“Though there are skilled players (on the New Jersey Devils), the players have bought into the notion that they are not skilled enough as a group to rely on that talent to win games and, instead, must outcompete their opponents for the puck.” – Devils’ beat reporter, Andrew Gross, on December 29.
Never mind that this quote is a blatant rip-off of Herb Brooks, this quote is also completely ridiculous in today’s NHL. Literally zero NHL teams since 1995 have taken the approach not to outcompete opponents for the puck. Zero. Look at the most talented players in the NHL – Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, Kane, Toews, Karlsson, Tarasenko to name a few. All these players always try to outcompete opponents for the puck, and these players are usually successful at this endeavor. After all, they are great players. In November, I wrote that hockey is the only sport where the “result retroactively becomes the strategy”. This dumb quote by Gross is a perfect example of this.
I watched most of the Devils’ games from 2012-3 through 2016-7, during which the Devils spent five seasons as one of the worst teams in the NHL. The Devils of these seasons always competed hard, but they lost much more often than they won. Why? A combination of lack of speed and lack of talent. Way too often over those five seasons, I would see over-the-hill veterans or never-will-be young players send soft, unscreened wrist shots from the point to the goalie. I saw these guys come down the wing and take low-percentage shot after low-percentage shot with no teammate in reasonable position for a pass or rebound. I saw the Devils pass the puck around the perimeter for large chunks of power plays, but the puck would never make its way with authority to the net. All of this was not because of bad strategy but instead because of a lack of talent.
Meanwhile, I would watch other teams send multiple players to the Devils’ net with speed. I would lament that this is how you score goals but that the Devils lacked this requisite speed. Yes, rebound goals are considered “garbage goals”, but they usually happen because a puck carrier enters the zone with speed, takes a hard shot, and sees the rebound go to a teammate with speed. I would see opposing teams make quick passes behind the Devils’ net and quick passes from the corner to the blue line. I would see opposing players hungry to take shots, as opposed to the Devils who seemed intent to pass the puck around the perimeter. Lastly, I would see opposing players win more puck battles than the Devils because the opposing players were faster, stronger, and more talented.
Well, finally this year, the Devils are doing all those wonderful things I saw opponents do to the Devils for five years. It is amazing how much more successful an NHL team can be with an influx of offensive talent – Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Brian Boyle, and Taylor Hall (albeit a second-year Devil) – and fast, puck-moving defensemen (Will Butcher and Sami Vatanen). This has been a delight for me. I woke up this morning with the Devils essentially in first place in the Metropolitan Division (if first place is considered the team with the most points per game). Coming into this season, I would have been ecstatic if the Devils were to enter New Year’s Day within 3 points of the last playoff spot. This has been quite a turnaround.
That said, you do not hear much buzz about the Devils in most sports-media circles. Much of that is because a) the Devils are always an afterthought in this metro area, and b) the NHL is the fourth-most popular professional sports league here. However, the Rangers are a much bigger media draw than the Devils, yet they do not generate the buzz that teams from other sports do either. Most of us know that a main reason for this is that most Americans do not grow up playing hockey like they do baseball, football, and basketball. That is probably the biggest factor. However, there is another factor in play.
With the proliferation of media – from TV to radio to social media, etc. – people in this country love debating sports every bit as much as they love watching sports. As maligned as baseball can be for its “boring” and slow pace, has there ever been a time when individual baseball games get more discussion? I think not. The Mets and Yankees both play 162 games, yet we all dissect decisions made in April games for hours on end. It is very easy to do. Because of baseball’s slow pace, there is plenty of time for us fans to play “manager” and decide if we agree with what Joe Girardi or Terry Collins (RIP to both of them) have done. In every game, there are probably five or six managerial/player decisions that are controversial enough for fans to discuss. This is baseball. As for football, every game is dissected like it is the Super Bowl. With playcalling, personnel decisions, and “go for it”-versus-“kick it” conundrums, each game provides fifty big discussion points.
