I can't remember a Stanley Cup Final less interesting than this one.— steve simmons (@simmonssteve) 7 June 2016
Steve Simmons posted that on June 6, as Pittsburgh beat the Sharks 3-1 and took a 3-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Final. He's Steve Simmons, and no one should have been surprised that fans assumed he was getting at Phil Kessel, that he couldn't handle it that Kessel was winning and making him look foolish in his earlier criticisms, if a hit piece can be so dignified with that term. And that may be true, or partly true.
I agreed with him.
Now, full disclosure, I wanted San Jose to win, I wanted to see the guys I like on the Sharks do well, and I was frustrated by a the fact that their truly terrible fourth line was the only line getting any zone time, it seemed, and that the Sharks couldn't generate any offence in the way they normally do. What they normally do is beautiful, intricate playmaking, full of speed and direction changes that are just breathtaking to watch.
I was not very surprised the Sharks game was being chewed up and mangled by Pittsburgh's speed. I had watched a few San Jose-St. Louis games, and I described them as two very old but very gifted chess players who meet in the park for a game—intricate and mesmerizing, but slow. I could not see how that would translate for either team favourable against Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay.
Pittsburgh was fast, this is true. But it wasn't universally true; San Jose often found effective counters for the Pittsburgh game. The confluence of the Penguins "total hockey" speed game and the cerebral game essayed by Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski produced this the night of the famous Tweet:
That small cluster of dots on the right is six five-on-five scoring chances for Pittsburgh in a game they won with three goals. Six. San Jose at least gave Matt Murray some work to do, and he did it, so if you're into watching a hot goalie save everything that isn't blocked, then this game was likely your jam.
It wasn't mine.
And I am not alone on some island with Simmons. During the previous game, the Hockey Night in Canada gang showed a montage of people in the San Jose arena during the game play, sleeping. In one of the loudest, most rocking buildings in the NHL, the fans were sleeping through the playoffs.
Not every game was like that. And it is possible Simmons, aside from his other issues, was showing a little recency bias, because game two was an amazing marathon of exciting hockey that went to overtime and had everyone on the edge of their seats.
That's a lot more dots! And they are fairly evenly shared, so it was one full team versus the other full team, not a bunch of forwards up against some shot-blockers and a hot goalie.
But there was more to the difference than quantity of chances. In the dull game, game 4, the shooters on those six whole Pittsburgh chances were: Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr, Justin Schultz, Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin and Sidney Crosby.
I know I look forward most to seeing the fourth line as the only ones with the zone time. For die-hard Penguin fans, Cullen, Fehr and Rust (who played the playoffs hoisted up on Evgeni Malkin's back) were cult heroes, which is usually a cue to look at their shooting percentage. To me, there were the kind of guys fans usually run down for their lack of skills. But for the Penguins, they often got through the Sharks defence that had been thoroughly mangled by the top three lines, each with an elite level player.
At the other end of the ice on that dull night, it was the Sharks big, well, Sharks, doing the shooting. So that at least made for some moments of heart-stopping action. It was not all channel flipping and trying to stay awake.
In game two, the overtime nail biter, you can see a cluster of Pittsburgh shots all from one place, and they are all Kessel shots. It was exciting to see a master at his craft, in his office, getting chances. The other top players on both teams were bringing it, and it was the best game of the final round. And it was fun because of who had the puck and what they did with it.
All of that is a roundabout way of saying that I think the issue troubling the NHL is not that there are too few goals. The fun comes from scoring chances, from great plays, and seeing the greatest players in the game making them hooks you.
It doesn't matter how many pucks go in, not really; it matters if the chances are there to give you the heart in the throat moments that thrill.
What I do not like, what bores me, is watching Sidney Crosby try to shoot around bodies lying on the ice and managing one shot the goalie has to save.
What drags a game into tedium is action that moves up and down the ice, never penetrating the zone deeper than the faceoff dots, as turnover after turnover generated by a tight defensive system stymies every scoring chance.
What makes me change the channel is when the outcome of the game feels like it is fully at the mercy of random variance because the counter to every offensive play is too good. I am the person who turns off the shootouts because flipping coins is not compelling television for me. Watching a more complex coin flip is not any better.
