Ebb and Flow of Hockey
The other night I was watching an NHL game between the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Islanders on television.
I'm not a fan of either team and my only personal connection to either roster was a guy playing his first game of the season for Buffalo and, truthfully, I'd only categorize him as an aquaintance from my time working in the AHL anyway.
He was never super friendly -- we spoke maybe 10 words over 2+ seasons.
Pretty sure he was sent back to the AHL or taxi-squad following the game. No allegiance.
Anyway, this isn't really about that specific game, rather something that Anson Carter said during the broadcast while chastising the Sabres' woeful offense.
"You're not gonna score goals hanging in the corners."
And that struck me.
When I was kid, players were lauded for their willingness to go "into the corners".
I won't go so far to say that it evolves...but there's certainly an ebb and flow to the style of play. Noticable too, if you've been around the game long enough.
For me -- my start was in the 80's and defense didn't matter. And it showed!
Just look at all of the NHL scoring records and when they occurred. It was a one-way, downhill, game.
It was also more of a, well, I'm not sure how to appropriately describe it... It was more like soccer...but with scoring cause there wasn't any defense.
But, really, players routinely spent a lot of their long shifts gliding around before coming to life with a burst of speed when a seam or outlet pass came about. I'll get back to that later on.
Then, the game transformed and defense became a path to success. The NJ Devils of the 90's get the most credit for the neutral zone trap style of play -- which every other team copied -- but it wasn't just the neutral zone.
Outside of the European teams I'd watched in the Canada Cup or Olympic competition, NHL teams were suddenly playing a system style of hockey too. Specifically, a defensive minded system.
I was at the tail end of my own unremarkable hockey career at that time but, as a defenseman, it was a game changer when forwards were suddenly being coached to come back and help out in the d-zone.
It shrunk the area we had to cover considerably -- and, on defense, from my perspective, we had always been shorthanded as there were always 3 attacking forwards and just two players defending.
Offense had always had the advantage.
That changed in the 1990's.
And I think that's also when "grinding in the corner" started to turn into something you didn't really ever want to find yourself doing.
Just think, every hockey fan has heard color commentators praising a winger for his ability to battle in the corners.
Recently, even. I heard it over and over during last season's "bubble" playoffs like it was some sort of badge of honor or something.
But is it?
Think about it, though...
Any chance that praise came from the mouth of a broadcaster pushing 70 years of age? (Milbury, cough, cough...)
When I think of hockey broadcasters, my go-to tandem will always be Bob Cole and Harry Neale. They were my favorite. State-side, I really enjoyed Gary Thorne and Bill Clement.
Those first two CBC broadcasters are in their 80's now. The latter two ESPN broadcasters are in their 70's. All of a bygone era.
And I enjoyed the analysis of guys like Don Cherry, now pushing 90, more than I should have but the game has so clearly passed by guys like him. The good old days weren't as great as these guys recall. Today's players would carve the teams of yesteryear to pieces.
That's what makes the commentary from guys like Anson Carter, in his mid 40's, so refreshing. It's so much more relevant to the current style of play.
"You're not gonna score goals hanging in the corners."
A forward hanging (or even battling) in the corner -- o zone or d zone -- has taken themself completely out of the play.
Another example of how hockey has changed is the dump-and-chase method that so many teams utilized in the early 2000's. The idea there was that it was a way to get through a neutral zone trap or in behind an overtly defensive minded team -- dump the puck behind them and come in full speed to retrieve it...often in the corner.
Yeah, see how that was never really a great strategy?
It's, like, a 60% chance of a turnover.
I don't like those odds.
Today, it's back to a possession game -- much like it was in the late 1980's -- teams carry the puck over the blue line.
And it's okay to back track or pass backwards -- out of zone, even -- because possession is what matters most.
For zone entry, you still see a lot of chipping it off the boards and chasing -- but certainly not dumping from the center line and crossing your fingers a teammate gets to it first.
It's super rare to see a team just dump it in unless they're making a line change.
And even a line change situation, in the Buffalo/Islanders game I just watched, more often than not, a forward would carry the puck into the zone solo and stick handle their way into the corner, ugh, the corner, or around the net waiting for the fresh re-inforcements to arrive.
