As we watch the Stanley Cup Final and NBA Finals, one theme I think about a lot (especially with no vested interest in either series) is observing the balance of hard-nosed, physical competition with artistic (and entertaining) flow. As an ex-athlete, I certainly can appreciate both. I love the willingness of gritty players to claw, scratch, bang, dive and do anything for their team. But I also enjoy watching the true artists do their thing.
Both hockey and basketball strive to achieve this balance, something they will always seek. A few years ago the NBA put a hard emphasis on hand checking by defenders, and it has really opened up the game, allowing smaller players like Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors to thrive. However, the Cleveland Cavaliers have had success in the Finals with a very physical style of defense which has helped contain Curry, the MVP of the league. Consequently, the free-flowing style of the Warriors, which is so fun to watch, has been slowed down thanks to the effective (but less pleasing) tactics of the Cavs.
Does this sound familiar, hockey fans? In past Stanley Cup Finals, we have admired the stifling defense of championship teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils. However, those teams were not exactly the most fun teams to watch. This year, the willingness of both the Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning to win with speed and flow has been extremely entertaining. It's been a frenetic pace.
One element of the game NHL rule makers are considering adjusting is the area of shot blocking techniques. After the major lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, there was a crackdown (and I think an effective one) on clutching and grabbing (similar to the NBA's hand-checking). It's allowing today's speedy and skilled players to do their thing.
In order to combat this defensively, shot blocking has become an increasingly important element of the game. Not that it wasn't important before, but each year players seem to get better at it. In his recent "30 Thoughts" column, Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet discussed some potential rule changes (though still in the early stages) designed to curtail certain types of shot blocking
Who knows where this will go, but it will be interesting to hear the discussions - particularly about diving out to block a shot. We've all admired players' willingness to do it. It takes guts, and a little bit of insanity if you ask me, especially those who dare step in front of a Shea Weber blast. But you sure appreciate it when it's your team that does it well.
However, when I look big picture and think about artistic flow, I wouldn't mind seeing a few more shots per game get through to the net. No matter what rule changes are put in to help goal scoring, teams will find a way to counter them and defend effectively. Thus, the ongoing battle for balance between competitive toughness and artistic flow will continue.