NHL Lacks Players, Not Scoring

Most fans no longer consider the NHL as one of the major four sports.  But, the 13 year $124 million contract that the Washington Capitals just gave Alexander Ovechkin does prove that the NHL is indeed still a major league sport.

This year, many NHL games resemble soccer games, only with less action.  Yes, soccer games don’t feature a lot of scoring, but they do feature more offensive possessions and more skilled action than most NHL games.

On Wednesday night, the Islanders played at Vancouver.  As I watched the game, I never saw one Islander player try to stick handle his way into the Vancouver zone.  On the other side, Vancouver was able to do this about twice.  Too many times, the player gets just inside center ice and shoots the puck into the offensive zone.  The game ended up 2-2, and then after a scoreless four-on-four overtime, Vancouver won the game in a shootout to grab a 3-2 win.  Both Islander goals came on fluky plays and one of the Vancouver goals should have been stopped by Islander goaltender Rick DiPietro.

The NHL doesn’t lack scoring, it lacks skilled players.  The Islanders are a hard working bunch, but they don’t have one offensively skilled player.  They have a lot of muckers, a lot of Bill Guerin types, but nobody who can carry a team.  Playing a mucking, grinding style gets frustrating.  It’s hard to maintain that level of intensity for 82 games.  The result:  a bunch of sub .500 teams battling for playoff positions.

The Islanders are not alone.  Last year’s President’s Trophy (most points in the regular season) winners, the Buffalo Sabres are scoring less than Toronto FC in its first season in Major League Soccer.  Last night, the Sabres entered the 3rd period at Ottawa trailing 2-0, and Wednesday night, they trailed 1-0 late in the 3rd period at New Jersey.  It was more of a surprise when they scored to tie those games than it was an expectation.

Fans and league officials lament the fact that scoring is down, and some think radical action is needed to improve the on-ice product.  Overtimes are played with four skaters aside, but about half of those 5:00 periods end up in the dreaded shootout, where scoring is still tough to come by.

The real concern is finding more skilled players.  In the 1980s, the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers had more skilled players on their teams than the 30 teams do combined today.  Of course, because of those skilled players, the Islanders and Oilers won nine Stanley Cups between them from 1980-1990.

The cause of this goes back to coaching.  Most NHL teams, because they lack skilled players, play a defensive minded game, the zone defense or trap as its called.  The New Jersey Devils introduced this strategy to the league circa 1993 and won three Stanley Cup championships in 1995, 2000 and 2003 using it.  Not only do more teams employ this, more coaches at the junior, bantam, pee wee, and midget level do as well.  The result is that hockey is fostering players who can only play a system, and that system doesn’t need highly skilled players to succeed.

Clark Gillies was one of the Islander muckers in their 1980s  glory years.  Even so, he scored 30 plus goals six times in his career, totaling 310 in 14 seasons, good enough to make the Hockey Hall of Fame.  He did play with two great ones, Bryan Trottier and the best pure goal scorer I saw in Mike Bossy, but Gillies was the protector of those two and still found the net.

Bob Nystrom (Islanders) was a true mucker.  Today, he would score 10 to 12 goals per year, but Nystrom, who spent as much time in the penalty box as he did in the other team’s zone, tallied 235 goals over a 14 year career, and had seven seasons with 20 or more. 

Sadly, that type of player doesn’t exist today.  NHL fans don’t want 8-6 games, that’s not the answer.  What they want is legitimate scoring chances, and they want to know that being down 2-1 in the 3rd period, a skilled player can make a play and get the game tied.

Where that will come from is anybody’s guess?

John Furgele 

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2 Responses to “NHL Lacks Players, Not Scoring”

  1. jr Says:

    I don’t agree. There are plenty of skilled players. Afinegenov and Connolly on the Sabres…..great puck handlers. But yes, they (actually not just them) aren’t scoring. Why? I think it’s clearly the goalies. They are just plain bigger and have more padding than years ago. And the net size remains the same.

    Think of it this way. What if they enlarged the net opening by 1 inch on each side and 1 inch on top. Now, how many posts get hit in a typical game. Just a simple increase in net opening could yield 2-3 more goals per game.

    Either that or mandate smaller pads for the goalies. Oh, and how about cutting down on all the glove saves and smothers when the puck should be smacked back into play? What ever happened to delay of game penalties on the goalie?

    Or maybe take the glove off the goalies and change the glove to just a pad?

    I don’t think lack of skill is the problem. It’s the goalies.

  2. johnny228 Says:

    Guy LaFleur, the great Canadien said, “The NHL is filled with a bunch of fourth line players.” He couldn’t be more right.

    Tim Connelly and Maxim Afinegenov are great SKATERS, but that’s about it. Afinegenov cannot stick handle well at all, and Connelly is average at best. It’s not their fault. The game is taught differently. Kids are introduced to systems far earlier than ever before.

    Enlarging the net? Why? The NBA hasn’t made the rim 12 feet from 10; the football field is still 100 yards long (110 in Canada), and the soccer field remains the same despite cries from the non-informed to change rules to allow for more scoring.

    You are right about goalie equipment. The league has allowed the equipment to get way out of hand. It is up to them to stop it. But, unlike yesteryear, the goalies today are much better athletes than ever before, and that’s going to reduce scoring.

    Thanks for the comments.

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