Monday, June 02, 2008

Mirtle vs Wyshynski
Do the Red Wings get a pass for boring hockey?

And now for something a little different...

James Mirtle is a staffer at The Globe and Mail and a hockey blogging pioneer. Greg Wyshynski is the editor of Yahoo! Sports' Puck Daddy blog.

The only thing they can agree on is that they disagree more often than not.

Their debates about hockey and life in general will be published here every Thursday, following this special edition. Here begins rhetorical warfare …

WYSHYNSKI: So I understand you have a bone to pick regarding the following slice of fried gold from Puck Daddy:
If this were Nashville or Washington, we'd be on the verge of rewriting the rulebook to ensure this sort of defense was banished from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, despite its utter legality. But certain teams are praised for great defense, and other franchises are demonized. Remember: The Rangers play quality positional defense, but the Devils trap. That's just the way it is.
Is there even a debate here? "Left wing lock," "positional defense" — were labels like that ever created for the Devils, the Panthers or the Wild? Nope. They were trap, trap and trap. Even if you want to argue the nuance in what is or is not a neutral zone trap, the bottom line is that defense-first hockey is defense-first hockey. Certain franchises are seen as dregs who can't win without water-skiing behind faster, better teams; glamour franchises like the Red Wings are seen as reinventing the Winged Wheel when they're just playing force-the-turnover-and-counterattack like the Lemaire Devils did.

MIRTLE: Comparing this year's edition of the Red Wings to the 1995 Devils, or 2000-08 Wild, is utterly ridiculous. Detroit's the highest scoring team in the postseason (3.30 goals per game), finished third best during the season (3.04) and had been lethal on the power play all year.

The Wings also had the league's fourth and eighth leading scorers during the season. The fact is that every team that made the postseason this year plays some variation of the trap — at least when they're leading in a game. That Detroit can be as suffocating defensively as they are and lead the league in scoring?

All you can do is tip your hat to that.

WYSHYNSKI: Oh, but I do tip my hat to that, James. They're an exceptional defensive team. But look back at the 2000 Devils, who were second in the NHL in goals with 251; in the 2000 Stanley Cup finals, you have media like ESPN claiming they're the team that does "all the little boring things that make them tough to beat." Or blogs that say Larry Robinson "won a Stanley Cup as Devils’ coach in 2000 employing a tight-checking defensive style which is not conducive to the new NHL 'more goals = more viewers' philosophy."

The fact is that teams like Detroit and Pittsburgh are offensively talented like the 2000 Devils and play the same kind of defensively responsible games. But they're glamour franchises — through recent or long-term history — so we read about how their "style of play will certainly be a welcome change after years of watching teams like New Jersey reach the finals by playing boring, cautious hockey. The Red Wings and Penguins are both conscientious defensively, but they're not afraid to initiate the attack."

Alexander Mogilny and Scott Gomez were afraid to initiate the attack?

The 2000 Devils may be a special case because Lemaire's teams were, by and large, a little tedious to watch years before that. But you and I both saw Game 2 of this year's finals, and the Red Wings managed to strangle the joy out of not only hockey, but life in general. Valtteri Filppula scored a top of the highlight package goal, and half the viewership missed it because they were mid-yawn. It was tedious, and it was tedious because of the Wings' defense.

My original point stands: Another team whose roster isn't dotted with Datsyuk and Zetterberg and Holmstrom and Franzen would have been killed for sucking the life out of the finals and not allowing Pittsburgh's stars to shine.

Michel Therrien's obstruction whining would have been a call to arms for the referees had this been the Minnesota Wild in the finals instead of the Wings. Detroit, however, gets a pass.

MIRTLE: The thing about the Red Wings is that they're incredibly efficient — good at limiting chances while getting a ton of their own. But I honestly can't attribute that to obstruction.

Is the answer to upping the entertainment value to call more phantom hooks and holds on players like Lidstrom and Datsyuk, two of the least-penalized stars in the NHL? Could you not argue that this is a better skating team than those old Devils clubs, and they are therefore able to limit space without obstructing opponents?

A lion's share of the blame for unentertaining hockey in Games 1 and 2 goes to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were so tepid and limp that the majority of Western Conference playoff teams would have run them over. I've seen some great, entertaining matchups with Detroit this season (heck, whenever the Blackhawks were up), which is something that can't be said for, let's say, Alain Vigneault's Canucks.

