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Old Time hockey is dead

By Ryan Cooper

My colleague Kareem wrote the other day in his Tom Poti piece that the Capitals have a “desperate need” for a “nasty, shut down defenseman” and that “the Flyers and Penguins aren’t exactly going to stay away from the crease now that Tom Poti is re-signed.”

There are few things that bug me more than the “Washington needs a crease-clearing defenseman!” meme (I think on certain “frosty” blogs, they’re contractually obligated to mention it at least once a week). It’s obvious the proponents of this argument are ignorant to the following:

YOU CAN’T CLEAR THE CREASE ANY MORE.

It’s not allowed. You can’t knock a guy down in front of the net because you’ll be called for a penalty, though in pre-lockout days you could. You also can’t clutch and grab anymore to negate a team’s speed advantage like you used to. Goaltenders also used to flop around like fish, flailing wildly like my guinea pig does when I dangle snap peas in front of him, instead of stopping the puck.

The game has changed. Now more than ever, you need defensemen who practice special integrity (hey, that sounds like Jeff Schultz! But he doesn’t hit! Booo!!), can clog the middle, box out the forwards down low and block shots. You need an ultra-aggressive penalty kill like Philadelphia’s and Montreal’s (thankfully the Capitals are starting to do this). You don’t need slugs that can’t skate and are only there because someone thinks they’re “tough.” That era is over.

The Capitals did not lose in the playoffs in 2008 because they weren’t tough enough;  that team needed an amazing run down the stretch just to make the playoffs, and they were nearly eliminated from the race in the infamous Donald Brashear “Triple Minor Game” against Boston. (But hey, he’s tough, so it’s okay, right?) The Capitals did not lose in the playoffs in 2009 against Pittsburgh because they weren’t tough enough; the Pens were deeper, more experienced, and more skilled, and frankly, I don’t know if the bigger miracle is the fact that the Caps were a heartbeat away from being up 3-0 or that the series went 7 games. Finally, they did not lose the Montreal series last season because they weren’t tough enough; the Habs clogged the middle, blocked a ton of shots, and the Caps’ power play scored about as often as I did in high school.

Sometimes I feel like Rick Pitino, and I want to shout out that no matter what some fans may think or how much they want it, Clarence “Screaming Buffalo” Swamptown, Andre “Poodle” Lussier, and Ross “Mad Dog” Madison (accompanied by his attorney Sam “Small Print” Lyman) are not walking through that door.

This is a good thing.

By Box Seats blogger  | October 6, 2010; 9:25 AM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Ryan Cooper  | Tags:  Capitals, Ryan Cooper  
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Next: Caps players whose jerseys your kids should wear - Part 3

Comments

Crease clearing is gone. But the Caps do need some one who will make other forwards afraid to forecheck when he is on the ice.

Posted by: GFisher1 | October 6, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

Re-signing Poti is a good move because it gives the Capitals defensive corp a veteran presence which they otherwise would not have. As far as crease clearing defensemen, look at the Montreal Canadiens. One reason they beat the Caps last year is because they have big, strong defensemen who did not allow the Capitals to get into the crease and forced almost every shot to come from outside the circles. So, that style of defensemen isn't dead by any stretch.

Posted by: jcreech1 | October 6, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

By the way, the Capitals did loss to the Flyers because they weren't tough enough. The Caps didn't start coming back in that series until they started matching the physical style the Flyers play. Why do you think the Caps signed Mike Knuble last off-season?

Playoff hockey is different then regular season hockey, which is why the Caps are only 1-3 in the four playoff series this group has played in. Until the Caps become tougher and realize playoff hockey is grinder hockey they will never win the Cup.

Posted by: jcreech1 | October 6, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Wow - really? I wonder how Philly's Pronger would feel about this? They went to the Finals- we choked. Or Cindy Crosby as he scores almost every goal in our crease during the playoffs - one goal in particular he whacked at the puck 4 times! Caps were built for finesse last year and obviously that imploded in their faces during the playoffs when pretty hockey gets thrown away. Seabrook and Keith might disagree also as they stare at their $30,000 Stanley Cup rings. Obviously GMGM disagrees with you as he tried to get SAH defensemen all summer and addressed the lack of physical players on the team by adding grit and nastiness, which wins you Cups. At least your first blog is controversial if incorrect.

Posted by: lylewimbledon | October 6, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

I would agree some what with your blog, about hockey has changed which it has. I think the Caps are missing a defensman who is willing to block shots and throw his weight around a little bit. We are seeing less and less true "shut down" defenseman in the NHL..

