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Copy-cats, defensive hockey madness, Carlyle's brand of hockey and winning- and what will the impact be on Phaneuf and Kessel?

There’s on thing about the NHL:  for as long as I can remember, it has been, at least to a certain extent, a copy-cat league.  Sometimes it’s in small, subtle ways and sometimes it’s more obvious stuff. 

Back in the 1950s, the Montreal Canadiens were the “Flying Frenchman”.  They played offensive hockey, with flair- and lots of it.  There was an emphasis on speed, skill and deft puck movement.  Interestingly, the then woeful Blackhawks began to re-build their franchise with young players that fit the Montreal mold:  speed with a dose of power.  The Habs were not, in those golden late ‘50s days, just a collection of small, fast guys, however.  They had enough individuals with talent who were also tough (Bert Olmstead, Dickie Moore, "Butch" Bouchard, Doug Harvey, "Rocket" Richard, Marcel Bonin, etc..) to play any way you wanted.  But they had skill galore, including individuals such as "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, Henri Richard and Jean Beliveau- seen at right in early '60s action in Boston- who may have been the ultimate "complete" hockey player of his era along with Gordie Howe.

Eventually so did those Chicago teams under Rudy Pilous and then Billy Reay.  With Glenn Hall, Pierre Pilotte, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita centering the “Scooter Line” and some gritty players as well, the Hawks may have been, consistently, the best overall team of the 1960s—though they won only the one championship, in 1961.

In the 1970s, the Boston Bruins introduced a different type of post-expansion game.  They had skill, for sure, in individual stars like Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk, but they also played tough, often intimidating hockey.  More than just having one or two “designated fighters", they were team tough.  If you took one of them on, you had to deal with Wayne Cashman, Ted Green, Johnny McKenzie, Derek Sanderson and a raft of other equally obnoxious  and ornery guys.  The Philadelphia Flyers under Freddie Shero took the Bruins "model" to the next level.  They had their skill people, for sure, forwards such as Reggie Leach, Bill Barber and Rick MacLeish, but they rounded that out with the true “Broad Street Bullies”—Dave Schultz, Don Salseki, “Mad Dog” Kelly, “Moose” Dupont and many others who, led by swashbuckling captain Bobby Clarke (left), used their sticks liberally—and at will.  Not many teams even wanted to play at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia, much less did they have a shot at actually beating the Flyers there, backstopped as they were by future Hall-of-Famer Bernie Parent in goal (yes, the ex-Leaf…ouch…).

It took the Montreal Canadiens in the mid and later '70s to, in a sense, save the sport from falling into an abyss of endless bench-clearing brawls, (the kind of stuff that polluted junior hockey for years, unfortunately, as those players mimicked the pros and thought that was the way to get noticed and thus drafted…) and constant intimidation tactics.  The Habs combined fast, elite talent (Shutt, Lafleur, Lemaire) with those great defensemen (Lapointe, Savard, Robinson- see right) and a supporting cast that was very difficult to play against (Gainey, Jarvis, Lambert, Risebrough, etc.) and even tougher than the Flyers.  Those Canadiens teams could not only outskate the Bullies, they could handle them physically and outfight them if necessary, too.

Montreal won the Cup from 1976-1979, taking the shine somewhat off the Bruin and Flyer bravado- and their aura of invincibility.  Then it was the Islanders who did what the Habs had done, built a great team with toughness, yes, but a lot of ability and great coaching under Al Arbour.  (Billy Smith’s goaltending didn’t hurt, either, just as Ken Dryden's stellar play and Scotty Bowman's coaching were huge factors in Montreal's 1970s' success.)

But the rest of the ‘80s was the Oiler show, driven by a stunning collection of talent (Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Coffey, Anderson …) outstanding goalkeeping and some wide-open play—though they had their share of grinders, checkers and disturbers (Esa Tikkanen playing all three of those roles in one…)

This all leads me to the mid-1990s, when Jacques Lemaire’s (Lou Lamoriello's, really) Devils began to carve out another new era in the league. After the Penguins of Lemieux and Jagr realized that skill alone (like all those great teams before them that I've just talked about) was usually not enough to win a championships, they dug deeper, and won two Cups in a row.  They were led in part by Ron Francis, a brilliant talent but one with a defensive conscience.  Then, New Jersey started playing something that was eventually called “the trap”—an extreme version of defensive hockey that made for dull, if often successful, hockey.  Anyone could play it, though skill helped.

