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?