The last playoff series loss was the fact the Caps didn't crash the net..In the playoffs you need guys in front of the need for hard nose rebounds.. I think our D held up fairly well in the playoffs...

Posted by: CapsBaby | October 6, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

The biggest problem with the NHL today is that...quite frankly...it's schizophrenic. It wants one brand of hockey played during the regular season & a completely different brand of hockey played in the playoffs.

If that's what it wants...fine. Just allow teams three weeks off in-between to completely retool their rosters & to practice the different style.

I've said all that to say this...I agree with most of Cooper's blog. I disagree with the part about not being allowed to clear the crease in the playoffs. You may not be ALLOWED to do so...but it happens & goes uncalled far too often for a "finesse" team to win the Cup.

Yes, the Canadians blocked a phenomenal amount of shots in last season's series...but look at where those shots originated from. Lots of space between the the shot & the goal for the D to get in front of it. A little tougher for anybody but the goalie to block a shot taken from 3-4 feet away. BUT, such a shot can't be taken if the player who wishes to take it is sitting on his ass from a Pronger hit or trying to wriggle free from somebody like a Hal Gill.

THAT's why the Caps went out & got Knuble after the 2009 playoff exit. He can hold his ground in front of the net while the Prongers of the league whack away at him with impunity. The problem with the 2010 playoffs was that he simply couldn't score enough & nobody else on that Caps roster possessed the body/hands/will to make that kind of dirty work pay off. Ovie perhaps...but Boudreau didn't seem to want him there. Whole other story...

The Penguins went further than the Caps the last three seasons because their "Knuble" (aka Bill Geurin) is better than our Knuble. They didn't make it back to the Cup final last season because they let Hal Gill move to the Canadians after winning a Cup with him on their side.

If the Caps don't pick up another forward or two in the Knuble mold...AND a defensemen or two of the Pronger/Gill mold...it will be more of the same for the Caps in the 2011 playoffs & beyond...at least for as long as the NHL decides "Old Time" hockey makes for great playoff hockey.

Posted by: clb_in_md | October 6, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

"I wonder how Philly's Pronger would feel about this?"

--Pronger has enough to worry about. Philly barely even made the playoffs. Their defense was overrated and their goaltending a joke. They made it as far as they did because in the first round, they played a New Jersey team that even with Kovalchuk, looked so out of sync offensively they failed to do anything. They had no pressure, hardly any meaningful shots, and they just rolled over. Boston was a great defensive team but also had no offense. They also committed one of the most colossal chokes in sports, blowing a 3-0 lead.

In the third round, the Flyers had the benefit of playing a Montreal team that while plucky, also had no offense and was drained from two straight 7-game upset wins. Their cinderella run had to end sometime. In the Finals, the Flyers had no chance against a team that could actually score. Pronger was made to look silly time and time again, particularly in Game 5 when he was on the ice for six of Chicago's seven goals.

Now the aging Pronger took another hit over the season with his knee surgery. Talk is already rampant that he's slower and will lose another step.

The "experts" love to tout the fact the Caps need defense...more defense...but three of their four playoff losses were by 3-2, 2-1 and 2-1 scores. They lost cause they didn't adjust offensively particularly on the PP, and yes Halak was incredible in several of those games.

I'd love to see an upgrade or two along the Caps blue line but I'm also patient enough to see how much of a difference Carlson and Alzner make as well.

Posted by: jollyroger2 | October 6, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

"The last playoff series loss was the fact the Caps didn't crash the net."

Were some of you even watching the games? Or just like to throw out trendy cliches? The Caps DID crash the net, particularly in Games 2, 3, and 4. To the point where the Canadiens coach even sent videos to the NHL discreetly complaining about what he thought was happening.

The goal that was disallowed in Game 7, that would have tied the game in the 3rd period, was widely thought to be a result of that complaining, even though Halak was barely touched and the "interference" was a lot tamer than other goals the Caps had scored when they were lighting up the Habs in Games 2-4.

In fact McPhee was asked during his talk at the Convention this past weekend, if he ever got an answer from the NHL on why that goal was disallowed. He said no he wasn't, and not only that, there were league officials in the building that night that were clearly unhappy with the call. It was one of those things where worse possible "interference" was uncalled all series, then in the 3rd period of a critical Game 7 suddenly they disallow a goal.

The Caps were definitely crashing the net. Where they lost the series IMO was getting way, way too fancy on the PP. True Montreal did some great penalty killing, but the Caps did a lot to help them as well.

