Category Archives: NHL

Olympic Hockey is So Much Better Without NHL Players!

I have not been this pumped for Olympic hockey since 1994, the last time that NHL players were not allowed in the Olympics.  I realize that I am in the minority with this opinion, but I do not mind being in the minority on sports opinions. (See “Eli Manning”)

There are three major reasons why I dislike having NHL players in the Olympics.  I will list them now in declining order of importance.

  • I associate players with their current NHL teams. I cannot stop on a dime and change the players for whom I root for two random weeks in February, only for me to change back at the end of those two weeks.  This issue became most pronounced in the 2002 Gold Medal Game.  In that game, two players were on the ice for the full 60 minutes – Mike Richter and Martin Brodeur.  Yes, Ranger Mike Richter and Devil Martin Brodeur.  Yes, American Mike Richter and Canadian Martin Brodeur.

While I have written in the past about my strong dislike for the Yankees, I despise the Rangers a thousand times more.  I cannot stand the Rangers.  I loathe the Rangers.  Anyway, from 1993 through 2002, I watched countless Devils/Rangers games featuring Martin Brodeur and Mike Richter.  To that point, I had always rooted for Brodeur, my all-time favorite athlete, to come out on top over Richter.  However, now that the players were wearing different uniforms for two weeks, I was suddenly supposed to change for whom I am supposed to root?  Look, I agree with Jerry Seinfeld that, in sports, we are really always just rooting for laundry.  (Sidebar: I love Todd Frazier now!)  However, expecting me to overhaul my rooting habits for a mere two weeks in the heat of the NHL season (and then overhaul them back again) seemed patently ridiculous. Thus, I found myself rooting for Team Canada on that day in 2002.  I am not proud of that, but, given the circumstances, I find my actions defensible.  Meanwhile, this issue did not disappear after 2002.

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In subsequent Olympics (2006, 2010, and 2014), I have rooted for Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Patrik Elias on other countries’ teams.  Meanwhile, I have rooted against Rangers, Flyers, and Penguins on the American team.  In fact, there was no post-1994 Olympics – until this year’s – in which I found myself pouring all of my heart into the US Olympic men’s hockey team.  Once a player is playing for an NHL team, I associate him with that team, not with his country.   (Do not get me started on the World Baseball Classic, which will not “happen” until long after “fetch” “happens”.  Also, I would never root for Bryce Harper, Chipper Jones, or Derek Jeter!)  Plain and simple, my emotions are too fragile and my loyalty too deep to root for players one week, against them the next two weeks, and for them again afterward (and vice versa).

  • Having NHL players in the Olympics makes zero economic sense for the NHL.   Can you imagine Adam Silver, Roger Goodell, or Rob Manfred stopping his respective season at the ¾ mark so that his top players can play in an intense, physical tournament for which his league receives ZERO revenue???  That is comical….and I am sure that all three of these commissioners and their predecessors have laughed at Gary Bettman because of it.  Interestingly, Islanders GM Garth Snow took flak four years ago for blasting the practice of having NHL players in the Olympics.  Snow spoke out after Islanders star John Tavares hurt his knee in the Olympics and thus missed the remainder of the NHL season.  Snow complained that a player under an NHL contract should not play for another team, risking major injury and/or fatigue, during an NHL season.  Somehow, many people thought Snow was out of line for his comments, which confounds me.  Snow was absolutely right.  (Fittingly, Garth Snow was a goalie on the 1994 US Olympic team, the last edition comprised solely of amateurs.)

Of course, some people counter my economic argument by saying that the NHL draws more interest following the Olympics.  Well, my friends, that argument is baloney.  It is Grade-A baloney.  There is not a single person who watches Olympic hockey and thinks to him/herself, “You know, I did not watch the NHL before, but now I am definitely tuning into the Flyers/Stars game next week.”  That does not happen.  The NHL does not get a ratings bump off the Olympics.  People who would have watched the NHL continue to watch the NHL; people who would not have watched it continue not to watch the NHL.  It is no different than the situations with most other Olympics sports and me.  I love watching Olympic skiing, speed skating, luge, bobsledding, figure skating, curling, swimming, gymnastics, track and field, and slalom-kayaking.  What is the key word in that sentence?  “Olympic”.  That is all I am watching.  The week after the Olympics, those sports are all dead to me, as they are to many Olympic fans.  Likewise, this is how hockey is for Olympic, non-NHL fans.  These individuals tune in for Olympic hockey and then wait four years to watch hockey again.