Ebb and flow.
Like, here's a change in the game you may have overlooked...
Remember how teams would get a whistle a few times a period by pinning the puck with their skate to the boards? Three or four players would converge, jamming at the puck, trying to poke it free, a bunch of cross checks would occur, and eventually it would beome apparent that the puck wasn't coming out of the scrum under any circumstance and they'd blow the whistle and have a faceoff.
That used to happen multiple times per period. That's a fact.
When's the last time that happened more than once in a single game?
It almost never happens...unless it's in the dying seconds of a game and the leading team is trying to kill the clock. Even in that instance, it's rare.
Like illegal curves on stick blades -- players used to get penalized for that. It's just another piece of the game that has disappeared. Totally evaporated -- and I'm thankful for it.
Circling back to the soccer reference, the next time the Edmonton Oilers are on television, be sure to watch a few Connor McDavid shifts closely.
He circles and glides around all the time. I'm not saying he's lazy. He turns on the jets seemingly out of nowhere to blow by defenders when he sees an opportunity. That's why he has a knack for capitalizing on loose pucks and has an uncanny ability to get behind defenders so frequently.
That's soccer! That's how soccer is played.
Those dudes are just casually walking around on the field and suddenly turn into world class sprinters when they make a run.
Soccer and hockey are essentially the same game -- but still played very, very, very differently at the professional level.
High school level -- in North America, at least -- they're almost identical though. Kinda of explains why US Soccer players aren't so great on the world stage. We're doing it wrong.
Anyway, I can't say for a moment that I watch a ton of soccer but since the first World Cup that I watched in 1988 and up to the last one in 2018, it still looks the same to me. Bunch of guys walking around on a field calmly passing the ball in triangles waiting for a opportunity to occur and, boom, they look like the elite athletes that they are for brief moment.
Maybe it has changed?
Even still, I think soccer has it all figured out while hockey is still tipping back and forth on which style of play is the most effective.
So, like, I don't know which is the right path to success, right now, the way the youth game is played currently and most frequently.
But I do know that certain styles of play have become obsolete.
Dump-and-chase does not work. At any level.
It was a short-term counter-attack to the overly defensive neutral zone trap era of hockey.
But here's the issue -- so many youth coaches are in that age range where that was the style of play at the forefront when they played...so they're coaching it now!
It's making an unfortunate comeback despite Hockey Canada and USA Hockey both constantly and aggressively promoting the idea that puck touches are more important than anything at the youth level.
Just like the clutch and grab era of the late 1990's was a product of coaches who'd played in the 1970's when, if it moved and had a different color on, you were supposed to hit it. Hard. Even if they didn't have the puck.
I'm a player of the late 80's and early 90's. My style is a puck possession game...but, like I said, having a small taste of a more defensive system, I also appreciate when the forwards help on the defensive end of the ice.
Players of the mid-90's have coached their players to play positionally and defensively minded. This is the "era of coaching" where my kids started. Positioning was stressed. Defense mattered. It's not quite a neutral zone trap system but turnovers were what most often resulted in goals scored...on both ends of the ice.
I think players of the 2000's that now coach their kids are preaching the dump and chase method. As you can tell, I consider that method to be a turnover machine...well, unless the opponent is playing the same style of game.
Then it's a tennis match. Or frisbee...by yourself. Oh, the worst kind of hockey.
Another 6 or 7 years, I'd bet the newest crop of coaches will be teaching puck possession again just like I was taught. Or maybe the clutch and grab style will come roaring back?
So, no, I don't think the game is evolving at all.
It's changing, sure...but it's not evolving.
It's a 40-year revolving door.
As for the Anson Carter quote...
During one of these generational transitions in hockey, the ice surface became smaller.
Since you can't score from the corners, why would you go there, right?
It makes sense.
That "revelation" made the center of the ice -- between the faceoff dots -- a lot more crowded.
Explains perfectly why there are so many more blocked shots in the NHL these days.
Also explains why defenseman are instructed for force puck carriers wide.
But then why are puck carriers instructed to carry the puck into the zone wide?
That doesn't make sense at all...
Well, actually, it does make sense. It's cause that removes at least 2 players from the crowded area between the circles.
