Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Will the NHL’s Dead Puck Era Return?

By Mike Chen

The NHL is nothing if not a game of Follow the Leader. The coaching systems of winning teams often dictates what other teams try to emulate, and coming out of this year's playoffs, the notion of a winning formula is about to change.

It wasn't too long ago that the league had come out of its lost season and lockout, only to ice a new product that emphasized speed. Teams took this formula and began to build strategies around puck possession — that is, developing scoring chances by holding on to the puck as long as possible, often through a seemingly never-ending down low cycle that wore out defenses.

Detroit did it. San Jose did it, as did Vancouver, and the formula produced success more often than not. But the NHL is nothing if not a counterpunch league, and any coaching scheme can eventually be solved.

The teams that have found success in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs aren't laden with big-name forwards with huge contracts, particularly in the West. Instead, most of the advancing teams could be fairly interchangeable — a bigger defenseman here, a more crafty forward there, but mostly similar in terms of makeup, and it's not just a hot goalie involved. These teams present what is almost a hybrid if the 1990s dead puck trap, combined with post-lockout speed. The result is a read and react system that can be as physical as it is stifling, with five players occupying a strict defensive system, but transitioning to a hard, pounding forecheck once the puck is gained. The teams that execute this system well have every player committed to defensive positioning, making it a nightmare for the opposition to get a shot on goal. And when a shot does make it through, rebounds are quickly cleared.

Defensive schemes can take above-average goalies and turn them into world beaters. Are Brian Elliot or Mike Smith really the second coming of Dominik Hasek or are they really just good goalies elevated by the system? There is a chance that either could become a consistent Vezina candidate, but we won't truly know until next season.

Teams that play a strict defensive system without an evolution in talent often have a limited shelf life. The reason for this is because these systems require absolute commitment and attention to detail to work, and when some players start straying from it — either intentionally or unintentionally — weaknesses become exposed. The Nashville Predators have managed to navigate this by drafting well and evolving over time — the team of Kimmo Timonen and Tomas Vokoun is now the team of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. It's quite a feat to maintain a consistent level of success with such a defensive scheme, but in many cases, teams peak in 1-2 seasons, then begin to fall off.

The Boston Bruins may have started this trend, but now other teams have adapted it despite a lack of team depth. Does this mean a new dead puck era for the league, one where 2 goals wins a game? Not necessarily. While the NHL is indeed a copycat league, the competition committee is designed to prevent stagnation when it comes to impossible defenses. Between that and the ability for coaches to deconstruct and defeat systems, you probably won't see this style remain for more than a few seasons.

It's a double-edged sword. Local fans of successful teams relish in instant turnarounds but from an objective perspective, these teams tend to be boring to watch. And that's why you can net that the NHL will find a way to encourage defeating these systems, through officiating and tweaks to rules. Coming out of the lockout, the NHL put together a fast and exciting.product that organically grew and thrived. Any return to purely defensive hockey brings the risk of losing casual fans, which affects the bottom line.

Like all pro sports, the NHL is a business first and passion second. You can bet that this prioritization will prevent any prolonged return of the dead puck era.

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