I remember noticing in that time period how the scores around the league were dropping. I wasn't smart enough to know precisely what was going on initially. But hockey was  moving inexorably from the Oilers' quasi “firewagon hockey” approach to something radically different.  Just about every coach and NHL team gravitated toward the Jersey model.  The Red Wings under Scotty Bowman employed the “left-wing lock”.  Each team played a version of that “system”, it seemed.  At least it felt that way, though some coaches, like Pat Quinn here in Toronto, still tried to see their teams play more of a hybrid game with a focus on offense.

Of course, we all know that by the time the lockout happened in the mid-2000s, the game had ground, if not to a halt, to a mini-standstill.  Clutching and grabbing had been allowed to slowly grow to extreme levels.  That, combined with confusing and ever-changing penalty standards, brought us to a modern-day hockey Alamo.  The powers that be determined, in their collective wisdom, that the game had to change.  Fans weren't going to keep watching that stuff, they figured.

They determined that, coming out of the lockout, more offense in the game was needed, with less hooking and holding.  Fans wanted to see goals, speed, open ice and passing.  The league changed the penalty standards and players had to adjust.

But now, we seem to have worked our way back into the muck of defensive hockey, eh?  This past season we saw the reffing standards (I should say the way penalties are called) collapse again.  Less penalties called , as the NHL became the “no penalty league” (NPL).  You could just see that grabbing and holding was coming back, slowly, into the game.  Ultra-defensive hockey was “the way” once again, not that it ever really left the building.

So now we sit with four teams left in the NHL finals, and each with a coach that is a demanding task-master.  It's somewhat startling to note that Peter DeBoer (of the Devils, of all franchises, which makes this statement ironic, I guess) is perhaps the least “trap-oriented” coach left.  Dave Tippett, for my money, is the best coach in the game, but he and Darryl Sutter push grinding, checking, shot-blocking defensive hockey.  It’s good, it’s great- because it’s successful.  Not always wildly entertaining, but it works.  John Tortorella has much the same approach, I think it's fair to say, in New York.  It’s not that he doesn’t like skill guys, he just expects everyone to play a certain way.

So why this long, backdoor history lesson today?

Well, Randy Carlyle is hardly a copycat coach, or at least no more so than the next guy.  We all know he won a Cup a few years ago in Anaheim.  Like most good coaches, I assume his thinking evolves a bit every season, as he adjusts to what it takes to win with the personnel at his disposal.  But his coaching philosophy, as much as I can claim to understand it, certainly falls in line with those who are coaching the in the "final four" this spring:  grinding play, defense first.

As we witnessed in the final weeks of the just concluded season, we can expect, over the next two seasons, to see a major change in approach from the Ron Wilson and Paul Maurice eras.  Not that they weren’t good coaches.  They wanted their guys to check and play hard, too.  But Carlyle is a guy that seems to be able to impose his will, somehow, a bit more than his predecessors.   He will expect—and insist—that his players block shots, fight for pucks and do the many little things that make a huge difference in winning games, especially at playoff time. (Whether he has many of the types of players he needs to actually play that way is a debate for another day...)

If DeBoer can get even Ilya Kovalchuk, a "superstar",  to play a more determined, even disciplined, all-around game, what can Carlyle achieve with players who certainly aren’t superstar talents, and are fighting for their jobs?  Surely the Leafs should be, as I’ve said here before, an “easy” team to coach- in that regard, at least.  Guys want to hold on to their jobs.

If Dale Hunter (not surprisingly, the now ex-coach of the Capitals) can push Ovechkin to block shots, accept (if grudgingly) less ice time and play an altered brand of hockey—for the sake of the team—what can Carlyle and company do with, say, Phil Kessel?

