Trending Topics: Let's talk about the quality of NHL hockey today

Connor McDavid isn’t appointment viewing? (Getty)
Connor McDavid isn’t appointment viewing? (Getty)

One thing old people love to talk about is how much better things used to be, and how bad they are today.

In a lot of ways, “today” is definitely worse, societally, with stagnant wages and an increasingly insecure, atomized and alienated population. But because this argument is really going to be about hockey, we can probably avoid the broad critiques of capitalism for today.

Instead, let’s talk about Alex Kovalev’s recent quotes about the way in which the NHL has changed and how it stinks now. I’m not sure I really agree with this idea, because when he says the NHL today is difficult to watch, what he means is that it’s different from how it used to be.

These are the same people who spent yesterday celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Trade that sent Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles, where he won as many Stanley Cups as I did. And these people lauded the 38th anniversary of the Miracle On Ice this past February, because 38 is the nice round number we all love to celebrate.

But let’s take a look at that Kovalev quote for the full context, because on its face, the argument is hard to disagree with.

Most of what he’s saying, it’s like, “Yeah man, let’s fix that.”

The NHL game is still dominated by old guys with old ideas about the sport who grew up playing an old-fashioned style built on the dump-and-chase and all that sort of thing.

Let’s take that Bylsma example. His playing days were in the height of the Dead Puck Era, when the chip-in play was how you literally had to enter the zone because almost every elite team was stacking five guys at the blue line. Bylsma also became a successful coach (with two all-time great players on his roster when they were in their primes, mind you) with a slightly more modern approach than what he played, but no one would have ever mistaken those Penguins as being some sort of ultra-dynamic club.

Look at some of the defensemen the best Pens teams of the Bylsma era used heavily: Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Sergei Gonchar (when he was real old), Ryan Whitney. Kris Letang really only started getting 22-plus minutes a night as Bylsma’s time with the Penguins was coming to an end, and he was still being paired with Martin. Matt Niskanen, meanwhile, averaged less than 20 minutes a night in his three-plus years with the Penguins.

Put another way, Bylsma was a very good coach for his era (the win-loss record and underlying numbers tell that story pretty convincingly), but was also very much of that era. The ways in which hockey has changed over even the last five years seems to have gobbled him up.

So yeah I’m not all that surprised that Bylsma was saying to Kovalev, “Stop doing the things we think of Alex Kovalev doing all the time,” and I can almost understand it to an extent. Kovalev only played 27 games for Bylsma, and when he was 37 at that. The game had already started to change insofar as Kovalev couldn’t do the things he probably thought he could do, and more to the point, Kovalev is probably waxing a little poetic about his heyday, which again, that’s not uncommon and to a certain extent understandable.

When Kovalev probably had the most free rein to do whatever he wanted on the ice — when he was in his 20s and early 30s — was the Dead Puck Era as well, and you have to remember that Kovalev was probably getting a lot of ice time against defensemen and defensive forwards who could barely skate backwards but were “hard to play against.”

The idea that there’s more dump-and-chase hockey today versus what was happening in like 1996 is psychotic. I dutifully invite Kovalvev to “watch the games,” and more specifically, watch a game not featuring the friggin’ 2017-18 New York Rangers, who played a relatively old-fashioned brand of hockey that really only worked from like 2009-13 with personnel that very much still fit that era of hockey when Vigneault Thought worked. And moreover, the guys Vigneault had carrying out his game plans were, by and large, not good. No one would have mistaken the Rangers for even a top-20 aesthetically pleasing team in the past couple years.

But to Kovalev’s larger point, yeah, we need to get the idea that the safe play is the often best one out of the sport. That’s changing naturally, because as I’ve said before you now have kids coming into the league who say they “grew up” watching Johnny Gaudreau, so we’re like five years away from them saying the same stuff about Connor McDavid, who has probably never dumped a puck in (besides when he needed to get a change) since he was 8 years old. Every high-end player coming into the league for the next 15 years is going to try to play like McDavid plays, rather than how, say, Crosby plays. The game is probably going to become more creative as a result.

