Edmonton Oilers v Chicago Blackhawks

Earlier this morning I was talking with my boss about a Systems Analyst post I’m working on when he made an interesting observation: hockey analysts seem far more prone to point out errors and tear down players than build them up, which they do in other sports. You’ll often see an NHL team score a goal, and the immediate reflex of the talking head is to highlight where the breakdown happened. I’ve also heard people complain that our analysts are quick to shred our stars when they’re struggling (Mike Milbury on Alex Ovechkin comes to mind here), whereas other sports see their announcers and writers go to great lengths to prop them up.

In basketball, if a player naps on his coverage and LeBron gets a break and throws down a dunk, all you ever see, all you ever hear about, is that dunk. “The athleticism!” The blown coverage gets swept under the rug.

But there’s a reason why in hockey we’re far more likely to point out that an opportunity was a direct result of an error on defense: from an offensive standpoint, hockey is kind of about making the other team f***-up as much as possible, and finishing when that happens.

The intense defensive scrutiny isn’t because hockey analysts are more vindictive or don’t want players to get credit or are jealous of the guys’ wives or something. For the most part, our analysts just know what they’re looking for. Not that other sports’ commentators don’t, but consider: hockey simply doesn’t have the indefensible shots that other sports do. A perfectly executed fade-away jumper in basketball basically can’t be stopped, so credit to the shooter. You can make a great pitch in baseball and it can still get hit out of the park, so credit to the hitter. A perfectly thrown-and-caught quick slant in football is just about impossible to stop from happening, so hey, nice pass and catch.

In our sport, you have to make people miss. There is no even-strength goal without an oops, or at the very least, a That Could’ve Been Done Better.

Nashville Predators v Detroit Red Wings

Hockey, like golf, is a game of minimizing screw-ups as much as it is making incredible plays. On the course, a great shot and a birdie is helpful, but that good is far outweighed by the damage you can do to your game with a quadruple bogey. In hockey, it’s a lot easier to try to create chaos offensively and hope your opponent makes double bogeys than it is to go out and make birdies. And as a hockey analyst, it has to be awfully hard not to point out those squares on the scorecard.

Solid defensive hockey is why we see so many playoff upsets (thinking specifically about the year Montreal went on their run for some reason). If a team can stick to their d-side roles without blowing them and get high-quality goaltending, it’s on the offense to find a way to create something, and creating in hockey is just about the hardest thing to do in any sport. This is why great creaters – Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk and beyond – are considered such jaw-droppingly amazing athletes and worthy of the fawning they get. You almost have to think of offense in hockey like a court case – the burden of proof is on the offense, and all the defense has to do is defend defend defend. If there’s no hole in their case, good luck winning.

Hockey commentators are often ex-players, and all ex-players know that when your team gets scored on, the first thing you do is figure out whose guy it was and what happened. It’s reflexive. It’s possible that as analysts we could do a better job lauding the offensive players instead of highlighting the defensive ones, but we’re not analyzing house hockey here.

So your choices are listening to someone accurately identify the breakdown, or someone telling you that a goal happened because a player made a great shot while ignoring how the guy came to get that look.

I know where my preference lies, so to those ever-so-mean analysts out there, I say keep doing your thing. You’re not being hard on guys, you’re being good at your job.

Comments (16)

  1. Great point!

    That is why I hate basketball. (well that, and because it doesn’t really require a team, has too much scoring, and 9ft people trying to score on a 10ft hoop).

  2. To my ears, tone makes a difference when it comes to analysis. I appreciate matter-of-fact diagnosis. I get irritated at commentators who dissect miscues like they’re some sort of moral failure.

    And even in hockey, sometimes, shit happens. A bad bounce can make even a superstar look stupid.

  3. I think there is another aspect to it as well: going beyond the obvious. What I think is so important about the Systems Analyst posts and other stuff like that out there is going deeper than just the obvious good play and the obvious first screw up. Hockey is such a fluid sport that most goals are the product of multiple small screw ups. You don’t have the man on man plays like in basketball. If a player is in a position where they only have to beat one man to score, there have likely already been a few mistakes.

