Like everything in life, the NHL has evolved over the course of time. The style of play in today’s league is barely recognizable to former New York Rangers forward Alexei Kovalev.
The modern sports world was turned on its head when Michael Lewis published “Moneyball” back in 2003. The book analyzed the Oakland Athletics franchise and how the team’s front office fielded a competitive team despite the fact they did not have the money to sign elite players or sign their own players to long term extensions.
In the film adaptation of “Moneyball,” actor Brad Pitt playing the role of A’s general manager Billy Beane. Pitt tells his team’s head scout “adapt or die,” when the scout questions the general manager’s new method for player selection. Similarly, in the NHL, the style of play has changed through time because of the type of players that fill up rosters.
The modern NHL is predicated on speed, if a player cannot skate at a high level, they are a sitting duck. The league’s current manifestation is vastly different from the style of play even as recently as five years ago. According to former NHL player Alexei Kovalev “the game has changed so much, there is nothing to watch.”
While Kovalev may seem to be the old man yells at cloud meme, there is certainly some credence to his complaint about how hockey is played now. For people who have been around the game their entire life, there is something unsettling about drastic change.
Kovalev and the old school
A lot of what Kovalev is complaining about in the interview stems from style of play. According to the Russian legend, “the passing game is dead, I took my kids to a Ranger game and could not believe my eyes, the for 40 seconds, the puck was on the ice for ten seconds.” Meaning that in Kovalev’s opinion, players choosing to bank the puck in or out of the zone creates lulls in play.
While the NHL certainly does not have to worry about as much dead time as Major League Baseball, there are points within Kovalev’s complaint. There can be points in a game where neither team is really going for it in an attempt to create a scoring chance. Especially late in a game, a road team that has a tie has no incentive to push ahead and take a chance.
The other central point that Kovalev makes is that this fear of mistakes stems from the coaching staff. “Much of it comes from coaches that are afraid of player’s mistakes, that those mistakes will affect them,” Kovalev said. There is clearly an air of truth to what the former player is saying. The style of play in today’s game is about mitigating risk as much as possible.
The NHL still having a system in which a team gets a point for an overtime loss doesn’t make risking anything worth it. In a model in which the average shelf life of a coach is only four seasons, a coach needs to do everything they can to keep their job. Being that it is a lot easier to replace a coach than an entire roster of players, the coach will always be more expendable.
Things to look for
Although the NHL may not be as beautiful to watch as it used to be in the eyes of Kovalev, there are certain tricks to watching the modern game. First and foremost, the play develops around the puck and the play won’t always be dependent on the puck carrier. Often times a play comes to fruition because of a player off the puck making a move to get into space.
In addition to looking where the puck will go, there is the argument that Kovalev is making. The truly good NHL players have the ability to carry the puck into the offensive zone without having to dump and chase the puck. When a team consistently gets stood up at the blue line, they get muddled in the neutral zone and fail to establish a forecheck.
Then, as far as things go in the defensive zone, it is all about transition. Today’s best defenseman can either skate the puck out of trouble or execute a sharp breakout pass. The defenseman that struggle are those like Marc Staal that can do neither which fall into a trap.
The single most important thing is control of the puck. The longer a player can hold onto the puck as they attempt to create a play is a sign of a dominant player. Former Ranger Rick Nash once said that “good players find the puck and the puck finds good players,” meaning that the best players have the puck on their stick the most. It sounds pretty obvious, but nonetheless it is worth pointing out.
Look at how an elite NHL player can use their ability to control the puck to keep his team in control of the game. Instead of dumping the puck into the zone and having to go get it, Matt Barzal can skate into the zone and skate circles around the defenders in front of him.
The New York Rangers are going to struggle as a team this upcoming season. However, as the team begins to form an identity throughout the course of the season, there will be things to note. Does the team skate into the offensive zone? Do they “get pucks deep and get some good looks?”