More and more, the thought process among high-level players is, “I’m going to get the puck way back here and carry it 140 feet,” and that has a trickle-down effect. The “passing game” Kovalev misses today is likely disappearing because players are so improved, physically and mentally. The NHL now has the most talented player pool in the history of hockey and it’s tougher to make tic-tac-toe passing plays because guys are faster and smarter than they ever have been. The stuff Kovalev dazzlingly got away with in 1995 probably wouldn’t cut it today, in other words. The lanes that allowed teams to make three touch passes in the neutral zone get filled a lot quicker than they used to.

But again, it’s that old coaches’ mindset. How many times in the last few years have we seen guys like PK Subban and Erik Karlsson get criticized for a turnover because they tried something no one outside the top 10 percent of players in the world could pull off? How long did we have to argue that just because those two guys were really good offensively didn’t mean they weren’t bad defensively? And how often do we hear the phrase “gambler” applied to them despite the collective progress we’ve made in the hockey community?

I think coaches today, especially the ones who have come into the NHL in the last five years, are far more likely to give guys slack to make mistakes that Bylsma wouldn’t give Kovalev in 2011. But there can always be more, and I don’t know if it’s something that’s going to change anymore.

People decry the lack of scoring in the past few decades of hockey and there’s no arguing it’s down from the high-flying days of the mid-80s, when baby boomers were watching games with their Gen X kids and poisoning their brains forever about “This is what hockey should be like.” Maybe if there were still only 20 teams or whatever, scoring would be up because it would just be the top 400 players in the world playing each other six times a year.

But as always, if you want to blame anything for the decline in scoring, blame the rise of goaltending as an actual science instead of something with little to no coaching. That started in the 90s, bud. At the same time, the reverberations of coaches choosing to become ultra-conservative in the Dead Puck Era are still being felt.

Justin Bourne wrote something for the Athletic this week about how the league is changing to emphasizing skill (which is good!) but that the Leafs might have “over-corrected” by dumping every guy who might be mistaken for a refrigerator on skates and basically going with as much of a “skill-only” lineup as they can. It struck me as absurd.

The idea that a team can have “too much” skill is, of course, silly and if the Leafs don’t live up to the hype this year (i.e. if they don’t at least make it to seven games in the second round of the playoffs against the Lightning) that will certainly be cited as the biggest reason why. They’re trying something and it might not work out right away, and it’s bold enough that people are gonna be mad about it, insofar as “having a lot of good-to-elite scorers” is bold.

Maybe it’s not the best example because of how good he is and his general style of play, but didn’t Sid Crosby in the Olympics kinda prove that you can get high-talent players to excel at a 200-foot or even shutdown game if you get the right buy-in? And didn’t Kris Draper in the Olympics kinda prove that just because you’re good at being a shutdown guy in certain situations that doesn’t mean you’re going to help a team succeed if it’s not built properly? Put another way, I’d rather have skill guys playing fourth-line minutes than guys who only play defense-first. I’m not sure you can make a legit statistical case that “shutdown” guys actually prevent as many goals as people think they do. Moreover, whether you win 5-4 or 2-1, you still win, and the margin for error increases as you score more goals.

I’ve said it before, but the game we watched even three or four years ago really doesn’t work today as the league gets faster. Five years from now, I’d imagine today’s brand of hockey will be almost unrecognizable as more “Coke machine”-type players, almost all of whom are already 30-plus anyway, get filtered out.

If we don’t welcome the Leafs’ kind of experimentation, and tsk-tsk any attempts to get smaller, lighter, and faster in the sport, then won’t we be stuck forever with the same kind of hockey people have been grumbling about for decades?

Perhaps this is a thing we all fall prey to. Thinking back to our younger and more vital years and having no way of connecting the things we see in our golden years, such as they are, to what we see when we’re young.

If — barring the kind of predictable large-scale ecological disaster toward which society now seems to be barreling with grim determination — I’m still writing about “Ah, when the Leafs signed Tavares in July 2018, those were the days…” in the mid-2040s, I would hope someone would come along and put me out of my misery.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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