  4. This is funny and so on point. I coach youth hockey. I try and explain to the team that there are 6 players on the ice every time a goal is scored. Also, the plays that lead to scoring attempts are not normally the last players fault. Normally, you can’t blame a goalie on a breakaway or the d on a 2v1 or oddman break that leads to a goal. you find the first domino and see where it fell apart from there. To me its part of teaching the game of hockey regardless of systems. It goes with teaching things like attacking in layers and maintaining support and distance from the puck carrier, etc.

    My kids have heard this from me every practice, game, pre-game, post game etc. the other day watching the Caps v Rangers, Green made a questionable pinch leading to a 2 v 1 goal by Asham. My 9 year old says ” that goal was Greens fault. he shouldn’t have pinched”. I think he was a little off but he is starting the whole mentality of finding the fault in someones play that lead to a scoring chance.

    BTW-Green made a poor play on the puck because he was challenged. If you watch green enough, you know he coughs up the puck under any pressure. The center, Perrault was high and the pinch left 2 caps high and 4 rangers deep. perrault lunged for a less than 50/50 puck which is bad when you are the 2nd guy back. 2 dominos down and then Asham finished it with a nice snipe.

  5. Its not just analysts hockey fans in general seem to be a lot harder on their own team compared to other sports.

    • I am a hockey fan first and foremost, and I largely agree with you… except NFL football. As a Raiders fan I can confirm the fan base gets real upset, real quick… and unlike in Canada with hockey, they stop showing up to games too!

  6. And as long as you use Comic Sans to point out the mistakes, it doesn’t hurt their feelings as much.

  7. I think hockey does have certain indefensible plays, but that they change from year to year.
    The Stamkos slapper from the top of the circle, the Ovechkin on the break betweeen the defensemen’s legs, the Canucks drop pass on the powerplay have all briefly revolutionised the game.
    These plays were virtually impossible to defend because they were uncommon. I think that makes hockey more creative than basketball or baseball, and it does reinforce your point that the onus is on the offense.

    You are correct, in saying there is no shot that will get you a goal almost all the time, season to season, but there are times when you get lucky and see an unstoppable offensive force.

  8. Why can’t both be emphasized (which would mean more emphasis on the positive than there is now).

    If someone misses their defensive assignment, its worth pointing out, but too often that is all that is pointed out, even if the pass to the open player had perfect sauce, and the goal scorer went Backhand Shelf.

  9. What else is interesting is that playing defence in hockey is a lot more fluid than other other sports, for lack of a better word.

    In baseball and football when you’re on defence your only job is defence. You start from a static position and generally only have one job. Cover this guy, or this area. (I’m simplifying a bit here).

    In basketball there are fast breaks, but generally you have a guy and you match up with him (or a zone). The cycle game in basketball seems a lot more common than in hockey.

    In hockey, a lot of the defensive play is done in transtion and the mistake can occur even before that player is “playing defence”. A give away, a botched pass etc.

    I would be like to see a bit more praise heaped on the offence for making a great play rather than just bashing the defensive mistake.

    And I agree with Char above. Tone makes a difference. Pointing out a mistake is one thing, but the dramatic “What is he doing!?!?!” comments are obnoxious (Looking at you Milbury, Healy et al.)

    • Basketball also has ways to create humongous mismatches – pick and rolls, screens, etc. Suddenly your 6′ 2″ point guard is stuck in the paint with their 7′ center and he’s getting dunked on, it’s pretty much unavoidable. Hockey doesn’t really have any equivalent to it. And hockey also has goalies. Even if the offense manages to get loose and create a good chance, the shot still has to beat the keeper.

  10. Basically, of the “motion” sports, basketball has too many scoring plays to accurately analyze while soccer has too few. Hockey strikes the perfect balance between the two extremes.

  11. Very great post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to mention that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing on your rss feed and I hope you write once more soon!

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