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Given all that logic, why the heck should NHL teams be expected to expose their players to major injury and fatigue 5-7 weeks before the NHL playoffs?  It is asinine.  It is a major cost with no benefit for the NHL.  Sure, I know that players really want to be able to play in the Olympics, but that is life.  These players cannot have their cake and eat it too.  Plus, many of you know that I think the MLB season is too long.  Well, I certainly feel the same way about the NHL season, and having the players go to the Olympics makes the season even longer!  Craziness.  I am very glad that is not the case this season.

  • Lastly, I do not feel much American pride watching a team that has had all of one or two practices together suddenly play together in the Olympics. I do not feel much American pride watching a team that flies to the Olympics 3 days after the Opening Ceremonies and now plays 3 to 6 games together.  Both of these afore-mentioned scenarios describe the American teams of the previous five Olympics.  Meanwhile, if you have seen Miracle, you know that one of the joys of the 1980 American gold medal came from the adversity the team had to overcome over more than a year’s worth of training.  “A bunch of guys from Minnesota and Massachusetts” spent months getting over their differences and individuality to realize that they were playing for one team.  These players committed themselves every day for over a year to their teammates and to winning a gold medal for the United States.

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On the other hand, let us look at 2014. During the Sochi Opening Ceremonies, I was at The Rock, watching the Devils beat the Oilers in overtime.  Patrik Elias, Jaromir Jagr, and Marek Zidlicky suited up for the Devils that night, which is interesting considering that they were on the Czech Olympic team.  Similarly, the next night, I went to a bar in Hoboken.  On one TV, I saw the Olympics; on the neighboring TV, I watched the Capitals and US Olympic defenseman John Carlson defeat the Devils.  Thus, the Olympics had begun, yet most of the players on the top-8 Olympic hockey teams were still focused on their NHL teams.  Only a day or two later did the NHL Olympic players finally fly to Sochi, Russia, to commence their participation in the Olympic games.

It is very hard to get psyched to watch an Olympic team full of guys who were still playing NHL games during the first few days of the Olympics.  These NHL/Olympic hockey players spend little thought on their Olympic teams and gold medals before boarding those planes three days into the Games.  This does not exactly evoke memories of “Mike Eruzione…I play for the United States of America!!!”  Plus, some people claim that it is better to have NHL players in the Olympics, because Olympic medals are meant to reward the best players and best teams in the world.  However, in reality, it takes months for a hockey team to jell and for the cream to rise to the top.  The probability is relatively slim that the best hockey team will win the gold medal, given that the players have essentially no practice time, play three games, and then enter a single-elimination tournament.

Anyway, I have now listed and explained my three reasons why I do not like having NHL players in the Olympics.  Granted, I realize that many of the American players this year are not amateurs like we used in all of the Olympic Games through 1994.  Many of these players, like captain and Devils single-season goal-scoring leader Brian Gionta, have played in the NHL at some point.  Also, these players have not trained together for a full year or longer.

That said, at least these players been practicing together – as a team – in pursuit of a gold medal for a few months.  That is enough for me.  Plus, even if some of these players – like Matt Gilroy and Bobby Sanguinetti – did once play for the Rangers, it was a few years ago….not right now.  After a few years away from the Garden, I am able to erase the Rangers “stink” from a player, as I have with Devils Brian Boyle and John Moore.

This leads me to my last point.  In 1994, I had the pleasure of watching both the Devils and Olympic hockey on the same days.  That was one of the greatest thrills of my sports-watching life.  Throw in the facts that the 1993-4 Devils had their best season in history to that point and that the current Devils are now having their best season since 2012, and I am very excited to have a sports repeat of February 1994…minus Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, and a messed-up shoelace.

One Problem the NHL Faces in Today’s World/The Difficulty of Being an NHL Beat Writer

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Expansion Teams are Supposed to be Terrible.

Expansion teams are supposed to stink.  This is one of the basic principles of sports.  The New York Mets, the Houston Texans, the Ottawa Senators, the Vancouver Grizzlies, etc.  I could list bad expansion teams all day long, but that would be silly.  Therefore, I will stop.  Just know that, before 2017, every single expansion team in the history of the four major North American sports leagues had been bad.

