Igor Larionov is a former NHLer turned player agent, and he wrote a bit of hockey commentary yesterday that caught a number of people's attention. And the piece that he wrote for the Player's Tribune actually illustrates a very good point. He suggests that the current style of play in the NHL lacks creativity. In fact, he says that creative players get punished for not conforming within a more limited system. And he's right.
(Creativity, in this sense, means that a player is able and possibly encouraged to makes things up as he goes along instead of sticking strictly to a game plan.)
Think about it. Think about those periods that happen every once in a while where teams are just going back and forth without a break in play. No penalties, no turnovers, no hits - just pure back and forth hockey. Really, how boring are those periods?
Now, times when you get a lot of flow, when the game's a run-and-gun style of hockey, when the referees put their whistles away - those are fun. There are a lot of turnovers, sometimes a guy loses a wheel and goes down, and maybe there's a mid-ice collision, but there are a ton of scoring chances for both teams and that's the hockey people rave about. Lots of crisp passing, lots of scoring opportunities, and lots of hard skating is what people want to see.
What it comes down to is that we should never lose sight of the fact that hockey is actually a game of mistakes.
Take the Tampa Bay Lightning right now, for instance. While they may or may not be more creative than some NHL teams, they're still not very creative, generally speaking - especially if you were to compare them to the 1990s Detroit Red Wings that Larionov played on. Their entire game is for the defense to get the puck to center ice, for the forwards to dump it into the offensive zone, and then to recover the puck in the offensive zone to shoot on goal. Rinse, lather, repeat. That's it; that's all there is to their game.
The Lightning base their entire system upon their speed and pretty much that's it. The entire point is to get the puck up ice quickly and to shoot on goal. There is almost no creativity involved, they don't set up for any kind of a play in the offensive zone, and if they don't beat the other team to the puck after they dump it into the zone, then they're usually screwed on that play. Take the puck away from them, and half the time they don't know what to do. It's all go-go-go with little to no strategy or structure to back them up.
(Little to no strategy or structure...and they wonder why their power play sucks.)
Their game is all north and south, just as Larionov complained the NHL to be. It's simple, it's easy, and it prohibits any outside of the box kind of thinking. The only reason it's at all successful is because general manager Steve Yzerman has built the team around speed. Speed is the only thing that makes it work, which is why slower players on the roster have slowly been weeded out over the past couple of seasons.
But, because the stakes are higher, coaches tell their players to play a more conservative game. Mistakes are frowned upon - and, in fact, fans start getting upset when players dare to make mistakes these days. We've been so conditioned to view hockey as a series of successful plays now that people are outraged when a player dares to mess that up.
The reality is that mistakes don't just happen; they're an integral part of the game. Without mistakes, you don't score goals and you don't win games. If the opposing team didn't turn the puck over, then you wouldn't get breakaways, and you wouldn't get a chance to shoot on a goalie - and then hopefully lure the goalie into making a mistake so that you can get the puck past them.
Do you want your team to limit its mistakes? Sure. That stops the other team from scoring, after all. But it's a futile effort as all humans make mistakes now and then. And if you're playing to not lose, which is often the case when teams try to not make mistakes, then you have a harder time trying to win.
It used to be, not so long ago in the AHL, that Jon Cooper's teams were far more creative than they are now. Of course, you can get away with a lot more in the AHL than in the NHL. Supposedly. Even still, I can't imagine that Steve Yzerman the hockey player would've been very happy playing in the NHL in the same system that his coach now employs.
When you have the likes of Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, and Ryan Callahan on your team, why would you want to put a leash on them? Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Mark Barberio would thrive in a more creative system of play. The Lightning are a fast team, certainly, but they're also a creative bunch of guys. And right now, in today's NHL, they're only getting to use one part of their overall talents.
People talk about "Free Drouin", especially on the power play, but would how the Lightning currently plays do justice to all of Jonathan Drouin's abilities? I don't think so. Even the power play suffers because no one's able to be creative. When you're told all game long to pass the puck to the next guy, to get it down the ice, and shoot when you're in front of the goalie, that doesn't leave you a lot of room to mentally switch gears and try to out-think the penalty killers in front of you.
I'm not pointing fingers at Cooper; he's just doing what many other teams in the NHL are doing. I think he's doing a good overall job, and obviously he's got the team playing well enough to stick around at the top of the standings all season long so far. Though, I do think that this style of play doesn't necessarily fit his coaching style. However, the Lightning are simply the team that I've watched the most, which is why I'm using them as my example.
Even still, you have to wonder how much better a season Stamkos would be having in a more creative atmosphere and playing a more east-west kind of a game.
By the way, if you haven't read Larionov's piece, it's very well done and I encourage you to take a look at it. If you have and you'd like a glimpse of the creativity that Igor Larionov was talking about, here you go. Start at 1:34 of the video: