“Well, does it work?”
Lumped beneath the noise of criticism heaped on a football coach for “icing” a kicker, not enough people were asking the legitimate question. “Does calling a timeout before a kicker attempts a long field goal help prevent the kick from being successful?”
(This is a hockey blog, and we’ll get to the hockey-related content shortly)
As it turns out, no, it doesn’t. Much of the criticism of Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach Andy Reid’s decision to call a timeout to “ice” New York Giants’ kicker Lawrence Tynes came as a result of the fact that Tynes missed the kick that took place on the dead play.
Tynes would go on to miss the second attempt as well (turns out it’s hard to kick a field goal from 54 yards) but we went into the night with many columnnists and commentators going after Reid for his own individual actions, being such an easy target, nobody was questioning the practice itself.
Icing the kicker is a football convention that’s only sometimes challenged by people who actually have a stake in football games. These would be coaches who, after research shows that on long field goal attempts the practice doesn’t make these kicks any less successful, continue to operate applying their own philosophy on the game instead of what actually happened.
Hockey has a long way to go as well. There are ways to manipulate both the rulebook and convention to gain an advantage.
Rewind to 1942. Then-coach of the Detroit Red Wings, Jack Adams, introduced a new system for his team where they would fire the puck into the zone and chase after it, upsetting the convention of a player skating it in over the blue line. Turk Broda called the Red Wings “unbeatable” as his Toronto Maple Leafs dropped the first three games of the Stanley Cup Finals, before adapting and eventually winning the series.
Despite the unsuccess of the dump-and-chase in the long run, dump-and-chase became a staple of hockey. It’s not only that, but a brand of hockey popularized by a lot of talking heads on TV who were former grinders themselves such as Don Cherry and Nick Kypreos and PJ Stock. I have to imagine Krys Barch will one day fit in that mix.
This is the best example to use for hockey. Dump-and-chase is a celebrated, conventional method for depth players to gain the zone, either because they lack confidence or ability. Once establishing possession of the puck, oddly enough, it’s been found by Eric T. of NHL Numbers that the elite Philadelphia Flyers players showcased no inherent offensive zone ability once the line had been gained. A grinder like Zac Rinaldo will get as many shots off an entry with puck possession than Jaromir Jagr, and about twice as much as an entry where the puck is dumped or deflected into the zone.
Furthering that, Eric found nearly the same data for the Minnesota Wild players. The Philadelphia Flyers won 12 more games than the Wild this past season, and much of it, Eric found, was due to the fact that the Wild dumped the puck in more often. The Wild, just like the Flyers, generated more shots across all lines when the puck was skated or passed into the zone as opposed to dumping it in.
Yet dumping and chasing is still a thing, employed in bulk by teams like the Wild who think this is the way to win hockey games, instead of creating better hockey players in the system. The convention of celebrating a grinder for dumping the puck in and going in for an aggressive and chippy—yet ultimately disadvantageous forecheck, is counter-productive. It’s not teaching young players to weave and pass and win battles and be creative in the neutral zone to bring the puck in the right way, or the way the math prefers.
Ultimately, the math, when applied to strategy, ought to have the upper hand. Yet teams still ice the kicker, draw up entry plays that involve grinders dumping the puck in, and employ the sacrifice bunt, even if these are conventions that have the end result of putting fewer points onto their side of the scoreboard at the end of the day.
Which is to say, Jack Adams was right back in the 1940s. He employed a strategy that the league wasn’t used to yet, and had a pile of success employing it, winning the 1943 Stanley Cup Final for the Red Wings before the league as a whole could adapt.