I wrote here a short while after Carlyle arrived that Kessel and he were on a likely collision course.  Whether they are, or will be, I’m not sure any of us really know for sure.  Both said the right things as the season wound down.  But Kessell is still a young guy (turning 25) who loves to play with the puck on his stick and score goals and make plays.  That’s what, right now, he’s really good at.

And while a lot of people may rue the end of the short-lived post-lockout offensive burst of “new NHL” hockey, we seem to have landed back where extreme defensive hockey had its roots (as I said above, there has always been a requirement for checking and good defense, but the Devils helped make it something we call a “system”…), with people like Ken Hitchcock running the show with a keen eye for shutting down the other team’s offense.

Here in Toronto, the die is cast with Carlyle on the scene.  Gone is the often entertaining “activating the defense” approach we saw early last season under Wilson.  What we will notice under Carlyle is what we saw transpire in Washington with talented offensive defenseman Mike Green:  take very few if any risks.  Only go if you are sure you won’t get caught.

Hey, this might make Dion Phaneuf a  better defensemen, if he doesn’t feel the pressure to be really good at both ends of the ice every night.  And I’m sure that the Leafs, a team hardly filled with superstars like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk, will ultimately embrace Carlyle’s expectations—or they will be gone.

Where Kessel ultimatly fits is an interesting and likely shifting dynamic, to say the least.  I don’t think he likes the Carlyle style of hockey but even Kessel must realize this is where the game is going yet again.  Even stars have to “buy-in”, as Jagr and Lemieux did in Pittsburgh under Bob Johnson, as Steve Yzerman eventually did under Bowman and Modano did under Hitchcock in Dallas.

At some point, Kessel will have to decide what his priority is.  He has spent three years as the “best” player on a, let’s be honest, bad team.  Every elite player will always want to be on a better team.  They won’t all say it publicly, but they do.  They want to play with higher-skilled, more talented guys.  But the flip side of the coin is that coaches eventually expect those top guys to do more than just score goals.

Kessel may never be a classic “leader”.  Maybe he won’t ever lead.  But will it be enough for him to be “just” a really good goal-scorer and offensive player?  Or will the organization, and Carlyle, insist that he be more than that?  And if they do, will Kessel embrace that notion—for real?  Or will he “kind of” commit- and then take advantage of his first opportunity at free agency to seek out a coach, and a team, that will let him play the way he loves best?

I guess we’ll see.


  1. It really comes down to if Kessel wants to evolve or not. The team is only as good as the players and coaches.

    You mentioned Yzerman, and most people have recently in comparison to Ovie, Hunter, and the Capitals. You adapt or fade. Or like Joe Thornton has been labelled by Torts (in reply to something Thornton said) "...he may be the best player never to win a Cup". Not to say Thornton and Kessel are the same by any means, but it isn't always how skilled a player is that determines his "merit badges" in the NHL, but rather how he adapts his skill to fit into the NHL.

    I have seen Kessel back check and play defense, happens almost as frequently as a full moon, which is every 29.53 days. And he normally has his best games when he plays as a complete player.

    I think Kessel will buy in to Carlyle and be rewarded for it. If he does the things he is asked and performs well enough, Carlyle will give him the ice time.

  2. You hit the nail on the head, Skill2Envy. It's a matter of "will". Kessel certainly can do it....

  3. If he doesn't improve on the defensive front and if all the top teams have adopted a defensive requirement in their "stars" play, then his options/value as a free agent may be limited. Hopefully he recognizes this and does become a more complete player.

  4. I think you may well be right, Ed. If even the "best" offensive players have to adjust, anywhere Kessel might go (at least on a competitive team), the expectations will be there that he play consistently at both ends of the ice.

  5. In response to Skills2Envy up there, I think Kessel has been evolving. Even just this last season there was an improvement defensively from him. My perception was that he started backchecking more and using his speed to get back and break up some odd man rushes the other way. Even more impressive, he did this under Ron Wilson who didn't seem to be overly concerned with defense. I think the problem wasn't so much his desire to improve as it was the teaching he was getting. This comment really applies to the whole team. I think if they have a coach that will actually teach them what to do and then demand some attention to detail we'll see a pretty huge improvement in defensive play. Thankfully, Carlyle seems to be that kind of coach.