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This whole premise makes perfect sense.  Fans of expansion teams are ecstatic to have a team.  These fans do not need a good team.  Having a bad team is better than having no team at all.  Therefore, a league can milk several years of good attendance out of bad expansion teams.  It is a tried and true formula.  Nobody would be dumb enough to mess with it….except of course the man who continues to value an overtime/shootout win the same as a regulation win, the same man who stopped letting teams skate around the ice before the beginnings of periods (because it would make sooooo much of a difference in terms of keeping the ice slick).  Yes, the man is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

During Mike Francesa’s last few radio shows, he interviewed Bettman.  During the interview, I heard Bettman say that the league deliberately let this year’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights build a great team because he did not want to deprive their fans of playoff hockey.  If ever there were an NHL version of an “Occupy Wall Street” protest, he probably heard this idiotic short-sighted idea there.  OK, OK, I do not want to get too political here, so I will use a different analogy.  Bettman essentially said that the 30-year-old guy who has been rejected by women all his life should now be handed a supermodel girlfriend.  That is ridiculous.  That guy is going to be happy being in a relationship with any woman.  As a society, we do not need to waste a supermodel (in limited supply) on this “happy to be with any woman” guy.

Well, in reality, the Vegas hockey fans are this 30-year-old guy, and the Golden Knights – currently in first place in the Pacific Division – are the supermodel.  Meanwhile, standard terrible expansion teams represent the “any woman”.  Golden Knights fans would have been perfectly happy rooting for teams of this low caliber, just as “the 30-year-old guy” would have been happy in a relationship with any woman.

You might be wondering how the NHL set Vegas up to have such a strong expansion team.  In the expansion drafts, teams were allowed to protect no more than 11 players.  This was different from the last expansion draft of 2000, when teams were allowed to protect at most 15 players.  This might seem like a minimal difference, but the change meant that many more quality players were available for Vegas to draft than for previous expansion teams to draft.  I do not like this.

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To me, it was a great story when the Ottawa Senators finally made the playoffs in their fifth season or when the Nashville Predators finally made the playoffs in their sixth season.  I was excited for their loyal fans to finally experience playoff hockey.  However, I am not pumped for Vegas’s fans to get playoff action in the team’s first season while loyal fans of teams like Carolina, Buffalo, Florida, Arizona, and Colorado must suffer through yet another playoffs-less season.

Moreover, when the supermodel eventually breaks up with the 30-year-old guy, that guy is going to be disappointed by all future girlfriends.  The same goes for Vegas’s fans, when the team regresses and misses the playoff next season.  Instead of Vegas’s fans getting 4-5 seasons of joy by watching a bad team grow into a good one, the fans get immediate gratification followed by inevitable years of disappointment when the team misses the playoffs.  Therefore, instead of 4-5 seasons of guaranteed large crowds, Vegas is guaranteed 1 season of a large crowd.

Classic short-sighted move by the NHL.  Expansion teams are supposed to be terrible.  This allows for expansion teams to do well financially for their first 4-5 years instead of their first 1-2 years.

Six Ways I Can Improve Sports

I think that most sports fans would agree that instant replay is usually a wonderful thing.  I think that most sports fans would agree that instant replay is occasionally a terrible thing.  I think that most sports fans feel that replay should exist to eliminate the egregious bad call that every TV viewer immediately knows is bad.  I think that most sports fans feel that replay should not be employed to use “super slo-mo” to overturn a call that looked completely fine to everyone in real speed.  In this vein, I have one major fix that we need to make to replay.  Following that, I will add two smaller fixes that also would serve replay well.  Following that, I will add three other fixes that will improve professional sports.  In the end, you will see six changes that can make your sports-rooting lives so much better.  Merry Christmas from me.

  1. With the exception of reviews of NHL goals, no replay should last more than one minute. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Dez Bryant, Jesse James non-Decker.  All of these gentlemen have been involved with high-profile receptions/TDs that were overturned to the chagrin of most viewers.  In the cases of Bryant and James (not Kobe and LeBron), many people take umbrage with the fact that the NFL requires players to “complete the catch to the ground”.  Thus, many people say that the NFL should take away said rule that a receiver must “complete the catch to the ground”.  I disagree with that general sentiment.  If a player makes a diving-catch attempt only to have the ball come out as he hits the ground, that should be called an incomplete pass.  The player did not “complete the catch to the ground”.  The issue fans truly have is when a player either takes a few steps while falling, juggles the ball while taking a few steps, or turns to dive into the end zone while repositioning the ball in his hands, etc…….and THEN loses the ball when hitting the ground.  These are the plays where everyone watching in the stadium or on TV thinks it is a catch….and everyone watching is livid when the “catch” call is overturned.

