Andrew Podnieks is the author of numerous hockey books including an updated version of The Blue and White Book for the 2001-02 season, Portraits of the Game, Canada's Olympic Hockey Teams, and The NHL All-Star Game: Fifty Years of the Great Tradition. He also writes a column called "Pods Shots" for the Hockey Hall of Fame Web site.
In a bizarre and paradoxical way, I think the biggest problem with today's NHL is that the players are so much better than they used to be that the league doesn't know what to do about the "problem."
Watching the Leafs-Avalanche game recently, the shot clock remained with zeroes and the first shot on goal didn't register until the 8:47 mark. Up to that time though the hockey wasn't boring, only meticulous and precise. It occurred to me during that period just how solid all defencemen are in the modern NHL, how quick the forwards are to react, and how lightning fast the game is in transition.
My feelings have been confirmed the last couple of months by watching the Classic games on Leafs TV. It seems crazy that the sheet of ice the Leafs used in 1950 and 1975 is the same size as today's. Players are bigger, faster and stronger, and the result is that it's almost impossible to get free or beat a man cleanly one-on-one.
The biggest difference is with the defencemen. I remember going to the Gardens as a kid and noticing which players had hard shots and which didn't. Today, they all shoot rockets, thanks to both training and manufactured (as opposed to wood) sticks. Shin pads are so remarkably resilient today that any man on the ice can block a shot with impunity and without fear of suffering an injury (Al MacInnis' shot excepted!).
In that Avs game, plenty of shots were taken, but many were blocked or deflected. Players who were beaten recovered quickly or were helped by a fast-thinking teammate, and at least a dozen pucks left the ice in the first period. Watch a Leafs Classics game and see how infrequently the puck went out of play.
Of course, the speed of the players has also eliminated one of the great plays in a defenceman's arsenal--the hip check or open-ice check. Today, such a hit is a gamble, as Scott Stevens admitted after taking down Lindros in the playoffs a year and a half ago. If he had missed that check, Philly would have had a dangerous two-on-one. Those hard, clean hits have been replaced by the hook at the elbow or knee, little jabs intended to slow a man down without sacrificing position. Hip-checking may have been lethal and exciting, but it wasn't positionally-sound hockey.
There has also been a sharp decline in defencemen's ability to carry the puck and perform skillfully with it. In the immediate post-Orr era, we had a phenomenal generation of skating stars on defence--Salming, Potvin, Robinson, Bourque, Coffey. Today, a skilled defenceman is pretty much defined as one who can move the puck quickly or who can make sharp passes to break the trap. But, sadly, most defencemen are asked to do only two things with the puck these days: chip it out or chip it in. Hardly the legacy of end-to-end rushes we hoped Number Four would inspire for decades to come.
Look at the Classics games and you will see not nearly the number of shoot-ins, and although the defencders weren't as mobile and quick, they still carried the puck and could hit an open man with a hard pass.
Indeed, the Leafs and Avs finished the night with their fair share of shots, but the speed and skill of the players created an on-ice drama so different from what fans saw in 1975 or 1950.
To be sure, the players are so skilled and fast today, but they have no means to show their abilities save in a defensive manner. Pity.