I’ve been getting a little irked over the past couple weeks with more and more people piling on the “What do we do about shot-blocking” bandwagon? It’s been the theme of the last week or two, at least.
We let the players shoot through screens, pump-fake to drop defenders and create chances, and pass it around the guys trying to get in front of it. You know, like in hockey, where you try to score by figuring out what your opponent is doing, then out-thinking him.
Different teams have different strengths, and a good coach will recognize what his are, and play to them. Bad coaches know what style they want their teams to play, and they’ll try to force players into roles they aren’t ideally suited for.
John Tortorella and the New York Rangers happen to be a perfect fit – he likes grit and shot-blocking and hitting and old school hockey – his team excels at showing grit and blocking shots and hitting and playing old school hockey. He has guys like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Prust, Mike Rupp, Brian Boyle, Dan Girardi, Brandon Dubinsky, Marc Staal and on and on and on who just happen to be very good at blocking shots, and very willing to try.
That’s half the reason this is coming up – the team that’s winning the East is a good shot-blocking team. Every year we see the recency phenomenon take hold - remember when the Stanley Cup Final featured Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi? A few teams miraculously, and foolishly, came to the conclusion that you no longer need great goaltending to win, and acted accordingly in the off-season. Look at the four teams left this year. Nice conclusion, fellas.
The teams who happened to succeed this year are all defensive specialists (save for, dare I say it, the New Jersey Devils?) with great goaltending, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be that way next year. Teams like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh could very well be in our final four in 2012-2013.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals may not exactly have been a thrill ride, but I’m not chalking that up to guys giving up their bodies for the good of the team. Maybe the Rangers were tired. Maybe the Devils were rusty. Or maybe they have two coaches who think the old-school concept of “shoot from anywhere!” is still a good idea despite the fact that they know guys are willing to sacrifice their personal health to stop shots from getting though to the net.
Eric Duhatschek is a writer for the Toronto Globe and Mail, and a very good one at that. I admire his work. But when I read his piece that kicked around a Pierre Pagé idea from the 90s – that the NHL implement a key and a “three in the key” rule like the one in basketball – I just couldn’t believe my eyes. I understand that as a columnist your job is to start the conversation, which he very clearly has, but that’s just a touch drastic, if not downright silly, right? Talk about changing the entire flow of a hockey game.
(I can see it now – “The corners are too clogged now so nobody can make a play.” “It’s putting too many big bodies in a smaller outside area and people are getting hurt.” “The d-men aren’t involved in the offense anymore because there’s no room up high anymore.” “Nobody can get a clean shot off because there’s more people on the ice outside the key.” “Can you believe the amount of waved off goals because of whistles on key violations?” Not only would the whole flow of the game be altered, you’d essentially be creating the “skate in the crease” nightmare we got rid of years ago, only super-sized. Hell, you’d almost be creating a new game.)
There has been a ton of shot-blocking in playoffs this season, as usual, and probably more than we’ve seen since Montreal upset Washington a couple years back. But that’s what hockey is – trying to get the puck in your opponent’s net and keep it out of yours. That takes creativity and skill and luck, and the fact that shot-blocking can also be a negative (when opponents use the d-men in front as screens) provides some element of risk/reward. Should I get out of the way for my goalie’s sake or get in front of it?
We don’t need a key. We don’t need new rules. We need the current rules enforced, well, and to teach our young d-men to get their head’s up and to shoot around guys. Shoot it wide and try to have the puck kick out in front. Get creative.
You adapt and you evolve. It just happens to be one of those years where defensive teams have had success. Who knows what’ll be the new hottness next year.