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hockey

I'm a San Jose Sharks (ice hockey) fan. The team is very much lite on stars, but they do well anyway.

One thing you may have noticed about ice hockey (and this has been becoming more true in other sports too) is that on a good day, any team can beat any other team. This is because the minimum skill level -- the ability of the worst players in the league -- is very high (much higher than it used to be). Everyone is good. Everyone can shoot. Almost everyone can shoot well in ways their position doesn't usually require (defense doing up-close shots; forwards doing slapshots from far away).

It's a rarity for the best forward to get past anyone at all. Even a forward stuck playing defense alone. Completely tricking a defender pretty much doesn't happen. At best a forward can hope to get a few feet or a half second to shoot with, or get a passing lane.

The defense is more organised and more disciplined than ever. The players understand their job (in most situations) is to worry about the man they're guarding and not the puck (which is why it's so hard to get past a defender). They know in 2-on-1 rushes, they should guard the pass and let the goalie deal with the shot. But that rarely comes up -- there are only a handful of odd-man rushes per game now.

The offense knows it has to pass a lot to score. The star scorers -- the ones with a killer shot, great hands, maybe great speed, and the best chance to beat a defender -- are all star passers. Just as they can shoot at a tiny opening in the net, they've learned to pass through a tiny lane to give someone else a shot.

So, suppose you want a winning hockey team. The old approach was approximately to get some star players and watch them carry you. But this is less and less effective. Fewer goals are scored, and fewer of them from individual effort.

The best way to win now, is to be the most organised and disciplined team. To play as a team, and always make the smart play, and avoid breakdowns. You don't have to have a brilliant offense anymore. If your defense is solid enough, just a couple goals will win the game.

This doesn't mean a slow, boring style of play. Being cautious and solid is entirely different from slow. For example, the way to be cautious when you're the last guy back and you're taking a shot, is to shoot HARD. So even if the shot is blocked, the other team will have a hard time controlling it.

Lingering with the puck in your own end is dangerous, and shouldn't be overdone, and no one can keep the puck safely anywhere for too long without passing. But once you're at midice, low-percentage plays are perfectly acceptable as long as they're safe (don't do something risky if you're the last man back, or something that risks an odd-man rush). It is hard to score, so slim chances are worthwhile. Basically, get it out of your own end, then you can try whatever you want. So the game can and should still be fast-paced and aggressive; the defense just needs to be organised very quickly. In fact, in a fast game, which team really is better organised tends to show up more, because errors are more common.


Elliot Temple on December 27, 2003

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