Wayne Gretzky chatted with The New York Times last week, and the Great One couldn’t avoid a little realness about the modern game:
“When I was 10 years old, they’d throw a puck on the ice and say, ‘Go score,’ ” he said. “Now, at 10 years old, the kids are taught to play in their lanes. Defensemen stay back. Everybody blocks shots. I mean, my goodness, I don’t think I ever blocked a shot, and I killed penalties every single game. I thought goaltenders were paid to block shots, not forwards. It’s changed completely. I think the biggest thing we’ve lost is a little bit of our creativity and imagination in general.”
The truth hurts. It’s only human to pine for the days of peak Gretzky, the mid-1980s, when goals grew on trees and the NHL was a wild garden, with almost a dozen guys breaking 100 points each year. But those of us who love the game accepted, long ago, that those days were gone. For many of us, it was more about exorcising the 1990s, when the game became so stifling, brutish, and dull that it often looked like two elephant seals in a dominance ritual.
Brutality is supposed to be part of hockey, but so is elegance. So we prayed to the hockey gods, and they sent gifts. In the new century we got Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Drew Doughty, and now the heir apparent, Connor McDavid. Even Gretzky was impressed.
So why does it still feel like something is missing?
Because the game has gotten faster and more skilled, but it’s also become more engineered.
Let’s start in net. As per the Wall Street Journal,
On average, NHL goalies this season stand 74.21 inches tall, or a little over 6-feet-2, and weigh in at 201.28 pounds, both all-time highs, according to Stats LLC. That’s 6% taller and 13.8% heavier than the average netminder in 1983-84, dwarfing the 4.9% improvement in save percentage goalies have made in that span.
Here is Mike Vernon (5-foot-9, 180 lbs.) in the 1980s:
And here is Tuukka Rask (6-2, 176) of today’s Boston Bruins:
The modern NHL goalie is not the stereotype of yesteryear: the chubby, awkward kid who’s always picked last on the pond. He is tall, mobile, and a very strong puckhandler. He is expected to stop every shot that he can see. He’s also so big that when he drops into his stance, he covers most of the net.
How do you score on this guy? If you try to slide the puck under him, that’s a low-percentage shot and coach won’t be happy. So you have to shoot over, around, or through him. Well, this isn’t Call of Duty. Very few guys have that kind of aim, especially at game speed.
So…you try something else. Deflections, screens, and garbage goals.
Today’s hockey players have such extraordinary hand-eye coordination that they can score from mid-air. The first two examples have become very standard NHL goals. The third example is interesting because it shows just how quick these guys have become.
#17 Milan Lucic is taking a classic approach on goal, cutting into the slot. The pass is perfect. The goalie, Corey Crawford (6-2, 208), drops into butterfly — that’s what he’s trained to do — and it pays off, stopping the low shot. Unfortunately for him, the puck pops up. Then, in less than a second, Lucic bats the puck down and walks right around Crawford for the goal.
This is a terrific piece of mechanics, especially at game speed, but it is normal for today’s NHL forwards. The analytics guys, emerging from the temple of iPads and spreadsheets, say this is the path to beating today’s ginormous, nimble goalies. Sure, you can try to score with the old-fashioned wristers, slap shots, and wraparounds. But today’s goalies will stop just about everything they see, so you’ll have more luck on deflections and redirections, especially if you plunk a big body in front of the goalie’s eyes.
It ain’t pretty — it’s kind of gross to some of us old-timers — but it gets the job done.
Now a coach is thinking, how do I defend against that? Throwing your players’ legs, sticks, or faces in front of a vulcanized rubber bullet sounds like a bad idea, but sometime in the last decade, the number crunchers concluded it’s actually a good investment. And now it’s a very common feature of the game:
It’s sometimes merciless:
There is still some debate as to whether this is really worth it, especially when teams lose their top skill players to injuries. But when the playoffs start on Wednesday, it won’t be about the math. You will see forwards and defensemen, skill guys and plugs, all going down to stop pucks. It’s expected at this point.
The upshot is that we have a modern game in which the average player is bigger, faster, and more technically skilled. He has top-notch nutrition and training regimens and would be pretty busted if he pulled this:
His coaches go through gobs of data on portable machines; they have more game tape than you can shake a stick at.
Of course there are still players who have game-breaking moments. Ovechkin, Toews, and Crosby are some of the guys who can create those, because of their gifts.
But at a certain level, the game also feels a lot more engineered than before. Big Data has taken some of the ingenuity out of gameplay. Plays that should make highlight reels are instead slamming into shinpads or getting deflected out of play. The modern game still has much of the energy, speed, and talent it’s always had — in some cases, more. But to get there, we may have sacrificed some of its beauty.
Cover photo from NHL.com.
SAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU
Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. Saqib was a 2015 Dat Winning Fellow.