In the aftermath of what could have been a crippling player lockout, all is sunny and light in the new NHL.
Rules were changed for the 2013-14 season to enhance scoring and conferences were realigned so teams could play in more geographically sensible clusters. A half-dozen outdoor games were scheduled to jump-start revenues. And even the long-standing financial black holes – Phoenix, New Jersey and Florida – have been revitalized by new ownership groups.
Sports Illustrated issued a plea in its hockey preview – Free Sidney Crosby – presumably from the shackles of the defence-first systems that have bogged the game down. But seriously, when the action on the ice begins on three fronts Tuesday, what are the chances the 1980s will suddenly rise up again in the NHL?
"No chance," Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith said with a small laugh. "No chance. You saw it last year, when goalie pads went from a 12-inch width to 11 inches, goal scoring actually went down. They are always looking for ways of getting goal-scoring up, but until they put in soccer nets, I don't think they're going to achieve that goal."
Smith plays for a team that might be the best example of what paying strict attention to defence can accomplish. In the last 82-game season (2011-12), the Coyotes made it to the Stanley Cup semi-finals on the strength of Smith's goaltending and a smothering defensive system.
They were not alone in adopting that approach. Altogether, five NHL goalies – Cory Schneider, Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick and the St. Louis Blues duo of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak – all boasted goals-against averages of less than 2.00 per game. Elliott, Schneider, Smith and Lundqvist had save percentages above .930 – historically low numbers.
By contrast, there were only two 50-goal scorers (Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin) the last time the NHL played a full season and only one whose numbers would have prorated to 50 in last year's shortened season (Alexander Ovechkin). Pure goal scorers are an endangered species, and Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett thinks he knows why.
"If you watch the game now compared to 20 years ago, you don't see nearly as many mistakes happen," Tippett said. "I do believe coaching is very strong, but the other thing is players have a lot at stake financially now. … Players work hard not to make mistakes and if they do make a mistake, they work hard to get the mistake back.
"The evolution of goaltending, and goaltending equipment, and far fewer mistakes in the game is the reason why scoring is down. We can tweak it however we want, but if you watch a game from 20 or 25 years ago, and see how many mistakes are made – the number of 2-on-1s, the lack of back pressure, the lack of back-checking – it is a very different game than now."
Tippett was a defensive specialist as a player and is a defensive specialist as a coach and finds his job easier than ever, thanks to a dramatic rise in players' overall hockey IQ in the past two decades. He says it's gotten to the point where even the youngest prospects are well-versed in the ins and outs of defensive positioning.
"I was blown away by the knowledge that these kids had just coming in," he said. "And that's just growing up with good coaching. If you watch minor hockey now, they're teaching structure, they're teaching systems. When I was a minor hockey player, they just taught you, 'Wherever the puck is, go get it.'"
With the NHL exhibition season now in the books, Calgary Flames defenceman Mark Giordano says he can't see much of a difference. Even with the new restrictions on goalie pads, players really can't find any more net to shoot at.
"For the goalies, yeah, they're making the equipment smaller, but they're still great athletes," Giordano said. "If you want to go back and say, 'We want more of the 6-4 and the 7-5 games,' it's never going to happen because coaching is just too good. And the systems are great and the players are all buying in.
"When you're caught out of position defensively, you definitely hear about it from your coaches. … Every team I've ever played for, defence is always the No. 1 thing," he said.
"What else can you do? Can you really make the nets bigger?"
Coyotes captain Shane Doan, who was instrumental in helping find a solution to last year's labour squabble, says he thinks it'll be hockey as usual once the regular season starts – no matter how well-intended the NHL's rule changes may be.
"You understand their ideas and their intentions," Doan said. "They're trying to make the game better, that's their goal, and we understand that. Every little bit is going to help.
"But I love the sport and I've loved it since I was a kid. I don't think there are too many changes that need to be made. I think it's still great now."