Of all the teams remaining in the 2012 NHL playoffs, the New Jersey Devils are the most offense-minded. I’ll pause for a second while that sinks in.
You heard me right. The franchise least associated with a thrilling brand of hockey has become the lone on-ice answer to the drone-like defensive systems employed to varying degrees by the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, L.A. Kings and Phoenix Coyotes.
It’s like Darryl Sutter suddenly being named Mr. Congeniality at Burning Man. But that’s where the growing menace of shot-blocking has taken us – and that’s why the league could have a TV ratings disaster of a Stanley Cup final on its hands.
That’s correct – New Jersey vs. Phoenix. Or as forcefully sedated NBC executives are calling it, “as many as seven roundhouse kicks to the groin with a knife-tipped boot.” It’s an absolute worst-case-scenario situation and it lurks in the background in large part because the league has regressed into a state where offense and skill are devalued at the expense of shot-blocking and defensive schemes.
Now, I’m not saying this is the heyday of the Dead Puck Era. The Coyotes allowed the second-most and most shots against in the regular-season and playoffs respectively. They’ve needed goalie Mike Smith to bail them out time and again. And you can fairly argue that, yes, the Devils aren’t the monster trappers they once were and employ a high-tempo forecheck to be successful.
But neither team will be confused for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Phoenix won their division with the NHL's 18th-best offense and 5th-best defense. The Devils are better at it than in years past, but they've still got the league’s ninth-best defense and 15th-best offense. And the Kings had the second-worst offense and second-best defense. These aren’t high-risk, high-reward teams.
And look at their own home attendance numbers: Phoenix was 30th in the league this season averaging 12,420 a game, while the Devils were 24th overall at 15,396. There are other contributing factors in their attendance, but you’ll have a tough time convincing me that their style of play doesn’t have a lot to do with how few people are willing to pay to watch.
But the Devils aren’t the only team like that. As more and more people are noticing, the NHL has retrenched on its post-lockout efforts to give the game back to its skilled players. Only this time, it’s not widespread obstruction that’s re-reared its ugly head – although you can (and I would) argue the officiating standard overall has slipped and is as inconsistent as ever – it’s blocked shots that are the villain.
I went into a larger breakdown of the shot-blocking menace in the Feb. 20 magazine edition of THN, but here’s a quick summary: I appreciate the sacrifice it takes to put your body in front of an NHL-caliber shot. That said, while it isn’t cowardly, if everyone’s doing it these days, I’d call it standard more than brave. You either block shots, or you don’t play and your team doesn’t win.
That much has held true in the 2012 playoffs. To get to the second round, blocking in the area of 15 shots per game was all but mandatory. The Capitals lead the league having blocked an average of 22.54 shots in their 13 post-season games. The Rangers averaged 19.08 in 13 games. The Coyotes averaged 17.46 in nine games and the Kings averaged 14.89 in nine. The Devils (10.92) are the lone exception to the rule, but second-round losers such as the Blues (18.1), Flyers (17.55) and Predators (15.2) were better at it than star-centric teams such as Pittsburgh (13.5), Chicago (11.12) and San Jose (14.6).
Moreover, the overall goals-per-game issue that looked to be on the right track after the post-lockout obstruction changes remains an issue. While it’s true the decline of overall offense can be attributed to a lack of power plays called by the officials – something else that’s within the league’s ability to change, by the way – the fact remains goals have dropped from a post-lockout high of 6.05 in 2005-06 to 5.29.
That is going in the opposite direction Flyers star and future first-ballot Hockey Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr told me he wanted it to go when we spoke in February.
“People don’t want to see 1-0 games,” Jagr said. “Probably they don’t want to see 9-8 games either, but six, seven goals a game, I think that’s fair for the fans.”
I do too. I also know we’re further away from six, seven goals than before, because now, rather than have the clogging of the game take place in the neutral zone, it’s been shifted directly in front of the net. And because of that rampant shot-blocking, we’re at a point where players have no choice but to shoot the puck at a target other than the net and hope for a ricochet that leads to a close-in-front scoring chance.
Here’s how you help solve the problem: take the advice of former Canadiens GM Bob Gainey, who suggested full-body blocking slides be outlawed in the defensive zone.
“The discussion was that you would have to have one skate on the ice and then it would be OK to block a shot,” Red Wings GM Ken Holland said when Gainey made the suggestion in 2008. “If both skates were off the ice, then it would be something that would lead to a delay of the game (penalty).”
I like that solution more every day. It would still allow someone such as Rangers shot-blocking ace Dan Girardi to continue doing what he does to some degree, but open up much-needed real estate on which the league’s offensive talents can work.
Unfortunately, rather than giving the game to the skilled players as was touted after the lockout, the NHL has given it to chaos and over-coaching. But no kid grows up dreaming of blocking shots in the Stanley Cup final. No kid dreams of having a puck go in the net off something other than his stick thanks to some freak bounce, because that’s one of the few ways goals get scored anymore.
There is no Guy Lafleur streaking down the wing in today’s hockey. Now, the biggest impact on a game can come from Girardi. No offense to the affable, solid defender, but I want my biggest hockey impact at the most important time of year coming from far more talented players than Girardi or fellow post-season shot-block leaders John Carlson, Ryan McDonagh and Roman Hamrlik.
Yet that’s where we are and that’s why the specter of a Coyotes/Devils final is so real and should be so frightening. Two teams – partially or almost completely financially supported by the league – that can’t fill their own buildings playing a style of hockey no kid grows up emulating in front of almost nobody on TV. And there is no impetus to change it, leading to the prospect of games that have only three or four goals scored.
The TV ratings for those games might make the numbers for a New Jersey/Phoenix final look like the last episode of “M*A*S*H”.
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