Eight-man D-zone coverage
Posted by Dean Holden at June 29th, 2013
By Jack Blatherwick, 6 June 2013
There’s a one-sided debate each spring at playoff time: Don Cherry, Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire lead the good ol’ boys in the fight for ‘no-holds-barred-defense.’ (Actually, Milbury debates with himself and changes sides every day). On the other side of the fence are the quiet non-debaters, those who don’t do TV commentary. This is a group of skillful geniuses like Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Pavel Datsyuk and the Sedin twins.
If the latter group did the TV analysis, they’d inform us there’s more to the game than hits, fights, blocked shots, dump-and-chase offense and team defense. Each year the NHL gets out the unwritten rulebook in April, so officials put the whistle in their pocket. The good ol’ boys don’t want a critical call by the refs to decide the outcome. “Let the players decide it,” they say. I’m waiting, but they never address the corollary: Which players are we trying to empower, the defensive or offensive players?
In the regular season the officials call penalties close to the rulebook. The result is that skillful playmakers like the Sedins always dominate. As the postseason progresses, and as any one game winds down to its climax, the refs with orange arm-bands stop calling penalties. Therefore, the defensive cheaters determine the outcome. Imagine if football, baseball, track or golf officials had this enlightened philosophy: “We don’t care about the rules in important games.”
In hockey, in the third period and overtime, anything goes. We forget rules and let (defensive) players decide. Milbury argues that an Islander defender who is completely faked out by Sidney Crosby’s spin-o-rama should be able to tackle ‘the kid’ because, “It’s the playoffs.” Referees shouldn’t call that one, unless … unless … unless … well, tricky Mike didn’t finish the sentence. The next day he wants officials to “call it by the book.” Maybe his book doesn’t have “tackling” in it.
Imagine what a youngster might learn if Gretzky did color commentary. We’d get the Great One’s perspective on creative plays, changes of direction at the offensive blue line, drop passes, saucers and puck control. A brilliant play would be shown on replay, even if it doesn’t result in a goal. As it is, every hit is highlighted, even if it doesn’t prevent or lead to a goal.
I don’t argue against big hits and fights – they’re entertaining, if not productive. I would just like to hear an occasional voice advocating creativity. I keep thinking Eddie Olczyk might be that voice; and he jumps on the bandwagon if there’s a goal. Actually, they all love to analyze a successful play with four or five deceptive passes that lead to a goal. But in the event those same passes do not create a goal, everyone laments, “No. No. No. Don’t get cute. Shoot it. It’s never a bad play to shoot.”
So, I’m nominating Mike Antonovich, St. Louis Blues’ scout, and former genius of the Minnesota State High School Tournament, Gopher hockey, the World Hockey League and the NHL. He’d add a dissenting voice to TV coverage: “What fun is it to play hockey if your coach makes you dump the puck every time you cross the red line? At every level of hockey – even Squirts – coaches are teaching dump-and-chase hockey. What the heck is with this long pass from behind the goal line to a forward in the neutral zone who just deflects it deep into the zone?”
It’s ping pong, Mike – college and pro hockey’s version of ping pong. The D stand behind the goal line and fire the puck to the D on the other end of the rink with a little deflection in the middle. Get the puck to the other team as fast as you can, so they can make a mistake, not us. We probably have to wait to teach this ‘skill’ until the PeeWee level, because a Squirt defenseman might not have the strength to ice it with 100 percent certainty.
Antonovich continues, “If I were 12 years old, and a coach made us dump the puck instead of attacking the defense, I’d quit and play basketball.” Anyone who watched Anton dominate with the puck over a long career would certainly understand, because that looked like fun. Touching the puck for a millisecond at center ice looks like a skill that might not encourage a youngster to invest a lot of passion into this game.
If you watch the remaining NHL playoffs, you’ll see that the defensive team gets eight players. The linesmen (officials without orange armbands) are still earning their pay, calling anti-offense infractions as if their job depends on it. No one works harder to get it right on every offsides call. If we were really serious about this concept of “letting the players decide the outcome,” we’d just ignore offsides … somewhat. How much? No one knows the answer to unwritten rules, of course, but just don’t interrupt an important scoring chance. “Let the players decide.”
On the other hand, the orange-band refs are no-shows. That’s the way the good ol’ boys like it. The whistle’s buried deep in their pockets, because they’ve decided which players should win … the defenders.
Is there a way to beat these eight-man defenses? Yes. The Blackhawks use eight players on offense. That’s what speed does when you combine it with creativity and skill.