You are probably now wondering, “Wait, I thought he was talking about hockey’s problems.” Precisely. What hockey actions or strategies are there for fans and media to discuss? Hockey is my favorite sport because it is fast-paced, and there are few breaks in the action. For the “ADHD” aspect of today’s American population, this is a good thing. However, for the “Let’s vilify people for every decision they make” aspect, it is a horrible thing. In today’s NHL, every player must be responsible offensively and defensively. Every player must be in peak physical condition. Every player competes very hard on every shift. Hockey is the ultimate team game, and no player could look his teammates in the eye if he were not to do one of these afore-mentioned things. Really bad NHL teams do all these things. Really good NHL teams do them too. The only difference between good teams and bad teams is talent. Therefore, fans cannot realistically criticize players for their work ethic, “compete level” (God do I hate this new-age term), or heart.
Strategically, fans have nothing about which to complain either. Sure, it was revolutionary when the 1993-5 New Jersey Devils rolled four lines and three defensive pairs and had all players be responsible defensively. However, by 1996, the whole league had caught up to that. The 1995 Devils were vilified for playing the “neutral-zone trap”, which I always found silly. The league was simply adjusting to a team that had all of its players playing solid defense in all zones. Nowadays, all teams play some variation on a trap. Really, the “trap” is the ideal defensive approach, but it happens only if a team has appropriate talent. This strategy requires simply that players are responsible positionally in all zones, but all players are fine with this and have played some degree of a “trap” their whole organized-hockey lives.
Watching an NHL team is like clockwork. Breakouts, cycling, and forecheck strategies are all virtually the same premise for all teams. Players and reporters act like teams have vastly different “systems”, but that too is silly. John Hynes, coach of the Devils, preaches that he wants the Devils to play a “puck-possession game”, and reporters often act like this quote is akin to hearing The Beatles for the first time. News flash – all teams want to play a “puck-possession game”. This brings me back to the original quote.
I do not fault Andrew Gross for making a stupid statement. The fact is that hockey writers have the toughest job in the beat-reporting profession. There are too few times where players or coaches have the time to make decisions that we can scrutinize. Sure, we all get frustrated when a player passes when he should shoot (like the Devils historically do way too often on 2-on-1s) or when a goalie allows a soft goal. However, the mistakes happen, and there is not too much debate to be had here.
As a result, hockey reporters must fabricate silly stories like Gross’s comment. Deep down, he probably realizes that all teams in today’s NHL try to outcompete opponents for the puck, but, deep down, he is probably also thinking, “Man, what the heck am I going to write about every day for the next three months, or five months if the Devils go deep into the playoffs?”
Speaking of playoffs, it is always funny to read the “Keys to the Game” that are often printed in the lead-up to playoff games. The keys usually include “Be strong on the power play”, “Be good even-strength”, “Have strong goaltending”, “Stay out of the penalty box”, or “Play Hard”. Those are some bold strategies, Cotton. Let’s see if they pay off for them.
Of course, my favorite playoff lines are “The team needs to show more heart” or “The team that wanted it more won.” These are just ridiculous. In the playoffs, hockey players play through broken jaws, broken legs, broken arms, and so on because they want so badly to win the Stanley Cup and to support their teammates. It is impossible for hockey players to show more heart or to “want it more”. It turns out that the reason why teams lose games is that somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose……and, in the playoffs, when both teams are good, it means that good teams lose games and series. Yes, it does happen – even when players are showing maximum “heart” and “wanting it to the max”. Oh, and if you ever hear a reporter say that a player “is not a good fit for the team’s system”, the reporter means to say, “This guy sucks.” Every team has the system of playing hard in all zones, getting traffic in front of the opposing goalie, not playing too fancy, looking for rebounds, and deflections, playing fast, playing big, being aggressive, and being positionally sound. If a player is bad for one NHL team’s system, chances are he is bad for the other thirty teams’ systems as well.
That said, if I were the Devils’ beat reporter this year, I would have probably already written 30 pieces on how the Devils are faster than last year and how they are better shooters and passers. Plus, I would have written a piece on how Cory Schneider should play no more than 80% of the games, because I have that belief for all NHL goalies. I probably would rewrite that same piece once every two weeks to fill space. However, I would like to think that I would avoid writing frivolous cliches just to fill space, but I cannot say for certain. I have not been in that position.
In the end though, I love hockey. It is my favorite sport. However, it is not the sport for Monday-morning quarterbacks. Those people can stick to baseball, football, basketball, and now politics.