Posted by: jollyroger2 | October 6, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: jollyroger2

Were some of you even watching the games? Or just like to throw out trendy cliches? The Caps DID crash the net, particularly in Games 2, 3, and 4. To the point where the Canadiens coach even sent videos to the NHL discreetly complaining about what he thought was happening.

The goal that was disallowed in Game 7, that would have tied the game in the 3rd period, was widely thought to be a result of that complaining, even though Halak was barely touched and the "interference" was a lot tamer than other goals the Caps had scored when they were lighting up the Habs in Games 2-4.

Bingo! Beginning to think no one would remember this small detail. Could've changed the outcome of that series; and come to think of it, it did. Tie the game then? We'll never know.

Give the complaining a rest, say for 20 games or so. Then look at how new pieces are actually perrforming before making these dire predictions of further playoff woes.

Posted by: prestoj | October 6, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Go Caps!!!

Posted by: HockeyBias_dot_com | October 6, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

another einstein who thinks the game has changed to the extent that a tom poti is more valuable than a tough defensive presence.

And you can still clear the crease. A strong dman can box out a forward, move him out whatever without getting a penalty. You think a Tom Poti has the same effect on a forward in the crease as a Brent Seabrook?

good god. Ryan Cooper knows about as much as Ryan O'Neal. And obviously more than the 25 other GMs in hockey (and their predecessors) who attempt to find tough crease clearing dmen via the draft, trade,or FA.

Posted by: cstanton1 | October 6, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Who is Ryan Cooper?

Posted by: jeadpt | October 6, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Nice piece. I agree that there's much more to today's NHL defense than toughness, and that the traditional thoughts of clearing the crease just don't apply.

Since these columns are new I'll nitpick.

1. “Washington needs a crease-clearing defenseman!” is not a meme. It's a cliche, something said so often it loses power and validity. A meme is not the same thing. It's not even close. People from DC to Tehran use the phrase "Double Rainbow All The Way" and text "DRATW" everybody knows what the phrase references AND how that reference applies in the context of the text or conversation... that's a meme.

2. Comparing anything to your high school lack-of-sex life is just plain bad. The post picked you because of your talent. That bit didn't showcase it.

But like I said, that's nitpicking. It's a good piece and I look forward to reading your work this season.

Posted by: Kdarienzo | October 7, 2010 8:38 AM | Report abuse

And you can still clear the crease. A strong dman can box out a forward, move him out whatever without getting a penalty. You think a Tom Poti has the same effect on a forward in the crease as a Brent Seabrook?

Posted by: cstanton1 | October 6, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

perhaps you missed the part of his post that said

"The game has changed. Now more than ever, you need defensemen who practice special integrity can clog the middle, box out the forwards down low and block shots."

which sounds suprisingly like what you are saying. but since you didn't say it, then lets impune the guy who did, right? and nobody is comparing tom poti to brent seabrook except you and perhaps tom poti's agent.

Posted by: dcsportsfan1 | October 7, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: Kdarienzo | October 7, 2010 8:38 AM |

1. “Washington needs a crease-clearing defenseman!” is not a meme. It's a cliche, something said so often it loses power and validity. A meme is not the same thing. It's not even close. People from DC to Tehran use the phrase "Double Rainbow All The Way" and text "DRATW" everybody knows what the phrase references AND how that reference applies in the context of the text or conversation... that's a meme.


Interesting point...but my preference would have been for a different example. I had NO IDEA what this example meant & had to research it. But then I'm not between DC & Tehran. Being at the tail end of the cultural chain, perhaps it just hadn't reached me yet. I'll keep an eye open for it now!

The definitions of "meme" that I've seen refer to a cultural idea or notion that is "transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes." [Source for that particular phrasing: Dictionary.com]

I don't see any requirement that the idea/notion being replicated must be accurate...let alone universally understood.

By that definition I suppose "Washington needs a crease-clearing defenseman!" could be both a cliche (repeated to the point of becoming hackneyed) AND a meme (picked up & passed along in an automatic fashion).

I would have gone with "mantra" - or "incantation" - in the original sentence...if we're going to nitpick. In my opinion, the phrase has become some sort of "common prayer" uttered by the Caps faithful in an attempt to ward off the evil spirits keeping our lads from their predestined date with Lord Stanley.

Okay by me! We all do what need to do to get by. I only get slightly annoyed when it's uttered without really bothering - or being able - to judge the accuracy of the statement.

But, I'm just funny that way...