    The other point is about when people say good defense leads to offense. This is true, I think for a couple reasons. If everyone is playing deep in the defensive zone, it means there are far more short-pass options when you do get the puck back leading to easier breakouts (and hopefully a lot less of that "to the line...but not out" business). Plus, by starting deeper in the zone you give the forwards a chance to build up a lot more speed out of the d zone and into the neutral zone before they get the puck, which as I understand it is the basic idea behind generating speed through puck movement.

    This would especially benefit Kessel. He does the best on rushes when he gets the puck already going hard up the ice. He gets the puck in full stride and just blows past guys. I don't think he was getting as many rush chances this year because a lot of the time he was cheating offensively which basically led to him getting the puck in the neutral zone almost standing still. I think a good parallel would be Ovi this most recent year. He went through a bit of a tough learning curve before finally seeing the benefits and buying in and it made him a better, more complete player. Hopefully Kessel will do the same.

  6. Solid post, Anon. I think Sill2Envy was acknowledging Kessel has played some defence, just not consistently enough and most of us would agree. That may be partly on Wilson, as you mentioned, though some of it is simply Kessel's lack of willingness to do the extra little things that make someone a complete player.

    I like your point about Kessel getting the puck while cheating and standing still. There's no question the guy is on top of his offensive game when he gets the puck in flight- and at the right time. Better defence from he and his line mates should trigger good offensive opportunities as well.

    Carlyle could well help Kessel with his overall game. It does come down to will, though. You can have a great coach, but like Alexander Semin, if you simply refuse to adapt, you lose ice time and ultimately your role on the team.

    Thanks Anon.

  7. Michael

    One of your better posts. As old BlackHawk fan, enjoyed your reference to Scooter Line. In my wildest dreams, I imagined myself as a Kenny Wharram type player (NOT).

    Your history showed that the strongest teams had a combination of skill players and grit players. They were not necessarily the same guys.

    As a minor hockey coach, I used the Islanders as my example with some success. First guy takes the man, the second takes the puck. While it is defensie hockey, it takes advantage of your skill players. This did not mean knocking someone thru boards, or fighting, or scrums in front of net.

    With league parity, it is apparent that the easiest way to win is with defense, but it means winning becomes a matter of who will be the beneficiary of the winning garbage goal.

    The resultant defensive hockey is extremely boring, and I have found myself less and less interested as the playoffs proceed. If the collapsing, shot-blocking style of the Rangers will become the style of the future, then hockey will no longer be the best spectator sport, but becomes like soccer which North America has never adopted.

    I find using $6 million offensive players as shot blockers rather silly. Skates are not made for blocking 100mph shots (foot fractures), and the chances of serious injury is always there even with visors. As great as Howe, Orr, Gretsky, Lemieux were, I can't remember them being known for their shot blocking. Hopefully, the Rangers don't win, and Hunter enjoys the nice life in the city of my alma mater.

    Based on what I am reading, I suspect you are correct in thinking Kessell is on a collision path with Carlyle. Expecting him not to be a goal suck and doing more backchecking is not asking too much, but becoming a grinder and shotblocker is like neutering Secretariat. From where I sit, I imagine he is on same path as Mahovlich was.

  8. Always good to hear from you, RLMcC....

    I can appreciate your reference to Kenny Wharram. Not a big guy but he could sure skate and make plays...

    I can't argue that the way the game is being played now is dreadfully dull. For sure players are working incredibly hard, but as you state, it's boring hockey.

    In "our" day, I never saw Jean Beliveau or Dave Keon, for example, leave their feet to block a shot. It's just such a different game now, and not always for the better.

    The Kessel "issue" will indeed be a fascinating one. Like Imlach and the "Big M;, as you cite, we'll have to see how it evolves.

    Thanks RLMcC.