Friday, August 20, 2010

NHL wakes up to reality of extra time, but clarity is a different matter

by Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

For the last two weeks, the National Hockey League has corralled a handful of the newest crop of draft picks, set them loose on a rink in the Toronto area, and had them display various iterations of hockey played at less than full strength.

The aim is to find out what happens when reduced numbers of skaters play in a predetermined time period when a game hasn’t been decided in regulation.

Translation (and with the NHL, the rhetoric is sometimes so thick you need an English-to-Hockey dictionary): they’re trying to solve the problem of the avalanche of games that reach an overtime or shootout round.

Statistics on the issue can’t be disputed – the number of games per season that have gone the limit have risen from 156 in 2007-08 to 184 last season. That means almost 15 percent of all NHL contests failed to be decided within an allotted 65 minutes.  

Once again, the league has created a monster, and it’s broken free of its chains and is loose on the world. At the very least, instead of taking up the pitchforks and torches and going on the attack, there’s dialogue and real-time demonstrations to flesh out any solution.

The idea that every NHL club should be enticed to play each game to the fullest isn’t a new one.

Back in 1999, in order to head off the alarming number of scoreless ties and overtime games ending without a result, the league instituted a 4-on-4 manpower idea plus the “overtime loss point” supposedly to give marginal teams clawing for their playoff lives an enticement to unclog the neutral zone and be rewarded for risky play in the extra session.

Right from the start, however, the move was a fraud. The Buffalo Sabres finished with a record below .500 on the year (35-36-11) and snagged the eighth seed in the East, locking out Carolina (37-35-10). What pushed the Buffalonians into the postseason? Four OT loss points which inflated their point total to 85 (written as 35-32-11-4).  Carolina didn’t lose a game in OT and were kept out.

Flash forward to the final season before the Year of Doom, 2003-04. The supposed solutions of reduced manpower and overtime loss points indicating a trend towards ending games with an undeadlocked result falls flat on its face.

Of 30 clubs, 22 finished the season with double-digit ties. Minnesota took the ignominious crown with a whopping 20, most since the North Stars knotted 20 in a pre-overtime year of 1981-82. In addition, just 10 teams finished the year with at least five OT points.

So what started out at first as a way to inject some tension and competition into a league bloated with teams became nothing more than a crutch.

Led by coaches such as Jacques Lemaire, Ken Hitchcock, Pat Burns and a host of others on teams whose lifeblood depended on how many points they could wring out of every game, the OT points system gave a laundry list of mediocre teams a way to stay in the playoff hunt.

Cue the shootout talk, circa 2005.

The extra session that is essentially a breakaway contest was highly touted as the most entertaining way to end the dispute over the need to force ties.  It had been used as a way to give paying customers at minor-league hockey games in North America a more exciting product and was a staple of European and international competition, so why not, the NHL thought, go for it?

With all the rules in place that were supposed to open the game up on a level not seen in roughly 10 years, the shootout would be a last-resort finish if neither club came up with a deciding goal.

However, in five years, all that’s happened is that the shootout been every bit the crutch the OT points rule had been in the previous five. Which leads to this statement from Hitchcock earlier in the week, surprisingly devoid of any self-reflection:

”I don’t like where four-on-four’s going to, because it’s going nowhere…You’re playing to get to the shootout, where you’ve got more strategy and more control. I don’t like where it’s going to go in the next few years. To me, it’s going to go the wrong place.”

As long as coaches like Hitchcock and now Jacques Martin are allowed to implement restrictive systems aimed at controlling the other team, it won’t matter how few skaters are on the ice; there will always be a way to break down the game so that four or three or two players can seal off the opposition’s charge.

Let’s not forget that there will always be goaltenders in each net who will have something to say about who ends the game and when.

Extending the overtime period to 10 minutes and leaving ties as they once were has gotten support from old-school minds Brian Burke of Toronto and Bryan Murray of Ottawa. This is more of a step in the right direction because these are two men who remember the sport as it was in its heyday 25 years ago: a shoot first and ask questions later enterprise that left goalies a smoking pile of wreckage under the weight of 60-goal-and-200 point seasons.

Back then, the explosion of goals and the looseness of play coupled with the level of talent led to so many high-scoring 60 minute contests that the NHL decided to up the ante and bring back a five-minute OT starting with the 1983-84 campaign.

It wasn’t until the Devils used the trap to subdue offensive flow in 1995 that the fabric of the league in terms of excitement began to unravel. The spool hasn’t effectively been gathered up since.

So while the 30 team bosses and players in the Competition Committee will at least have visual confirmation that their ideas may not work, how can they have access to the ideas that will? The easiest suggestion is to view tape of the Chicago Blackhawks, and specifically how they approached the Stanley Cup Finals.

There’s not much room for discussion if the other 29 teams adopt the tempo of a champion that scored 271 regular-season goals and reached an overtime result eight out of 23 times – if you choose to ignore the fact that Joel Quenneville’s team reached a shootout on 15 occasions.

In the playoffs, the ‘Hawks competed 22 times with four overtime finishes – none of them beyond one extra period. In all, Chicago scored 78 goals (roughly 3.5 a game) and sizzled the net 25 times in a six-game Finals triumph.

If there’s worry about a talent gap compared to the Stanley Cup winners? Have coaches work on a system with more offensive flow suited to the talent, instead of falling back into a method that hides deficiencies instead.

Still, that may rely too much on a coach’s ability to realize a shift in planning is required. Given that many of today’s head coaches and assistants have been schooled in one system from the minors on up within one organization, it really isn’t surprising that the NHL favors cosmetic changes to the rules first.

At least with makeup, if you don’t like the looks of things, you just wipe it clean and start all over again. Planting an idea, even one that makes a whole bunch of sense, is much tougher – and the likelihood of Burke or Hitchcock or Barry Trotz or Chuck Fletcher being probed by the NHL’s version of Leonardo DiCaprio is virtually nil.

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