That said, it is tough to legislate exactly when it should or should not be necessary to “complete the catch to the ground”.  By the letter of the law, the guy who loses the diving catch as he hits the ground is in the same circumstance as Jesse James on Sunday night.  After all, Jesse James* did not technically have possession yet as he dove for the end zone, just as a receiver trying for a diving catch does not have possession yet when the ball hits the ground.  However, we all generally feel that the former is a catch, while the latter is not….but how do we fix this?

In my mind; since it is tough to change the “complete the catch to the ground” rule to cover all circumstances appropriately, we need instead to implement a “one-minute replay” rule…..and we need it in baseball, football, and basketball.  An official/umpire/referee should get one minute to watch replays.  That is all.  Within one minute, an official can overturn an obvious knee hitting the ground before a fumble, a ball short-hopping before entering a receiver’s or outfielder’s hands, a foot on or off the three-point line, a second foot on or off the sideline, or a “safe”/”out” call.  Of course, “obvious” is the operative word here.  An obvious bad call will be easily overturned within a minute.  However; if a call cannot be overturned in a minute, then the call on the field could not have been that egregiously bad, and we should stick with the call on the field.

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One minute would not have been enough time to overturn the Jesse James play, the Dez Bryant catch, or either of this year’s Seferian-Jenkins plays.  Needless to say, most of America outside of Massachusetts and Wisconsin would have been pleased to see these calls on the field stand.  Moreover, if you think we need this rule in football – with a 16-game schedule – then you know we really really really need it for baseball and its 162-game schedule.  Find me one person who wants to watch a five-minute replay to see if a base-stealer’s butt came off second base for a split second before his hand touched the base.  Stop it.  Nobody wants that.  Likewise, as a veteran of four years of umpiring in the Midland Park Baseball Association in the late ‘90s, I know that a first-base umpire is to listen for the sounds of the runner touching first base and the ball entering the first base glove’s pocket.  Whichever “pop” comes first dictates the call, yet now we are subject to five-minute soundless replays where we break things down to super-super-super-super-duper-slo-mo.  (Even if the sounds are actually the most reliable evidence in some cases)  Again, that is not the spirit of replay.  Replay is for Denkinger, Galarraga, and Beltran (in Santana’s no-hitter); it is not for the afore-mentioned garbage.

2) NFL teams should be able to challenge penalties. It is ridiculous that replay can take away ASJ’s seemingly obvious Jets touchdown and give the Pats the ball, while replay cannot overturn an egregiously terrible 50-yard pass-interference penalty.  It is my understanding that 31 of 32 NFL coaches usually turn down the proposal of being able to review penalties.  Bill Belichick is the only one who votes in favor of it.  Apparently, NFL coaches do not want to have to worry about something else, while Bill Belichick knows that, being so much smarter than the other coaches, he will be better than the other coaches at challenging penalties too.  I have watched enough bad coaches over the years to know that he is correct, but that does not change my view in the slightest.  Furthermore, I feel that the rookie coaches like Sean McDermott, Sean McVay, and Kyle Shanahan are much smarter than old coaches in terms of game scenarios (when to punt, when to kick a FG, when to go for the first down, when to kneel, when to tell the running back to stop before the goal line, etc.).  Therefore, they would probably be better at knowing when to challenge penalties too.  Regardless, nobody likes to see games decided by phantom holding, illegal-block-in-the-back, unnecessary-roughness, or pass-interference calls, and many of these penalties are game-changers.  Therefore, they should be subject to replay, just like anything else.

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3) NHL offsides should not be reviewable once the defensive team has possessed the puck.  I left the NHL out of the “one-minute replay” rule because the bulk of NHL reviews deal with whether or not a goal is legitimate.  In a sport in which a team scores an average of fewer than three goals per game, the league cannot afford to get a goal-call wrong.  Plus, NHL games have a fast pace and rarely last beyond 2.5 hours.  Thus, the NHL can withstand a few longer replays for a good cause.

However, it is ridiculous that a team can have a goal called back because the team entered the zone offside two minutes prior.  Therefore, the league should change the rule such that, when replaying a goal, the officials may watch footage back to either the moment when the puck entered the offensive zone or the moment when the defensive team most recently possessed the puck – whichever of the two is most recent.  This way, replay will continue to overturn goals on clearly-offside odd-man rushes.  However, it will eliminate most cases in which the offside entry happened well before the goal.  If a defensive team has had the chance to clear the puck but has not been successful in doing so; the defense, not the offside entry, is responsible for the goal.  Thus, the goal should stand.