WYSHYNSKI: So the case that you're making is that there are entertaining teams that strangle opponents defensively, and there are boring teams that strangle opponents defensively.

I still don't entirely agree, because as much as Minnesota can light a crowd on fire with a speedy offensive counterpunch, they're still going to get the "boring Lemaire trap trapity trap trap" nonsense. At no point has Detroit ever been hit with these slurs, even when they help create one of the single most boring Stanley Cup finals games in recent memory. I think for the majority of the MSM, it's heresy to claim that the team of Fedorov and Yzerman can be as tediously defensive as any garden variety NZT team.

MIRTLE: What's the difference between strangling opponents defensively and plain old good defence? Is there one anymore?

I think one of hockey's dirty secrets is that all of the great teams have essentially become trap teams. I agree with what Tom Benjamin said during the Dallas series — a big reason Detroit
is boring is they always turn the other cheek, not that they obstruct.

The Ducks of 2007 were a defensive team, but a tough one with players like Pronger that are easy to dislike. The Red Wings' style doesn't make them a good fan favourite or a villain. They're the embodiment of their leader, Captain Boring.

WYSHYNSKI: "One of hockey's dirty secrets is that all of the great teams have essentially become trap teams." And with that, I shall declare victory in the first episode of "Mirtle vs. Wyshynski!" Detroit is one of those dastardly, evil defensive teams that we simply must rid our dear sport of by changing the rules and enlarging the nets to volleyball regulation size! It's just that they're the Wings, so even when they bore, they'll never be booed by their big-market, glamour franchise cheerleaders in the MSM.

Any last words, loo-zer?

MIRTLE: What a warped and wild world it must have been to grow up a Devils fan. I'd take watching these Wings dismantle an overmatched Eastern Conference team over those coma-inducing prelockout finals any day.

And I'm not so sure even volleyball-sized nets could save these Penguins — they'd still have to find a way to get their sticks on the puck to score.

Tough way for you to go out in this one; better luck next time?

Greg and I both owe huge thanks to Stephen Slesinski and The Pensblog for the beautiful logo at the top there. Steve's a terrific artist, and I'm sure he's for hire if you need graphic design work.

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At 4:09 p.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous PPP said...

So Mirtle's a Bruins fan?

Also, Wyshynski 1 - Mirtle 0.

In the words of David Spade "The 2008 Red Wings were great the first time I saw them win the Cup when they were called the 2000 Devils."

Good feature though. Looking forward to seeing more of it.

At 4:32 p.m., June 02, 2008, Blogger Hallock said...

I enjoyed reading this in light of the Edmonton article calling for Zetterberg's execution in the penalty box basically on the basis of obstruction.

At 4:54 p.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whatever the label, it's boring hockey.

I can see why the Wings are having trouble drawing fans. They're unwatchable.

But the Pens are a disgrace. If I'm Fred Shero's kid, I'm putting my money into the kids who've got moxy like Crosby, Staal, Talbot and Fleury, and maximizing my trade value this off-season for Evgeni Kovale,,,,errr,,,,Malkin.

He's got "Joe Thornton" written all over him: Brilliant in the meaningless 82-game exhibition season but a disappearing act of David Blaine proportions when it matters.

Also, I'd bet Therrien's odd deployment of Crosby in these Finals will be part of the exit interview with the GM, whereupon Coach Numbnut will be fitted with a short leash for next year.

At 5:02 p.m., June 02, 2008, Blogger Costa said...

Having watched both, I find it ridiculous to claim this incarnation of the Wings as playing the same style as the trapping Devils.

Besides, the 2000 version of NJ is the exception. They were the most offensive-minded team they fielded in since the 90's, and that's still more of a defensive team than that of this year's Red Wings.

* Shots on goal
2000 Devils: 2717
2008 Wings: 2820

* PP%
2000 Devils: 20.1
2008 Wings: 20.8

The bottom line is Wyshinski's trying to prove a point by comparing to the exceptional case, and while close, that exceptional case still comes a little short. When you compare to the overall rule which is what one is supposed to do, the comparison is no longer all that close.

