-ice success, the Stars fired general manager Doug Armstrong early this season, replacing him with famed goal scorer Brett Hull. Many speculated the move had more to do with the Stars’ style of play than anything else. While the team was winning, fans were quickly jumping ship from the often-dull Stars.
Thousands of empty seats appear most nights in previously packed Detroit and Colorado, and lesser markets have even more ticket availability. While the league continues to talk of attendance records, much of that comes from the Canadian markets, where a strong economy has helped lead the NHL’s resurgence.
And as strong as the game is in Canada, it is not without threat. More than 20 percent of Canada is foreign-born, and many of those people view soccer as their dominant sport. The expansion Toronto FC in Major League Soccer sold out every game last season with more than 20,000 fans. TFC has a similar season ticket base and similar length waiting list as the Maple Leafs, indicating the soccer interest in Canada’s largest city.
With MLS expansion a potential for Vancouver and Montreal, it is clear hockey is not the only game in town for Canadian cities, despite what the media often reports.
For now, the game is solid in Canada and in some United States markets. Yet at the same time, the league must put a good product on the ice to keep that interest at a high level.
The good news is, based on his comments on his NHL Home Ice XM 204 radio show, commissioner Gary Bettman seems to be aware of the problem. Unfortunately, the solution is not so obvious.
One possible solution is to limit the number of defensive players set up between the bluelines, but there are several issues. Allowances would have to be made for line changes, and the on-ice officials are already busy enough without watching for what essentially would be an illegal defense call.
Many solutions will be bandied about in the coming months, but this much is true – the NHL finds itself facing an issue nobody thought they would be two years ago.