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4) If an offensive player fumbles the ball into and then out the opposing end zone, it should be considered a loss of down with the fumbling team getting the ball at the other team’s 20-yard line. This is my proposed change for the Seferian-Jenkins/Pats and Derek Carr plays.  In sports as in life, the punishment should always fit the crime.  If the defense has not recovered a fumble, why should that team get credit for a turnover?  Furthermore, if the fumble goes out of bounds before the pylon, the offensive team keeps the ball at the 1-yard line.  However, if the fumble hits the pylon or goes out of bounds slightly beyond the pylon, the defense gets the ball.  To quote Jackie Chiles, this seems “capricious and arbitrary” to me.  My plan continues to punish the fumbling team, in that the next down takes place at the 20-yard line.  However, the team maintains possession.  If the fumble happens on 2nd and Goal, the next play will be 3rd and Goal from the 20, and so on for other downs.  If the fumble happens on a play that gains the first down, the next play will be 1st and Goal from the 20.  Of course, if the play happens on fourth down, the defensive team takes over possession at its own 20-yard line.

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With this change, the punishment will fit the crime.  The fumbling team suffers a loss of yardage, but it maintains the likelihood of earning at least a field goal.  That seems reasonable to me.  Also, I did hear Bill Simmons mention a similar idea to this in a podcast a few weeks ago, but I swear I thought of this before hearing him.  That said, I just want the world to be a better place.  If this rule change happens, I do not want any credit.  That is all Bill’s.  I will be a happy man knowing that society is better off.

5) In the NHL; the “delay of game” penalty for shooting the puck over the glass while in your own zone should apply only if you have possession of the puck. In other words – if a defenseman takes a whack at an uncontrolled puck, and the puck goes over the glass; that should not be a penalty.  That is not the spirit of the rule.  The rule is intended to deter players from deliberately sending the puck over the glass in order to get a stoppage in play.  If the player simply hits an unpossessed, loose (and often bouncing or airborne) puck; he is unlikely intentionally sending the puck out of play.  Therefore, that should not be a penalty.   Only if the player has control of the puck and shoots it over the glass should a penalty be called.

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 6) On NFL Sundays, there should always be at least 4 4:00 games. I don’t get it.  When I was a kid, there was better balance between the number of 1:00 games and the number of 4:00 games.  However, that was before DirecTV and RedZone and thus before we NFL junkies could reap the benefits of having multiple games at a time.  Nonsensically, now that we have these wondrous viewing creations, the NFL too often saddles my idol Scott Hanson with only 3 or sometimes 2 (gasp!) 4:00 games.  What kind of garbage is this?  There should be at least 4 games at 4:00 every Sunday.  4 is the minimum number of games needed, in my mind, to ensure that there is always something of some interest taking place in at least one game.  With 2 or 3 games, there is too great a chance of all games being in commercials or at halftime at the same time.  While Scott Hanson does a great job with that filler time, it is an inefficient use of his wonderful talent.  Even on a 6-bye, London-morning NFL Sunday, there are 9 Sunday-afternoon games.  That should break down as 5 games at 1:00 and 4 games at 4:00.  If we can achieve this 4-game minimum with 9 afternoon games, we can certainly achieve it during other weeks that have between 10 and 15 Sunday-afternoon games.  This past Sunday, we had 8 games at 1:00 and only 3 at 4:00.     Not on my watch!

 You are welcome, America.  I just made sports better in six different ways.

 

* Yes, I started a sentence with two Cher songs.  Yes, I am aware of it. Yes, I am very proud of it.

Hockey: Where the Outcome Retroactively Becomes the Strategy

The New Jersey Devils, off to a surprising 9-3-1 start fell on Tuesday night, 3 to 1, to the St. Louis Blues.  The Blues were one of the NHL’s top teams last year, and they are off to a strong start this year.  In Tuesday’s game, the Devils scored a few minutes into the game to take a 1-0 lead.  They would allow a late second-period goal and an early third-period goal to fall behind 2-1.  The last St Louis goal was an empty-netter in the final minute.  My takeaway from the game was that, while the Devils’ offense has looked vastly improved this season from last season, the offense is not yet good enough to handle a top-flight defense like St. Louis’s.

However, Devils’ coach John Hynes had a different takeaway.  After the game, Hynes said, “That’s a test of maturity, and I would say in tonight’s game, we failed the maturity test of understanding what it takes in a 60-minute battle against a top-five team in the league.”

Devils’ forward Brian Boyle added, “When you score in the first period, you don’t try to hang on to win 1-0.”

These two quotes are hilarious to me, and they are the ultimate proof why I am not the ideal hockey coach (even though I was one for two years).  If I were the Devils’ coach, I would have simply said, “The Blues have a great defense, and we could not generate many quality chances against them over the last 30 minutes of the game.”  Done and done.  However, that’s not how it works with hockey coaches.