At 6:09 p.m., June 02, 2008, Blogger James Mirtle said...

So Mirtle's a Bruins fan?

There's no way you're too young for Cam Neely.

At 7:08 p.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with the assertion that this series hasn't been extremely affected by the hooking and holding that being let go. I'm seeing massive amounts of it in these finals. Not as obvious as in the pre-lockout days, but a more subtle but still pervasive variety. It works as follows:

1) During the regular season the refs call a tight game and the players get used to playing without the constant hooking and holding.

2) During the early games of the playoffs, the players are still playing clean and the refs begin to let the little fouls go. The result is a great bunch of games with good flow and some great 5-on-5 hockey. Countless commentators remark how much better the game is when the refs "let the players decide the game".

3) Unfortunately, the players aren't nearly as dumb as most people seem to think. As the playoffs continue they figure out that the refs aren't calling very much and begin to hook and hold all over the ice. The result is pretty close to the pre-lockout game and we start to get the complaints (usually from the very same people who advocated the non-calls in the first place).

For the life of me I can't understand why so many people can't acknowlege that the players are going to adapt to the way the game is called.

At 7:45 p.m., June 02, 2008, Anonymous Ryan said...

The NHL really can't fix its schedule format fast enough. If Eastern Conference fans still haven't clued in, one can only hope seeing inter-Conference games more often will make it clearer. You hit it right on the head, James: "All of the great teams have essentially become trap teams." Was there a playoff team in the West that plays a less defensive style than the Red Wings? They all play it less effectively, but they still play it.

Defensive play isn't the primary thing that makes games boring, it's when games are one-sided. If, instead of 4-0, and 3-0, those first two games had been 8-2 romps like game 4 against Colorado, people would still be calling this a boring series.

Until the best teams in the East learn how to play against the best teams in the West, the Finals will always be boring. (Unless none of the best teams in the West are in the finals, but is that really an ideal situation?)

Finally, of course there's a difference between a team of nobodies playing a defensive style and a team of superstars playing a defensive style--one is going to be more entertaining to watch.

At 9:53 a.m., June 03, 2008, Blogger PPP said...

There's no way you're too young for Cam Neely.

Ah Mr. Neely. No, not too young for him. That makes sense.

At 10:11 a.m., June 03, 2008, Anonymous dvc said...

The third period last night was some of the most exciting and fun-to-watch hockey I've seen this postseason, even if it was fairly one-sided until the Pens got the extra attacker on. FWIW, the NBC announcers said Detroit was forechecking more aggressively because Gonchar was out of the game.

And the Penguins trapped very effectively in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They're a fast and skilled trapping team, but a trapping team nonetheless. They may have personnel reminiscent of the great Edmonton teams--and I'd love to see them play that style--but they play much more like the great New Jersey teams. The Wings got at least one interference call last night for setting a pick against the trap and got away with a few others. That's one way to beat the trap.

I can't blame teams for trapping if that's what it takes to win. Aggressive forechecking is fun to watch, but where did it ultimately get teams like Washington and Montreal? Maybe in terms of coaching, offensive hockey needs to catch up to defensive hockey?

At 1:59 p.m., June 03, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Wyshynski is a Devil's fan, I'd love to see his comments about the brodeurisafraud blog.

At 2:22 p.m., June 06, 2008, Anonymous DonK said...

I think you've both missed part of the point. All great teams these days are teams that focus primarily (to the Nth degree) on defense -- the brief period when the object was to win 7-5 rather than 3-2 is over. Speed is seen not as an offensive weapon these days, but as a defensive one, used to take away an opponent's time and space. The totally laid-back type of trapping of the 90s is passe; these days, defense means not letting an opponent get any speed through the neutral zone. But when played well, it also means playing defense by moving your feet, not grabbing and hooking. In the Wings' case, it also means possessing the puck to an extent rarely seen in the NHL for years.

Is it fun to watch? Sometimes.

It's easy to respect the Wings, who are the NHL's premier organization and play relatively clean (and very fight-free) hockey. They are led by a core group that's very mature, and it shows in the way they comport themselves. Guys will take less $$ to play there -- Detroit has become a destination city. The Wings do things the right way, on and off the ice, and have been rewarded for it.


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