Bruce Arthur talked to Ray Ferraro, a man I agree with a lot more often than Simmons, and their feelings about the boring game is contained in a piece titled: The NHL's goal should be to entertain through offence.
"I think the problem, if you want to say that, is so multi-layered that there’s not one fix to it," says Ferraro. "As the game has gotten faster, what I thought would happen was there would be more offence. But what I’ve learned is speed is the absolute detriment to offence, because there’s no time to make a play anymore. There just isn’t. You can be the most skilled guy in the world. There’s no time."
They talk about goalie equipment, net size, post shape, the red line, all of that. The stated goal is more goals, and these are the inevitable topics that come up when fans start talking about how to make more shots go in the net. The idea is not so much to make it easier to score but to make it harder to be a goalie.
It is inevitable that goalie skill has risen as all player skill has risen. It is not their heft or the heft of their pads; it is them, their talents, and the development of their game by results driven coaching and by the overall growth in understanding of athletics that has changed. It might still be more difficult to guess accurately who will be good in goal, but it is easy to say the average goalie is much, much better than she was ten, twenty, thirty years ago.
And it is inevitable too, in the very near future, that the skill of defenceman will rise.
They [the Coyotes] need someone who plays the new age of defense, which is transition to offense and getting the puck up to our forwards and joining the rush and supporting the attack. Those are some of the key variables that we see that he brings to the table.
As more and more GMs add in more and more skilled defencemen who can do the things Chayka is talking about, the average skill level goes up. It is tempting to infer that the game will get more exciting, that better offensive defencemen will bring more scoring chances. And they likely will. Even Roman Polak is more fun when he is shooting the puck, but the Paradox of Skill says that the more skill you have in the game, the more the outcome is driven by luck. Like a coin flip. Like a shootout.
Tweaks to make the goalies job harder might make a slight difference in overall shooting percentage. Or it might just reveal the buffer of skill that modern goalies have already developed as they've gotten better to meet the better forwards they face.
Either way, it is not enough.
Those little plays that you make when you’re getting checked. People are pinching up so much more now and there’s so much confrontation at the bluelines that you’ve got to be able to make plays in that five-foot area. You’ve got to be able to protect the puck and get by people. He does those things exceptionally well.
And what he reveals is the way defensive systems have grown up around elite forwards like fields of brambles stifling everyone, even a man like Matthews.
To make hockey more exciting, more fun and a better television product, it has to be harder for everyone to defend against scoring, not just the goalies. To compensate for the better, faster, more elite players, who are increasingly playing results-tested systems, the game needs to rise up in difficulty to challenge their skill.
There are ways to do that. The most radical is likely to admit the ice should be bigger and get on with the job of making that happen. Some rule changes might be needed to slow down the shot blocking that slows down the game, often by causing stoppages where once we had a cycle.
I want lying on the ice to be banned, and I am sure clever people can find other ways to make stopping offence harder before everyone gets so good that the game grinds to a total halt.
In the Arthur article an unnamed NHL official is quoted as saying:
Hockey is not willing enough to realize that we’re in the entertainment business, and not willing enough to do something to get the coaches under control.
It is the coaches who are choosing how much risk players take, how much to stifle the fun for the sake of protecting precious one-goal leads. And in the last ten, twenty, thirty years, coaching skill has risen as well. They need a harder job too. After all, a man like Mike Babcock loves a challenge. We don't want him bored any more than we want that for ourselves.
Disincentivizing tie games and making the one-goal lead a thing that scares a coach into action seems crucial. But how to convince the league to give up their illusions of parity created by the three point tie games?
I agree with Ferraro that it is not just a one fix problem; there is no one simple rule change that will put the fun back in the game. The game should be exciting all the time, and we should not be training ourselves to expect dull playoffs where in one game out of six, the forwards break out of the defensive briar patch long enough to get some scoring chances.
If Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, Patrik Laine and Jack Eichel, Aaron Ekblad and Andrei Vasilevskiy all want to be the best players in the NHL of the future, the league needs to make that as hard as possible for all of them to limit scoring chances, not just Vasilevskiy.
They are all up to the challenge.