Only in hockey does the outcome retroactively become the strategy.  Only in hockey is perfectly normal for a coach to say that a team must learn that it is hard to maintain a 1-goal lead for 58 minutes.  NHL players have been playing hockey since they were 5, but a coach can say that players have to learn to keep trying to score goals even if the team is up 1.  So silly.  I watched the full Devils/Blues game.  There was zero part of me that felt throughout that the Devils were resting on their laurels, trying to nurse a 1-goal lead, or generally trying not to score.  However, because the Devils ended up scoring only one goal, Hynes feels he is right to say that the Devils were not trying hard enough to score.

You do not hear this craziness in other sports.  You don’t hear baseball managers saying, “Yeah, we scored 2 in the first inning, and the players have to learn not to mail in their at-bats after that.”  You don’t hear NBA coaches saying, “Yeah, these players thought they could win with 55 points tonight, but they have to learn that even bad teams score at least 65 per night.”  This would be laughable, but it is normal in hockey.

My Hynes and Boyle quotes are not isolated incidents.  I remember hearing Ken Daneyko say two years ago during a Devils loss at the Rangers, “Hopefully the Devils learn some lessons during this game so they can play better tomorrow against Edmonton.”  Again, those Devils had been playing together for four months that season and had been playing hockey in general their whole lives.  Were there really great hockey lessons they were going to learn during that one loss?  Of course not!  Fortunately, announcers of the other sports know how dumb they would sound saying lines like that, so we are not subjected to Gary Cohen saying, “Hopefully the Mets learned something in their first two losses in Washington so they can beat them tonight.”  Pro athletes lose many games, but, in most of them, they really don’t learn large lessons.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the newest stupid hockey-cliche craze is that all teams want to “play a puck-possession game.”  John Hynes stressed that when he was hired as Devils coach.  It was as if, five years ago, hockey players and coaches had not yet realized that possessing the puck greatly  helps teams win hockey games.  Time and time again over the past five seasons, I hear players say things like, “We need to play more of a puck-possession game.”  Translation: “We need to have the puck more”.  Again, this is as silly as a football team saying, “We need to try to gain more yards on offense” or a baseball team saying, “We need to try to get more runners on base.”  Wow, brilliant.  It’s like hockey coaches one-upped Einstein with a new theory of relativity.

Anyway, all of this said, let me return to my earlier premise that, in hockey, the outcome retroactively becomes the strategy.  There is a reason why hockey coaches can get away with this practice.  The players buy into it.  Hockey players genuinely believe that, if they don’t score enough goals, it is because they weren’t trying to score goals.  They believe that, if an opposing player scores on a good shot, it is because their team “didn’t play tight enough defense” or “didn’t play within the system.”  Never mind that, if a team is much worse than its opponent, the “system” typically won’t matter.  That said, these mind games do work for hockey players.  If you make a hockey player think that he wasn’t playing hard enough offensively or defensively, that player (unless I am that player) will believe you.  I think I am the only person involved with hockey who does not believe these principles.

This also shows why I was not a great hockey coach.  In almost all games I coached, I thought that players were trying their hardest in all zones and were in the correct positions.  Likewise, in the NHL, players are typically air-tight positionally.  This means that I cannot and could not blame “the system” for things that go or went wrong. Therefore, I attribute(d) success or lack thereof on the ice to a combination of talent, execution, intellect, and a little bit of luck. When I coached, I knew we sometimes lost games because we didn’t make plays that we could have made.  However, I never felt like the team was not trying or was holding back.  I never felt the team needed to “learn how to win”, a cliché often spewed by hockey coaches, players, and announcers.  To the contrary, I assume that every team knows how to win.  The “knowing” is the easy part. It is everything that follows the “knowing” stage that is tough to do.  Unfortunately for me though, telling the players on a team that they weren’t playing hard enough, needed to learn how to win, or were holding back is a hallmark of a good hockey coach!  I guess I’ll stick with my day job of teaching…and my night job of writing for “Below the Belt”.

