Driving to the game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets Wednesday night, your trusty correspondent had high hopes for an exciting, back-and-forth game. And I mean that in all sincerity.
Here’s why. It was a game that pitted the 27th-best team in the NHL against the 30th-best team in the NHL. For the cup-is-half-empty-crowd, that would be the fourth-worst team in the world’s best league against the absolute worst team. In my experience, those kinds of games are usually the most entertaining because I’ve always believed the worse the players, the better the game is to watch. More mistakes equal more chances. The problem with the NHL today is not that the players are not good enough, it’s that they’re too good.
So what did we get? A 60-minute snoozefest in which the Blue Jackets responded to a two-goal lead by getting five shots on goal in the third period. After taking a 1-0 lead, their forecheck was largely non-existent and they were content to drop back into a trap to clog up the neutral zone. The Maple Leafs had 42 shots, had 22 more blocked and 30 of them missed the net. You know why? Because there’s often nothing to shoot at because everyone is collapsing in front of the goaltender in today’s game.
And this is coming from a team coached by a man whose personal mantra once was, “Safe is death.” That’s how John Tortorella thought when he coached the Tampa Bay Lightning. It seems so, so long ago now. Perhaps Tortorella felt he was tilting against windmills. Perhaps he’s just doing what every great coach in this league does, coach to the strengths of the people he has in his lineup. The Dallas Stars seem to pursue the puck pretty well these days and the top team in the Western Conference.
When asked what he thought of the entertainment value of his team’s 3-1 win over Toronto, Tortorella responded predictably. “That’s for you to judge,” Tortorella said. “We’re just trying to grind away and get a win.”
What exactly has happened to this beautiful game? We are returning to The Dead Puck Era™ and the lack of goal scoring is all the evidence we need. If your idea of entertainment is watching teams trade chances and having their most talented players create magic, chances are you’re going to be disappointed many nights. If your idea of entertainment is watching Dion Phaneuf crosscheck William Karlsson in the back six times and slash his stick all on the same shift, then today’s game is for you. Look no further back than the Stanley Cup final last year, which featured some of the most talented players in the game – Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman. And it was a series that was hijacked by checkers and pluggers like Cedric (Not the Entertainer) Paquette.
It’s interesting that both Tortorella and Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock both absolved themselves of responsibility when asked about how dull the game was and how someone paying hundreds of dollars per ticket should feel about watching such a display. “I’ll tell what I’m going to do,” Babcock told THN intern Chris Ciligot when he bravely posed the question, “I’ll see my wife after for a beer and I’ll see what she thought. No, that’s not my job. But go ahead, good question.”
And they’re both absolutely right. Their job is to win hockey games, not sell tickets. Their continued employment is contingent on their success on the ice and if that means they have three assistant coaches who spend time after practice teaching young players how to prevent goals, then that’s what they do. This is not on them. NHL coaches are very good at their jobs, perhaps too good.
And therein lies the problem. When you can’t count on the fourth-worst and worst teams in the NHL to make enough mistakes to make a game entertaining, who can you trust? You’re sure not going to see it from the best teams, because they’re too busy playing chess on ice. What the game needs, aside from a major rules overhaul along the lines of the crackdown on obstruction that followed the lockout in 2004-05, is something radical. One GM told me he thinks the answer is in creating a penalty for illegal defenses, in other words to mandate teams to forecheck. That would create more mayhem, less time to think and more excitement.
Commissioner Gary Bettman will do his state of the union express before the Stanley Cup final in June and talk about how the game has never been better or more exciting. He’ll hail the league’s parity and all of the close games as key contributors. Of course you’re going to have close games when teams are struggling to average three a game. You can’t exactly pull away from your opponent if you can’t score. Who would have thought that the Anaheim Ducks, for all their talent and firepower, would go into Wednesday night’s game against the Ottawa Senators averaging 1.85 goals per game?
Perhaps the league will be saved by some of the most eye-popping talent that has ever stepped on the ice. On the flip side, Calgary Flames rookie Sam Bennett had a hat trick in the first period against the Florida Panthers. That offsets the Toronto-Columbus game quite nicely. Too bad we don’t see more of that these days.