Acting or reacting when the NHL shifts again

Updated: December 20, 2016 at 1:02 pm by Ryan Fancey

There was a somewhat recent episode of the NBA podcast The Lowe Post with Zach Lowe that gave me a lot to think about with regards to NHL and its changes in era. The early portion of the episode centered around teams adapting to relatively new playing styles and systems, like that of the Golden State Warriors, among others, and how the league will respond (or is responding now) – sort of “correcting itself” in a sense. 

Put another way, it’s just a question of how things will shift to the next iteration of how basketball is played. The same can be asked about hockey, or any other sport, obviously. 

Here’s a quick snippet from guest Kevin Arnovitz from the beginning of the episode: 

“So much of the conversation about basketball in the last seven years has been spoken in economic terms; sort of “market inefficiencies”. Everything that’s changed about the game in some ways was influenced by this idea that “Hey, nobody’s doing this: What if we spread the floor? What if we take the associated benefits of shooting threes instead of twos? And so on…And in most economies, at some point there’s a correction: Like, everybody runs it that way, so now there’s inefficiency on the other side”

That’s just part of the opening segment – Arnovitz goes on to talk about this in much greater detail with Lowe – but I thought about how this sort of basketball conversation relates to what’s happening in hockey right now, and there are certainly parallels. 

The main focus of this talk was about how the NBA has (or had) evolved into a sort of “small ball” league where the classic big man at center isn’t exactly a must for winning teams. Speed, spreading the floor, and three-point shooting have taken precedence for many of the league’s contenders. But there will be another shift.

“Constuct a world and it will evolve over time. We can debate the nature of that evolution — whether it’s good, bad or just is. But change is irrepressible, and species that don’t respond to the conditions of that change eventually die out.”

You could argue that something comparable to this “small ball” movement in the NBA has been happening in hockey over the last few seasons, with the Blackhawks, Penguins, and Lightning, as examples, sort of setting the pace for the NHL and putting a premium on speed while getting away from focusing too much on size and toughness like teams did in the past. With guys like Tyler Johnson, Brendan Gallagher, Brad Marchand, and Johnny Gaudreau making their mark in the league, it really seems like we’re in the glory years of the once-considered “undersized” hockey player, and a lot of clubs are seeking out these types of players at the expense of unskilled big gritty forwards that have been a staple for so long. It’s hard to label this era with a cool-sounding name like “dead puck” or “clutch-and-grab”, but the two notable things about it are 1) the rise of small skill and 2) the difficulty of figuring out today’s goalies. [I suppose we’ll think up a name later. “Deflection Era” maybe?]

But the league will change again. It always does. And you have to wonder what it will look like in its next phase. What will be the shift that answers this shift? 

I don’t think anyone can answer that question here and now, but thinking about it made something clear to me about the overall approach to team building these days and whether we’ve reached a point of stagnation.

There seems to be a common thought out there that with a portion of the league adding consultants or full-on Hockey Research & Development wings to management teams, eventually all 31 will be on board with ‘analytics’, and things will then plateau since everyone will have access to much of the same information, and act similarly. 

But while it’s reasonable to envision, history has shown us this simply won’t be the case. 

Folks with far more knowledge of this scene in the NHL have expressed that hockey is far, far earlier in its numbers renaissance than sports like baseball and basketball, for example. There’s so much room to improve in this area on a league-wide basis, and the teams that commit to it earlier and in a bigger way will see the benefits of it. You don’t want to be five years behind in adjusting to whatever form the league is taking, you want to be the team making everyone else adjust. 

Even if you just bring aboard someone part-time to provide analysis based on what’s freely out there on the internet, that would be a nice step, but in that case you’re only now starting to explore what teams like the Leafs and Panthers started to dig into two or three years ago. And the scope of this goes further than just the NHL pros on the ice right now. You’re already seeing it with the way Florida bought up so much of the talent that created prospect evaluation tools so they can get an edge in the draft. The Leafs have reached to the far corners of the globe to unearth draft picks over the last couple summers, and there’s nothing stopping them from having the most prominent scouting network out there, if they don’t already. If there’s a counter-argument to concerns about making management and the scouting staff too wide, this would be it. Those market inefficiencies will always be there for you to keep finding.

If we go back to actual style of play, all of this sort of points to finding ways to create space in a game that doesn’t really afford any right now. Is there a team that starts to embrace the idea of “total hockey” that loosens the reigns on labeled positions? Something that drastic might be a while out, but any shift of that magnitude will have leaders of the charge and those scrambling to catch up. With the way teams have been setting themselves up over the last couple years, I know a few I’d bet on being the former.