More room means there are more lanes -- shooting, passing, or skating -- to the net once that puck is moved out of the corner. If the puck carrier forced into the corner has drawn the defender out there with them, they've done their job.
And this is where my own frustration with my own son's d-zone plays comes in.
I love that he tries to force puck carriers wide.
It serves multiple purposes.
First, it's a longer route for the attacking player to get to the goal.
Second, it forces the player into the corner or behind the goal line. Anson Carter is right -- they can't score from the corners. Let them go there! As a defenseman, it's in your best interest to cede that meaningless portion of the ice to them.
And third, you're able to maintain your position of being between the puck and the net -- you know, defending. By definition, in that space, you're clogging up the high percentage shooting and passing lanes.
(Secretly, fourth, I also used to love that it lead to monster hip checks that, while penalized now, wouldn't be in a couple of years. Sadly, my son seems to have lost that part of his game.)
What really kills me, though, is that he follows the puck carrier into the corner cause, like, you shouldn't just let your guy go, right?
But, actually, you should.
Don't get sucked into the corner?!
If that player passes back to the point -- you're in no-man's land.
You're not in a shooting lane.
You're not in a passing lane.
You're defending a player that has a 0% chance of scoring and an area that's a low percentage scoring piece of the ice. That attacking player successfully pulled you out of the play.
There's zero glory being a guy who can "battle in the corners" in today's game. So out-dated.
Kinda like pinning the puck to the wall to force a faceoff.
Let the offensive player have the corner.
Let a defensively responsible forward converge on them first...and then, maybe, you come in for support.
The defense should defend the net.
Passing lanes, shooting lanes, skating lanes. Not the corners.
Personally, if took me a painfully long time to come to the realization that -- even while I had always felt shorthanded playing D in the 80's -- defenseman actually have a huge advantage over attacking players on every single zone entry.
The moment a forward crosses the blue line into the o-zone, the defense should already know EXACTLY where they're headed.
It's the net.
It's always been the net.
Especially at the youth level where, frankly, deception is non-existent.
And even when deception does exists -- the end point is still the net!
Like, when that lightbulb went on for me, boy, did I wish I could go back 30 years. Sure, I wouldn't have gotten the praise for being the little guy willing to battle in the corners but, damn, I would have been so much more effective as a hockey player.
I know that that hasn't fully clicked for my kids that play defense -- the idea that they have the advantage.
I mean, they know it...they just don't execute it.
They'll follow a puck carrier into the corner...and that's what generally earns them a -1 on the scoresheet.
But, then again, maybe that's just how my own soon to be outdated (again) "era" of hockey sees it.
- - - - - - -
Side Note: It's been really valuable to have kids that have played on rosters with kids from the 2007 birth year to the 2015 birth year. Nearly a solid decade spread.
With that, our hockey circle includes parents both a decade and a half older and younger than me -- so that's a 30 year window and that's where it gets really enlightening when talking to parents who played in their youth under different eras of hockey and how they see the game played by their children in front of them now.
It's totally an age thing...and the older the parent, the wiser (or more aware) they are to it all.
Hockey parenting tip, one that I've mentioned over an over on site: Talk to the parents with older children playing hockey often. They know their stuff.
In a perfect world, I think co-coaches born roughly 15 years apart would create a foolproof hybrid style of hockey that would transend the gaps but that never seems to work out.
In the end, though, I'm thankful my two oldest boys are experiencing two different styles of hockey more smack dab in the middle than I did -- they'll be better off for it once their own lightbulbs turn on -- and far better coaches when they have kids of their own having firsthand experience with at least two, and likely three before they're done, styles of play.
Oh, and speaking of how refreshing folks like Anson Carter (or Patrick Sharp, or AJ Mleczko) are in the broadcast booth, it's a lot like how obviously great Tony Romo is when calling NFL games... For me, Romo has showcased that 90% of what came out of John Madden's mouth for his last 20+ seasons of broadcasting was total garbage. Just terrible.
Slobbernocker football isn't a thing. That's fluff. Total nonsense analysis.
Romo predicting a play before it even happens, well, that's good commentary.
It's not necessarily an age thing -- it's just a more direct connection to the current style of play.
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Agree? Disagree? Let me know -- I love the feedback from all angles!