Charlton's NHL: Speed Kills?

Rick Charlton
April 12th, 2002

It was the reprieve Gary Bettman had been praying for.

Abused, bruised and tatooed after the Olympics, with critics whining about a return to the NHL after witnessing the mesmerizing quality of hockey in Salt Lake City, the besieged Bettman was nothing more than a speedbump for the freight train of negative invective being hurled the way of the Original 30.

The great debate calling for the removal of the red line, contraction, hurry up faceoffs, etc. was on in full frenzy with the verdict unanimous that the resumption of the NHL schedule was an affront to the senses.

It was decided the NHL game, infected with mostly minor leaguers, needed a massive overhaul.

And then Shanahan followed by Wayne Gretzky, a 15-year active veteran and the recently retired greatest of all time, stepped forward to spout blasphemy.

"I don't think there's ever been a time in the league where there's been more skill," said the wide-eyed-with-innocence Shanahan on the NHL's conference call earlier this week, stunning many of journalists listening who believe the NHL is not only diluted, but also polluted with no-talent paluka's.

"Even back in the high-flying days, in the late 1980s and the early '90s when there were 10 to 12 50-goal scorers in the NHL. If you watched those games, those teams just cannot compare to the hockey that's being played right now."

But Shanahan wouldn't shut up there.

"I think the big difference is rather than rounding out the third and fourth lines with grinding players who are looking to fight and take penalties and put teams on the power play, you've got these great-skating European players or great-skating North American players."

Fancy that. Not only skill, but also skill through four lines. Depth.

Shanahan, who started in 1987-88 and was front and centre for the high-flying 80's and current low scoring double nought era, should be considered an expert witness for the defence.

A few days later, the Great One, who dominated the 80's as no player has ever dominated a single decade, inadvertently agreed with Shanahan while praising the 51-goal season of Flames Jarome Iginla.

"Fifty goals in this day and age is really unique," Gretzky said. "With the players we have - and I say this with respect to everybody who played in the 1970s and 1980s - but the game is so much better today. The players are so much more prepared, the coaching is at such a different level. It's difficult to score 50 goals.

"I'm not trying to diminish what happened in the '70s and '80s. I'm just saying it's a progression. The sport gets better. The game gets better. As good as it is today, 10 years from now, it's going to be better than it is today. It's as simple as that. That's a fact."

"These young players, the Gagnes and Iginlas, they're bigger and stronger, and they get better every year," Gretzky said. "That's what it's all about - and I don't have any problem with that. I think that's great for our game."

There is truth in the words of both Shanahan and Gretzky and you need look no further than the Flames for confirmation.

Shanahan's words, in fact, indirectly speak volumes for the recent success of emerging Calgary superstar Iginla, who might himself be coming to the awareness that his old centre, Marc Savard, nifty of hands but not necessarily swift of feet, might have been slowing him down in today's super-charged NHL.

"Jarome has definitely benefited from playing with Connie (Craig Conroy)," Flames coach Greg Gilbert told the Calgary SUN. "He's elevated his game to the speed that Craig plays at. That's just added to Jarome's game."

The prime-time jerk in me can't help but interpret Gilbert's comments as meaning that Savard, while skilled and competitive was simply slowing Iginla down.

The fact the Flames are deliberately trying to add high-octane speed to their overall lineup, but centre in particular, should not be lost on a casual observer. Nor should the fact that the slowest center they have, Savard, also happened to struggle profoundly within the system being employed in Calgary.

And Conroy, one of the faster skaters in the league, flourished.

"People ask me what's been right this year," said Iginla. "I know I've got a lot of breaks and one break was playing with him (Conroy). He was ready to break out and I was fortunate enough to play with him. He's been a huge reason for our team's success. He's one of the best defensive players in the league. Playing with him, you don't have to play a lot in your own zone. You can always take a few more chances. He's been a huge reason for myself reaching the 50. He's been fun to play with."

In today's NHL, speed kills. And Pat Quinn of Toronto, for one, says the NHL has never been as fast as it is today.

"We were stand-around players in the seventies and sixties," Quinn said earlier this year. "Skating has picked up. The kids are lot better skaters (today) because they have to move. They spend more time learning that craft. The game is moving faster now. There are more good skaters than there were 25 years ago. The general skill level in skating has really improved in Canada."

But speed works both ways. A fast lineup simply means a defensive minded team is better able to play the trap. In fact a fast lineup is also one which can slow a game to a crawl, something that Shanahan, for all his earlier praise, has also noticed.

"Now we are playing against (teams) that send one guy in and has four guys back; that's the style of play that coaches employ," Shanahan said. "It's not lack of skill or anything like that. It's just that you can't teach a guy how to score. You can teach a guy how to play defense, and right now, that seems to be the safest bet for most teams, is stack them up at their own blue line and send one guy in. That's the style that's coming on."