Lastly, I want to make one tangential commentary.  Only in hockey do announcers talk in every game about “what a great effort a team is giving”.  Usually, the announcer is talking about the losing team in this case.  (OK, usually it’s Ken Daneyko talking about the Devils…)  Again, in no other sport is this a discussion piece.  The Mets play 162 games every year, and I cannot think of a single time that Gary, Keith, or Ron praised the Mets’ or their opponent’s effort.  Granted though, that is baseball, and hockey is a much more grueling sport.  Therefore, let me discuss football.  All I remember are times when announcers criticize teams for a lack of effort (see “Giants vs. Rams”).  You do not hear NFL announcers saying, “The Bills might be losing, but they are really playing hard today.”  Of course, they are playing hard!  That’s the norm.  That’s the expectation.  In any pro-sports game, players are supposed to be playing hard all the time! That’s why the get paid.  That is not praise-worthy, but only in hockey do people render that praise.

The NHL is Great, but It Needs to Fix Its Points System

When I joined the esteem staff of “Below the Belt Sports”, the question was not, “Would my first hockey post be about my hatred for the NHL’s overtime and point system?”  The question was, “When would I write that post?”  After watching the Devils blow a 2-goal lead in the last two minutes and then seeing the team and fans act like everything was great after “winning” the shootout, I realized that the answer to the second question needed to be “Right Now”.

Let’s start though with the good in today’s NHL.  I believe that the NHL is a more exciting game than it was 10 years ago.  I am not basing this off stats.  This is purely from the eye test.  My eye test.  Compared to 10 years ago, the NHL currently has more speed, more stars, and more quality scoring chances.  In the media-crazed world in which we live, small-market teams are more marketable than they once were.  The excitement of the Nashville Predators’ run to the Finals is proof of that.  Additionally, as much as I have complained about the league putting teams in “non-hockey” markets over the years, the truth is that the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes are the only two teams that have never really become big draws in their home regions.  (The jury is still out on Vegas, but I think that one will work out just fine.)

Furthermore, to many people, the NBA and NFL are worse than they were 10 years ago, and this helps the relative appeal of the NHL.  Everyone knows the ratings are down in the NFL this year, and I am not going to belabor the possible reasons.  We all know the theories.  As for the NBA, I realize the Association is quite popular these days, but it is popular because of the soap-opera stuff.  We are roughly a month into the NBA’s preseason, and the preseason will end in mid-May.  Nothing that happens between now and mid-May matters unless it is a major injury to a major player on a major team (see “Hayward, Gordon”).   24 of the NBA teams have roughly no chance to win the championship, and there’s at least a 90% chance that either Cleveland or Golden State will win it.  Again, I know the NBA is popular.  People still tune in to see great dunks, great shots, great passes, and great Tweets.  The last item there is keeping espn.com afloat.  I swear that, every time I go to espn.com (wait, why do I ever go there?), half of the headlines are about tweets or comments made by Lebron, Durant, Curry, or Westbrook.

If you like that stuff, you like the NBA.  However, if you like seeing great competition night in and night out, if you like knowing that everyone in the league has a chance at the playoffs as of the start of the season, if you like games with fast action and few stoppages, and if you like a sport where at least half the league has a legitimate chance at a title; you are watching the NHL over the NBA.  Also, every second of a hockey game is riveting because there are 5 goals scored per game on average.  Therefore, a goal in the first few minutes could be the game-winning goal.  In the NBA, you can wait until the third or fourth quarter to tune in, because no point scored in the first half is that significant.

Anyway, the NHL should be the perfect game, and it is…for 60 minutes.  Then, overtime and the shootout come along, and it is a disaster.  From 1999 through 2015, overtime was 4-on-4, and I had no problem with it.  I actually loved it.  It was still real hockey.  After all, we are used to seeing 4-on-4 whenever there are matching minors or overlapping penalties.  By taking two players off the ice, 4-on-4 overtime served the NHL’s objectives of making overtime faster, more exciting, and more likely to produce a goal.

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Unfortunately, after the full-season lockout of 2004-5, the NHL felt it needed to make some major changes to win back fans.  While two of the rule changes were excellent (allowing two-line passes and preventing line changes when a team ices the puck), two of them have angered me and continue to anger me.  One of those is the trapezoid (“The Martin Brodeur Rule”).   Meanwhile, the one that most angers me is the shootout.  As of 2005, after overtime, games do not end in ties.  Instead, they go to shootouts.  Therefore, a great team hockey game is decided by an individual-skills competition.  For you non-hockey fans, this is akin to deciding baseball games by home-run derbies or basketball games by 3-point-shooting contests.  It just doesn’t feel right.  When the game is on the line, you should not change the game to a completely different game.

