Is Puck Possession Dead?


As hockey fans gear up for the Western and Eastern Conference Finals, a few common themes among the remaining teams resonates: trap style play, tight checking, and a reliance on elite goaltending. Every year after the Stanley Cup is lifted, the champs are analyzed as to why they won, and other teams then spend time scouting youngsters and spend cap space on UFAs that resemble the Cup winning roster. The NHL is definitely a copy cat league. For the past five years, teams have been trying to mimic the style of play of the Red Wings, Penguins, and Blackhawks. After all, why wouldn't want you to copy what wins? But take a look at the puck possession-like teams that are eliminated: Detroit, Chicago, San Jose, Vancouver, Pittsburgh.  Both Conference Finals will send shock waves through the NHL, and the Red Wings better be paying attention.
After Mike Babcock's puck possession team lost to the Oilers in '06, their style of play didn't change at the root, however; they were told me be more physical and work harder in the dirty areas. That paid off the next three years by making to the Conference Finals in '07, Winning it all in '08, and coming within 1 goal at a chance to win it all again in '09. Now, it sure seems Red Wing hockey needs to be re-evaluated. Ken Holland and Mike Babcock should be watching every game of the playoffs from here on out. The Western Finals have been settled, and it will feature the Phoenix Coyotes and the LA Kings. These two teams skate hard, trap, are defensively responsible, and heavily rely on their goaltenders to steal games. (By the way, is it not a coincidence that the year Phoenix lets Bryzgalov go they make it this far? He's never been a proven playoff goalie, and probably never will be.) The same goes in the East; The Devils (who are the definition of the trap) are waiting to face either the New York Rangers or the Washington Capitals. The Rangers have consistently been a defensively disciplined team with a couple of decent scoring lines, but overall block tons of shots and make things easy for their world class goalie Henrik Lundquist. The Capitals on the other hand, were born a puck possession team when they inherited forwards Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Semin. Since Dale Hunter took over as head coach, he has somehow got them to play a style of hockey whereby no all-stars are praised, but an entire team can reap rewards from teamwork. Players like Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, and  Joel Ward are laying their bodies on the line for their coach, and Ovechkin is learning a valuable lesson.
What does this all mean? Before it was pretty easy to point out that a couple elite forwards and above average goaltending could win a Stanely Cup (Datsyuk/Zetterberg/Osgood, Crosby/Malkin/Fleury, Toews/Kane/Niemi). These current teams do have some elite forwards, but at least offensively, they are simply playing above average. The goaltending is elite. What should the Red Wings management take from this? They sure can't ignore it. Do they need a new system? Their coach is surely capable of coming up with one. Should the Wings continue to invest so many resources in the European rinks when scouting? If the Wings could only sign one of Zach Parise or Ryan Suter, who would be the more important acquisition? For once, it seems like Red Wings management will really have to dig in and make some tough decisions. The easy thing to do would be to turnout the same roster, make one big signing, and hope for the best. I'm hoping they are very aggressive in the off-season. I'm not saying they should copy the Final Four, but having more grit and willingness to pay the price would be helpful. I really don't care if Kenny Holland chooses to build a team that grinds opponents to death. I can part ways with watching our top 3 lines skate circles around people and playing keep away with the puck. What I ultimately care about is winning. I'm pretty sure Devils fans are ecstatic that they have a chance to match the Red Wings by winning with their fourth cup in the past 17 years. Who cares if it's boring? Winning is never boring.