And that will be the focus of rule changes the NHL may implement next season, the purpose being to lessen hooking, holding and general obstruction in the neutral zone, thus allowing players to generate speed through centre ice.

The result, if successful, will be a nightmare for defencemen.

Consider the dazzling Mike Comrie goal in Edmonton's 3-0 win over Phoenix the other night. While most would hang the "goat" label on Phoenix defenceman Radoslav Suchy, who allowed Comrie to blow right by him with no more than a hand wave, the truth is the speed to catch Suchy flat-footed was generated in the neutral zone when the Phoenix forward responsible for impeding Comrie disappeared.

The result was an uneven confrontation between Suchy and Comrie.

If the rule changes to be implemented next season provide the intended result, defencemen will likely find themselves facing many more rushes like that generated by Comrie.

And the speed and skill that Shanahan, Gretzky and Quinn speak of, may finally be unleashed.

Will more scoring be the result? Possibly.

But we also saw coaches in the Olympics reacting to a similar situation. Could anyone fail to notice that Canadian defencemen were playing far further back in the latter stages of the tournament than they were against Sweden as one example. Will that create more room in the neutral zone or simply cause coaches to command forwards to pull back even further?

And it was Larry Robinson, then coaching the New Jersey Devils earlier in the year, who scoffed at the notion of allowing opposition skill players a free ride to the net.

In addition, we've seen promises of a crackdown on hooking and holding before. Here in October and gone in December.

Change will not be easy.

As Gretzky, Shanahan and Quinn noted, the on-ice product of the NHL isn't in the rough shape its critics blindly describe. But that's not to say everything is perfect either.

The NHL needs to find a balance between the two extremes, to unleash the gifted players that Shanahan and Gretzky describe, while equally recognizing the right of coaches to figure out diabolical ways to stop them.

The end result should be a better league for everyone.

"SOMEBODY ASKED ME, SHOULD WE MAKE THE NETS BIGGER? I don't believe in that. I love the history of our game. I love the fact that a hat trick means the same today as it did 10 years ago. By making the nets bigger, that takes away all the history of our game. I don't believe in that. Make the goalie equipment smaller. That might be the first step in the right direction." - Wayne Gretzky, pontificating on ways to increase scoring.

"EVERY TIME I SIT DOWN AND THINK ABOUT how this is the first time Pittsburgh is out of the playoffs in 12 years, I feel ashamed," he said. "That's something you don't want to be part of." - Johann Hedberg, Penguins netminder.

``I HAD A LOT OF THINGS ON MY MIND. "I wasn't where I wanted to be as far as my play and I wasn't producing for the team and it was tough. I was getting advice from everybody I knew. Friends would call me all the time. I would talk to my family and they would all tell what they thought was best for me. It got to the point where I knew that I was going to have to get through everything myself.'' - Vincent Lecavalier. The 21 year-old is finally taking responsibility for his own attitude and seems to be settling down in Tampa Bay, playing some terrific hockey down the stretch as well. Talk of trading Lecavalier should die out this summer.

"WE WANT OFF THE FRONT ROW OF THE DRAFT." - Tampa GM Jay Feaster saying the novelty of annually being near the top of the draft order is beginning to wear off. Tampa has drafted eight of the last ten years in the top ten.

''WE'VE SAID THAT IF THIS IS THE SUMMER to spend $4 million or $5 million on a player, we'll do that. Just to overpay a player whom you want to keep doesn't make any sense. But if there's players who can help us, we're willing to spend that money. Trades are the first thing we're going to have to look at. We've acquired plenty of assets. We have some young (prospect) defensemen who are appealing to other teams.'' - Atlanta GM Don Waddell talking of his off-season plans.

"I'M NOT GOING TO SAY NAMES, but I had this experience with one coach in the NHL. He said, 'You're going to play defensively.' I said, 'You know what? OK, I'll do it.' So I started to play defensively and I stopped scoring. He comes to me and says, 'Hey, are you going to score?' I said, 'No, you told me I don't have to score.' He said, 'No, no, go back to scoring." - Pavel Bure of the New York Rangers.

"NO MATTER WHAT SPORT YOU'RE IN OR WHAT LEAGUE YOU'RE IN, the purpose of the schedule is equality in competition, that's what you're trying to do. If everybody played everybody on an equal basis, the same number of games, that's the way the playoffs should be. The way it is now, a lot depends on your schedule and who you play." - Anaheim assistant coach Tom Watt, saying an unbalanced schedule creates inequalities - with some teams having an easier schedule than others - in determining who does and doesn't make the playoffs in the NHL.

''THERE ARE SO MANY VARIABLES THAT GO INTO WINNING. The guys have to like each other. They have to respect the coach. The coach has to give the players a game plan that fits with the talent level of the team. If you're missing one of those things, you're going to have a long year.'' - Boston GM Mike O'Connell.