How an NHL game based on speed and skill is rewarding thinkers

Hockey Hall-of-Famer Eric Lindros joins Hockey Central to discuss how his mix of physical toughness and skill would play in today's game, and why longevity would probably be there if he played in this era.

Each week, Justin Bourne’s column will cover three different topics in varying depths. Think of it as a three course meal with an appetizer, main course, and dessert…

Appetizer: Players who would’ve “fit” better in other eras may not have been more effective in them

A favourite pastime of long-running hockey fans is to look back at a skill-first player from hockey’s physical peak and daydream about how that player would’ve looked in today’s skill-first game. To a lesser extent we do it with other skill sets and eras, too. Sure you’d like to see Alexei Kovalev play in 2020, but wouldn’t it be fun to see Milan Lucic play when toughness was truly valued?

The thinking is generally pretty A to B when we imagine these things. Using the example of small skill guys of yore playing today: those players were denied countless opportunities that they’d have been allowed to attempt today, and therefore would’ve produced more. That’s pretty obvious when you think back to how the game was played for a while. I mean, remember this Lemieux goal? He was a pull-boat for this lucky defenceman’s waterskiing adventure, which was provided at no charge.

No amount of hooking and holding could stop Mario Lemieux. from r/hockey

Of course, not everyone was a 6-foot-6 horse, so this result was an outlier. Usually those hooks just negated a chance entirely, so yeah — it makes sense to think the small and skilled would’ve been better off today.

Where I think we get it wrong, though, is that the way the game was played in those days is often what allowed those smaller skilled players to make it and excel. With so many players focused on strength and physicality, those with more puck ability were special and thereby desired commodities. They did something most other players on the roster couldn’t: create more chances at earning chances, which made them specialists. If they played in an era where almost everyone played an offence-first creative game, would they still be noteworthy players in the league?

I asked a version of this question on Twitter, and the replies were interesting and often insightful.

The most common reply was Paul Kariya, a great vote and a guy who might be Patrick Kane-plus if he played in this era. Maybe. But for those without his level of world-beating, Hall of Fame talent, I’m not sure the logic always holds up. Not every skill guy from the ’90s would be a better version of themselves if transported to hockey in 2020, because so many of those skill-first guys exist now.

Many of them may be deemed redundant rather than unique. It might be more likely that guys like Nic Petan or Seth Griffith would’ve been unique enough to make it 25 years ago, but aren’t special enough in today’s game (which I think is the opposite of how the logic usually works when we play this game).

There are hundreds of great suggestions in response to that tweet, and some with explanations that totally make sense. I just think it’s worth remembering that for many players, it was their uniqueness amidst their era that provided their value.

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Main Course: Today’s emphasis on skill-first has led to an opening for thinkers

Along the same vein as the idea of players fitting eras was an interesting point made by Shea Weber on Hockey Central on Monday, and elaborated on by Paul Stastny Wednesday.

First Weber, on what’s resulted from the emphasis of skill in hockey over the past decade or two.

“…When we were in minor hockey everything was based around systems, and doing the forecheck properly and playing the right way and now, it’s like … I don’t even think they teach that, all they do is teach skill. Skate really fast and have good skill. Kids have skills coaches at six, seven years old, there’s all these tools and things that I’ve never seen before. I used to stickhandle with golf balls around hockey gloves in the basement, now there’s all these things I’ve never even heard of, it’s crazy. It goes to show though, the kids that do this stuff their whole life, it’s just automatic. You might not get as many guys that think the game as well, but you have definitely a lot more skill and speed, and in a different way.”

The point Weber was making was a positive one about the speed and skill in the game today, and how second nature it’s become for players to do things he wouldn’t have dreamed possible at the start of his career. Still though, I’m drawn to the throwaway line about “might not have as many guys that think the game as well,” because I’ve thought it myself. It’s a point at least worth considering.