Therefore, from 2005 through 2015, I thought that the shootout was the worst thing that could ever happen to hockey.  I was wrong.  In 2015, the league changed overtime to 3-on-3.  Now, instead of having one gimmick end a game, there are two of them back-to-back!   3-on-3 hockey is not hockey.  While 4-on-4 maintains standard hockey strategy, 3-on-3 is just a bunch of basketball-like possessions.  One player can skate circles with the puck while waiting for his linemates to change.  There are a bunch of “offensive rushes”, but, since a 3-on-2 is considered a “rush”, the overtime is one never-ending set of rushes.  Therefore, the excitement of a rush is gone.  Plus, with so few skaters on the ice, it sometimes feels like ping pong as teams trade chance for chance.  It does not take that much skill to get an overtime chance.  There are six skaters on the ice; the puck is going to find you if you are out there.  Why do you think John Moore has so many points in overtime and so few in regulation?

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Furthermore, the league, in its infinite wisdom, has decided this year to have teams change sides for overtime so that it is a longer distance to complete a line change.  This means that players get more tired as they wait for an appropriate time to change, and it is more likely that people will deliberately skate the puck out of the opposing zone to allow his linemates to change.  I saw Erik Karlsson, one of the top NHL players, do it two or three times alone last night.  It’s a joke.  It’s not hockey.

At last night’s Devils game, there was a thrilling finish to regulation.  I was angry because the Devils had blown a 2-goal lead, but it was real hockey.  As soon as overtime began, my hockey gut realized, “Wait, if the Devils score a goal in this ping-pong tournament, then that erases the 2-goal lead they just blew?  That doesn’t seem right.”  I have never felt like shootout wins were real wins, and I do not feel like 3-on-3 wins are real wins either.  Therefore, something has to give.

I realize that this crap is here to stay.  I know that sports are a business, and, if 3-on-3 and shootouts are good for ratings, they are going to stick around.  However, if these gimmicks are going to stick around, the NHL needs to change its point system.  I am a huge Devils fan, but I feel guilty getting 2 points from a skills-competition win in which the team blew a 2-goal lead.  Likewise, I get angry when their rivals earn two points for the same reason. For those of you who do not know; when the league went to 4-on-4 overtime in 1999, the league created the “loser point”.  This rule means that teams earn 2 points for any win, 1 loss for an overtime or shootout loss, and 0 points for a regulation loss.  The rule has stayed as the NHL introduced shootouts and then changed 4-on-4 overtime to 3-on-3.

Therefore, the league correctly acknowledges that a loss is less “real” when it happens during a gimmick – 3-on-3 or shootout.  Given that, why the heck does the league not acknowledge that a win is less “real” when it happens during a gimmick contest?  I am not the first to suggest the easy fix to this problem, but here it goes anyway.  A team should get 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an overtime/shootout win, 1 point for an overtime/shootout loss, and 0 points for a regulation loss.  This way, each game is worth the same number of points; a gimmick win is appropriately valued; and you eliminate the ridiculous practice of rooting against games in your conference to go to overtime.  Seriously, how dumb is it that any NHL fan who knows math has to root specifically against games going to overtime?  It makes sense though.  Do you want your competitors earning a total of 2 points in a game or a total of 3 points?  The 3-2-1-0 system gets rid of this problem.  Every game is worth 3 points – either 3 go to one team, or 2 go to one team while 1 goes to the other.

This solution also eliminates two problems, one of which much has been written and one of which little has been written.

  • Teams, especially in inter-conference games, “play for the tie” for the last few minutes of regulation. This way, both teams guarantee themselves at least a point.  Now, with the 3-2-1-0 system, teams are motivated to avoid overtime to earn the 3 points.
  • This new system would actually make it easier to erase big deficits in the standings. This is the component that many hockey writers miss.  One of the reasons for the league’s preference for the current point system is that the league does not want teams falling too many points out of the playoff race.  Ironically though, the 2-1-0 system makes it tough to erase even 6-point standings deficits, because teams so easily and often earn at least 1 point.  By changing the system to 3-2-1-0, there is greater variance.  While teams can fall more points out of the playoffs, it easier to close gaps as well.  Any time a team wins in regulation while the team it is chasing loses in regulation, the team gains 3 points.  Therefore, a team could a six-point deficit in two games.  That sounds good to me.

 

Lastly, I hope nobody is concerned about what this change in points would do to the record book.  As it is, if you compare point totals now to point totals in 1999 and earlier (when overtime was 5-on-5; there was no loser point; and there were still ties), you are wasting your time.  The point totals now are already noticeably inflated from those days.  Who cares if we inflate them again?

 

Anyway, that’s enough for today.  The NHL is in a great place right now, but it needs to fix its point system.