Few expected to see a smooth, skillful brand of hockey when the lockout-shortened season opened in late January after a week-long training camp, but many players, coaches and executives are expecting better things now that the quarter-pole of the 48-game season was reached this week.
"Erratic," was the word Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle used to describe the kind of hockey played in the first three weeks of the season. An informal survey of other NHL people produced much agreement, although everyone thinks a turn for the better is at hand.
"It probably hasn't been the best, but at the same time I don't think it's been that bad," Philadelphia Flyers forward Mike Knuble said. "Guys have to settle in, players are on new teams, and there are a lot of things in flux. Now that we're at the quarter-pole, things are shaking out a little bit.
"I might have expected more intensity out of the gate, but it feels like an 80-game season right now. You throw in the pace, travel, guys are tired already, guys have injuries, and it leads to fewer [good] games. But it's going to ramp up. You get another dozen games here and get to the 20-games-to-go mark and it's going to be great hockey."
There were a lot of reasons for the scrambled play, from players adjusting to new teams and systems, to a new approach to calling some penalties and plays, to playing regular-season games after just five days of training camp. It was assumed players who spent the lockout playing in Russia, Europe or the minor leagues would have an advantage over players who did not, at least in the early going. While that is true with some individuals (Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres credits his spot on top of the NHL points race to playing in his native Austria during the lockout), that is not the case universally.
Making the adjustment from the bigger international ice surface in Russia and Europe was cited by many players as the biggest problem.
"For guys playing in Europe, it was on bigger rinks and not as physical," said veteran Flyers defenceman Kurtis Foster, who played in Finland. "For the first week or so for me it was a huge change in feeling how small the [NHL] ice surface was and how much time you had. In Europe, you had a couple of seconds to make a play. Here, you have no time; you have to make it right away."
Foster also thinks many NHL teams simplified their games to accommodate new players or new coaches. That does not allow for much fancy hockey.
"Guys get meshed together so quick teams have gone to a more north style of playing," he said. "Make sure you always get [the puck] out, make sure you always get it in. The puck is always going north. Make the safe play.
"It might seem like a lot of pucks are getting chipped off the wall or dumped in, but it's a way of simplifying it early so guys can get used to playing together in such a short period of time."
Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates said he noticed certain infractions are being called more. There are more delay-of-game penalties, Oates said, because players are not in top shape yet or their skills are not sharp. Tired players tend to fire the puck over the glass, as do players who have yet to hone their shooting.
Oates also says players are having difficulty with the new rule that does not allow them to use their glove to cover the puck or bat the puck with their hand on a faceoff.
"It's hard for a player," Oates said. "He's been doing that his whole life and now he has to change and at NHL speed. That's hard."
Flyer centre Daniel Brière thinks some of the sloppy play would have happened even with a full 82-game season. He said the now prevalent overload defence, which calls for teams to have a minimum of three and often four players in front of the net, makes slick moves almost impossible.
"It's tough to make pretty plays in tight areas compared to a few years ago," Brière said. "You were playing one-on-one a lot. If you could beat your guy, you could take the puck to the net.
"Now there's so many people there you're not going anywhere. I think that has a lot to do with the scrambly play."