Charlton's NHL: The Defence Rests

Rick Charlton

January 13th, 2002

It's official.

The barbarians are at the gates.

With the LA Kings, once 13 points in arrears of the Flames now only a single digit behind in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NHL's Western Conference, we can officially declare that its time to panic or at the very least return to basics.

Calgary is now at a critical juncture of its season, inconsistent in the extreme but playing only marginal hockey in general. The Kings haven't been playing well enough to claw their way back into this race - the Flames have basically presented them with a gift-wrapped opportunity, the latest present being a 1-0 loss in Atlanta.

Consistency has been the Flames biggest failure this season, the game they brought at the outset of the campaign now a distant memory.

At least in Calgary.

That same philosophy which seems to be eluding the major league Flames is only now coming into focus in another part of the organization, St. John, under the tutelage of second year man Jim Playfair.

"I really believe to be a successful hockey team throughout the course of the year - not for a game, not for a weekend, not for a period or two - you need a solid foundation and that has to be defensive hockey," Playfair told the St. John Telegraph earlier this week.

"You have to have players who are committed to both ends of the rink and understand that everyone is required to do that.

"We encourage our defencemen to jump up in the rush and battle for pucks.

"We expect them to work just as hard one way as they do the other. And if they don't, they hear about it."

As the Calgary Flames sink slowly in the West, their defensive numbers a shadow of their earlier excellence, it isn't hard to figure out where the problem lies. We said at the outset of this campaign, and the last one as well, that the Flames needed to establish a solid foundation of team defence in order to overcome obvious deficiencies scoring goals. Even the unexpected emergence of Jarome Iginla as the NHL's leading scorer hasn't altered that concept. The Flames have been one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL for five consecutive seasons. For a quarter of this schizophrenic season there seemed hope that trend was changing, Calgary hovering near the top of the league ladder in preventing goals.

But then the slide began.

The tailing off of strong team play seems to be coincident with one or all of three factors which all occurred within a week of one another - the return of Marc Savard, the signing of Roman Turek to a new contract and. . . . . . . . the absence of defencemen Derek Morris.

The latter has not gone unnoticed around the NHL.

"Look at Calgary at the start of the season," says Columbus GM Doug Maclean. "When Morris played 28 minutes a night, the Flames were a different team. Then he got hurt."

Flames have surrendered an average of 2.71 goals per game in the 21 games Morris has been absent, well up from the 2.38 average when he was in the lineup.

To put that into perspective, the Flames defensive start would have yielded 195 goals over 82 games. Their more recent pace in the absence of Morris would surrender considerably more, 222 over 82 games.

For this team in particular, that is simply the difference between life and death.

With the return of Morris now imminent it would seem the supply of excuses will have finally been exhausted even if the his absence is a genuine reason for Calgary's recent demise. The last five games Morris played before his injury the Flames surrendered 22 goals or an average of 4.4 per game.

If you haven't heard coach Greg Gilbert screaming through the Saddledome walls then you've at least read his thoughts on the matter - offence comes from strong team defence.

But the Flames seem to have grown bored with Gilbert's message. So we'll let Playfair speak again.

"We're not a team that's going to score a lot of goals and yet we still think we're going to hang around games by being solid defensively and committed to working hard," says the St. John coach. "Every team wants to play solid defense and every team wants to commit to that effort. But we want to make it non-negotiable. We want to make it a situation when you come to play with the Saint John Flames, defence is going to be a prerequisite whether you like it or not. We know we're not always going to have the most talented players and we're not financially able to purchase high-end help. That's fine, because we still believe we have a chance to compete every night in this league by teaching our players how to play solid defensively."

As happens in the minor leagues, the Baby Flames have been stripped of the championship calibre talent from last year, now building again. But Playfair is determined to give them a chance to win each and every night.

"If you compare this team with last year's team, it's a much different team talent-wise, but I think we're going to learn to establish the same type of work ethic," Playfair said. "Where it will take us, nobody knows but hopefully we'll be a solid defending team."

Meanwhile, in Calgary, players with more skill, more speed, more all-around ability, continue to search for ways to halt their now two-month-old slide.

But the answer has been there all along.

We'll give Gilbert the last word.

"They know what's expected of them, they've proven they can do it. Talking's finished."

"ONLY THREE HUMANS COULD HAVE PICKED out that sweater Ron MacLean was wearing: Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Jose Feliciano. Four if you count Don Cherry's tailor." - Frenchie McFarlane, a comedian, on McLean's loud sweater choice for CBC's Hockey Day In Canada.