Because the league has shifted to such an emphasis on speed and skill, the shape of the play changes more rapidly and more often over the course of a given shift, which has made reading the game situation harder. Most of defence is sorting out what situation your team is in (forecheck, or neutral zone forecheck, or return-to-D-zone, or breakout, or d-zone coverage, or or or), then assessing your role within that…and acting. If you don’t dial in the first part correctly, you’ll react incorrectly, and be the broken link in your defence’s chain.

But that whole scene — other team breaking the puck out as your team tries to get it back — used to unfold a fraction slower. I’d compare reading the play in hockey today to listening to a podcast on about 1.5x speed. You can do it, but you’re less certain you’re getting all the information correctly. It’s coming at you pretty quick. When things were even marginally slower, teammates got burned or caught out of position less often, and that forced fewer split-second reactions. It’s when things break down that figuring your role in the defence really gets hard, and players are being asked to make those panic-reads more and more often as the speed of the game ramps higher and higher.

So as I mentioned in our opening today, it’s with some irony that players who don’t necessarily have the pure skillset that defines this era have become extremely valuable. I’m thinking here of a guy like Zach Hyman, who’s beloved for his ability to effectively play a structured game. Same goes for the guy who we’ll hear from next, Paul Stastny.

For many years, Stastny has been a valued contributor as a thinker in a game that more regularly looks like it’s brought to you by Skittles and Mountain Dew. The quote’s a long one, but he explained the point I’m trying to make here better than I can, so let’s have it:

“These young guys, they’re so skilled, so fast, I skate with a lot of young guys in the summer. I skate at the University of Denver so you see a lot of those guys, I mean it’s insane when you see what they can do in 1-on-1 drills, 3-on-3 hockey, kinda shinny hockey. But at the end of every summer when we play the pros versus the college guys, and once we start playing the body a little bit, once we start controlling the puck a little bit and slowing it down, it just seems like they get lost a little bit out there. Like I said you can teach anyone to be as fast as possible, and teach someone to stickhandle all day and shoot all day, but can you teach them where to be in the right spot, or how to react when you don’t have the puck, how to find ways to get the puck, how to get on the forecheck, and I think that’s what smart guys do really well.”

Hockey Central
Paul Stastny on stats, sticks, and his HOF dad
April 22 2020

He added this on the idea of being more thoughtful with the puck, rather than just going for it:

“Where you really see the skill of the game is 3-on-3 or shootout. There’s so much room out there, so much skill, that you can see guys try to beat everyone. What frustrates me the most is when I watch an OT game and there’s whatever, three minutes left, and a young guy gets out there fresh and tries to beat three guys. To me that drives me crazy, because overtime, once you have the puck you should have the puck the rest of the time. Also, if there’s nothing going on it’s hard to score if they’re just playing man-on-man defence. There’s things that are unbelievable that takes fans out of their seats that they can do stuff, then there’s stuff that can be frustrating, but y’know it’s our job to try to teach these guys other things about the game that they don’t learn from their skills coaches, or they don’t learn when they just do 1-on-1 stuff.

Emphasis is mine.

It used to be that you’d figure out how to play within the team structure, then they’d hope your skill would come around to where you’d be a valued contributor. Today they worry about getting the skill down first, then teaching the structure. I think the latter is the correct way to do it (the elite skill part is tougher to come by), but I do think we’re seeing players who have the structure down cold being rewarded, where that used to just be a mandatory part of being an NHLer.

Dessert: Gary Bettman’s conversation with Ron MacLean has me hopeful we’ll have hockey back this summer

I promise I’ve been given no instruction to promote this, but I am because I think it’s the most must-see, relevant conversation for hockey fans in the midst of this awful pandemic. Among the more noteworthy bits of info is the idea that they could pick four locations, break the teams off into their respective divisions, and finish out some version of the regular season (potentially playing a few games per day on the same ice sheet in front of no fans) in July before heading into the post-season.

Obviously everything is still wait-and-see at this point, but as of today, I’ve got real hope. And I think it’s been a while since the hockey community has felt that way.

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