Posted by: clb_in_md | October 7, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Ryan,

Gotta fully disagree with you. Yes, the game has changed and the trend is for better skating defensemen who can make a good breakout pass. I'd never deny that. But where I disagree with you is that I believe the Caps don't have a player who can "box out" and play tough in the defensive zone. Ever watch Tom Poti or Jeff Schultz in the defensive zone? They don't clog the middle and they certainly don't try and impede anyone standing in front of the net. Both are very good in the neutral zone, with their transition game, and with their overall positioning, but they don't bring the "box out" mentality or "middle-clogging" element you're looking for. Frankly, they're fairly passive players, which is okay as long as you complement them with someone who isn't. (And I say that as a huge Schultz fan.)

The limitations of not having a tough defenseman is clearly evident. The reason we lost to the Penguins was absolutely because we had no answer for Sidney Crosby parking his butt in front of the Caps net and wreaking havoc. He must have scored five goals within 10 feet of the cage. The reason we lost to the Flyers in 2008 is because we didn't have an answer for their "old time hockey" ways of clogging the crease and screening/interfering with Huet. And while our lack of defensive zone ability wasn't the reason we lost to Montreal, it would have been brutally epxloited (again) by Philly, Pitt and Chicago had we advanced farther. Think Dustin Byfuglien would have been intimidated by our defense?

Also, implying that the same "toughness" I'm looking for in a defenseman is similar to enforcer-like goonery is laughable. I just want someone who can play solid defensive zone hockey and box out the Sidney Crosbys and Scott Hartnells so they at least break a sweat. Right now, we have no d-man who can do this unless Karl Alzner shows us something he preveiously never has. (There's a reason the Caps were intersted in Willie Mitchell.)

Old time hockey ain't dead, my friend. I just think the Caps wish it was.

Kareem

Posted by: topshelf_22304 | October 7, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: topshelf_22304 | October 7, 2010 12:34 PM |

Old time hockey ain't dead, my friend. I just think the Caps wish it was.

Kareem

It may not be dead...but it IS on life support - at least during the regular season! [Ba, dump, bump!]

My poor zings aside...Kareem makes a strong case as a guy who has critically read the Book of Common Prayer! Dustin (I couldn't spell his last name on a dare!) is exactly the type of player I would pick to give the Caps fits in a series of playoff-style hockey.

The solution is two-fold. Team defense AND tip-of-the-spear guy(s) [you need at least two or you'll never win a road playoff game in your life!] who make the real estate near the crease a place where angels fear to tread.

With respect to the latter...

I pick on Ryan (I kid because I love, btw. Don't take ANYTHING I say seriously!) but his point on the rules is not entirely without merit. The answer to that challenge goes something like this. IF you think a Langway... a Stevens....a Tinordi...hell, a slightly-more-mobile Reekie... wouldn't figure out how to do his job w/in - and right at the edge of - the rules, THEN you don't understand what playing defense in the NHL is all about.

The question is...are guys who can think that way AND have the ability to act on it currently in the orGANization?? If not, look for George to finally get Ted's blessing to pull the trigger on some sort of offense-for-defense deal.

I haven't seen anybody on the Caps do it consistently yet...but hope springs eternal! Maybe Schultz will finally figure it out. He's got the body for it! Maybe the "kids" will step into that role. Like an Alzner. If Carlson has a bit of a "mean streak" to go with his size, he may wind up being the guy. Once somebody does it consistently, it does tend to get contagious. Both of the younger guys are still a bit underweight. But, that's what strength programs are for!

With respect to the former...

Everybody else has to position themselves properly & throw their bodies around for the cause in the same manner - if not to the extreme degree - that the Canadians did. I've watched hockey for a lot of years & that was the most impressive display of shot-blocking I've ever seen. Caps helped make them look good, no doubt! But, still damned impressive.

To take it back to the soccer analogy for a sec, that sort of effective team effort becomes the equivalent of starving any offense's "beast in the crease." I don't know if there's a d-man in the land who can consistently knock Dustin off his feet! But, I do know Dustin can't score w/o the puck! No service, no goals.

What I'll be looking for as I search for playoff optimism this season will be fewer shootout & shootout-style wins, especially down the stretch! More 2-0, 3-0, 4-1 wins, please?

IF the Caps will show me that, THEN I'll start to think that maybe...just maybe...they have this whole "playoff hockey" thing..."old time hockey" thing...[call it what you will!]...figured out.

Posted by: clb_in_md | October 7, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Great Slapshot references!! :) And I agree, the Caps have a shut-down guy in Jeff Schultz. It would not hurt to have a second one so that they always have on rested and ready to go. But indeed, the days of the Watson Brothers from the Broad Street Bullies are long past...

Posted by: MikeL-Caps911 | October 7, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

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