THAT WILD 7-6 EDMONTON VICTORY OVER MONTREAL LAST WEEK brought to focus an obvious fact - it doesn't take talent to score a lot of goals. Just weak goaltending, plenty of soft play, no backchecking and a general nightmare for the coaches involved. The presumption has always been that a return to 80's style hockey has been prevented by the absence of talent around the NHL - most seeming to forget that the NHL went from six teams to 21 - 15 new teams - in only 12 years between 1967 and 1979 without adding a significant new source for players. The most recent expansion period, 1989 through to 2000 saw the addition of nine new teams while the political collapse of the Eastern Bloc of Europe provided a significant source of new talent. As entertaining as the Edmonton/Montreal game was for fans, particularly with the Oil coming from a 6-3 deficit to win, the participants saw the game for what it really was - bad hockey. "It was a wild one," said Edmonton coach Craig McTavish. "For those people who were around in the '80s, I'm sure they found that a pretty entertaining brand of hockey. But not anymore.'' The hero of the game, Jochen Hecht of Edmonton, with two goals and two assists, was even more blunt. "I don't want to play any more of those games,'' said Hecht. "One of those a year is enough.'' "Not a good game to be behind the bench," said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien. "I'm sure Craig MacTavish feels the same way." "I'm sure they're not happy with the way they played, but they're happy with the two points," said Montreal's Chad Kilger. "Us? We're not happy with the way we played and we're not happy with the result, either.'' And there's a reason you won't see a repeat of that game from either team. "You've got to remember," says Montreal's Shaun Van Allen "if I'm the guy making the turnovers, then I find my butt stapled to the bench. I don't know if it could ever go back to those days. As soon as you have games like this one, coaches will go back to defensive zone coverage. "I know what we'll be working on (today in practice)." Interestingly, as much as the fans might have loved the game, the participants, almost to a man, felt it was a lousy game. We'll leave it to Carolina's Ron Francis, waxing poetic on his 20-year career, to close the debate with comments made to Eric Duhatschek of the Globe & Mail this week. "Obviously the players have gotten bigger and faster, and the ice surface hasn't kept pace, so there's not much room out there,'' said Francis "The biggest thing, though, is there's no surprises for a player when he steps out on the ice now, not with the technology teams are using. They know exactly what the other team's system is, what their penalty killing likes to do, what their power-play tendencies are. Everybody is so well prepared. Teams can set up their defences to limit the scoring." And therein lies the dilemma for the NHL - entertaining hockey isn't necessarily good hockey.

"IT'S A SELLERS MARKET" - Ted Leonisis on the chances of the Washington Capitals acquiring help for his floundering white elephant. Leonisis feels the Capitals should stick with their five-year plan to win a Cup. "Unfortunately, there is no easy fix. It's the middle of year three. We're halfway through the five-year plan. We will not mortgage the future of our team by trading away draft picks and/or young players to get a player who will not be a part of the team's long-term future."

"THEY KNOW WE'RE READY TO WHENEVER THEY WANT. It's up to them." - NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman when asked the likelihood of starting negotiations with the NHLPA to avert a labour war in 2004. With NHLPA President Bob Goodenow nearing re-affirmation the odds of early negotiations are probably minimal. It was Glen Sather during the 1994 lockout who complained that Goodenow, a former agent, had only one consistent negotiating tactic - "delay, delay, delay," while waiting for the other side to crack.

"THE GAME'S CHANGED AND I DON'T KNOW THE DIRECTION ITS GOING. I think it's ever since they brought in the two-man system. It seems like a tug of war between the two referees out there with guys waving off other calls and looking at the other to see if there should be a call. The one constant is the standard answer: 'It's not my call.' " - Greg Gilbert in the heat of the moment after blaming referees for calling a fatal penalty at a decisive moment in an eventual 5-1 loss to New Jersey.

PARITY IS A WONDERFUL THING IF YOU LIKE A LEAGUE WHERE ANY ONE TEAM CAN BEAT ANY OTHER ON ANY GIVEN NIGHT. But parity by definition means that most teams are within a whisker of each other and that unforeseen circumstances or plain dumb luck can reverse hot and cold trends as quickly as they might have started. The Rangers were climbing unexpectedly to the stratosphere this year - then Eric Lindros, an early MVP candidate, went down with a concussion. And the Rangers went winless in five in his absence. "There's no question that Eric added an immediate dimension that we hadn't had here for years and years, and you could see how guys fed off of it," Ranger netminder Mike Richter told the New York Post. "With Eric out there setting that ferocious tone, that's what the team plays up to. I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying that. But at the same time, I don't want to give the impression that I believe-or ever believed-that we're a one-player or one-line team. Because I believe that we are a team with depth, we are a team with role players, we are a team that can rely on our support-players. If Eric is the main course, I do think we have some nice side dishes. But now we need to reassert that. We all have to do more." But that is a common theme around the NHL these days - most teams are only one or two players away from either the top or the bottom.




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