Once upon a time, in the waning days of the Edmonton Oilers offensive juggernaut and before the New Jersey Devils tried to choke hockey to death on its own D, NHL defencemen had it pretty good. If someone dumped a puck into the corner, a blueliner could depend on his partner to interfere with the forward chasing it, giving him a chance to get there first. If there was an opponent in his goalie's crease, the defenceman could get away with tactics just short of cold-blooded murder to clear the traffic away. If he iced the puck under pressure, he could go back to the bench for a breather. If he happened to knock it into the crowd while chipping it off the glass, the only consequence would be a faceoff. Yup. Life was good then, for a D.
Then 2005 happened and the New NHL, with all its rule changes intended to "improve the game" (read: fix the league-wide scoring shortage engendered by the aforementioned Devils and their brutal trap style) was born. Most observers at the time expected the increased importance of special teams with the crackdown on interference and stick fouls, the reduction of the size of goalie equipment and the elimination of the two-line offside would make things a lot tougher for the netminders. Surprisingly, they adapted incredibly well. They got bigger and more technically sound, and, excepting a brief blip in the first post-lockout season, the average number of goals against each season has pretty well returned to pre-2005 levels.
The guys who really have felt the change are the defencemen, and they're the ones getting the flack for blowing games that goalies used to get. Chris Chelios, the NHL's longest-tenured D-man, played through the transition and really felt the difference in his game after the lockout.
"The new rules, the new game, does not benefit defencemen whatsoever. Even though I was a good skater, it'd be a lot harder now to put up the numbers and have success that I did at that position," he declares. The biggest difference?
"Protecting yourself. The fact that your teammates can't hold up or run interference for you or get in the way, you've got guys coming full bore, forechecking, you have no time. The biggest difference is time. You don't have the time you used to and it's kind of a one-sided affair. When a forward chips the puck past you, you can't bump him, but when a defenceman turns to go after the puck, it's open season on him, for the forwards to finish their checks."
Chelios says many defencemen, himself included, were able to adapt to the new rules, but it meant playing a different game than the one they were used to.
"You had to learn to be smarter positionally and not use your stick to hook or hold. Staying closer to home. Walking the line in front of the net and being more careful," he explains.
The resulting problem, is a lot of hockey's offence comes by way of a strong, creative defence. Chelios says that's not happening the way it used to, and the legacy of those 2005 rule changes...aided by the coaching response to them...is the exact opposite of the increased scoring the league intended.
"Very few defenceman today have that long leash offensively we had in the '90s because there's so much structure. I got systemized and structured, but that's the new wave of coaches. Everything is so much over-analyzed compared to what it was," he explains. "Computers and videos and coaches take the skill out of hockey, not the rules or anything they've changed. Coaching is so much more sophisticated, and that's the biggest difference between now and the '90s."
Sylvain Lefebvre is one of that new breed of coaches, guiding the Canadiens AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs. In his playing days, he was a pre-lockout defenceman with a pre-lockout mentality. Now he's teaching the young guys to play the modern way.
"When they first came up with the changes, they wouldn't let you battle in front of the net. Now, they let you battle more. But it's body position, boxing out in front of the net and blocking shots more than it used to be. Then, we did those things, but we could do it with more ferocity." He continues, "It's a different era and a different kind of play, but there are still fundamentals there to be taught and to be learned. Stick positioning...I tell defencemen you're going to save yourself a lot of work if you have a good stick, taking away seam passes, pokechecking, basically directing where you want the puck carrier to go. You do that with your stick."
Lefebvre admits Chelios is right about the coaching. It doesn't matter what skillset a young D comes to Hamilton with until he learns to play within the system.
"They have to adapt to a certain structure we strongly believe in," he says. "Then they have to improve their individual weaknesses, whether it's skating, pivoting, skating with the puck, getting available for your partner, pass receiving, whatever. Defence is not easy to play. The toughest thing to teach is to score goals. Find holes and get the puck through to the net. Teaching confidence to do that, and repetition, doing it again and again. It's fun teaching, and it's very challenging at times."
It's tougher for young Ds to find that freedom when they're tied to the boundaries of a defence-first kind of system. That's why Chelios says certain players stand out to him now, partly because of the way their teams play.
"Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith, they're real creative," Chelios reflects. "Their skill comes out mostly because their coaches allow it. For every bad thing they do, they do thirty good things. I love watching players who have that flexibility, whose coaches allow it. I wish more of them would."
Aside from the impact on the creativity and offense of NHL defencemen, both Chelios and Lefebvre believe the post-lockout rules put the health of blueliners at risk.
"Even back then, you still had to be able to move quickly when you saw Teemu Selanne or Pavel Bure coming down the wing at you. You had to be able to skate backward and pivot quickly. That hasn't changed," Lefebvre says. "It's just that before, you could hold up for your partner when someone was on the forecheck. Or your forwards, you could ask them to hold up for you to go get the puck, and that would make a difference, for the forwards to have the puck on their stick or off the glass. Now you can't hold up anymore. You can ask the forwards to keep their ice a little bit in front of opposing forwards to slow them down, but now you have to be quick going back for pucks. Goalies will play the puck a little bit more and the forwards will get back quicker for the breakouts."
Rather than simply lamenting the changes, Chelios thinks the NHL needs to go back and revisit the interference rules, for the betterment of the game.
"I still think they'd better make the adjustment so the players can interfere with each other, as long as they're not using their sticks in some way," he says. "There are way too many players getting injured. It's not going to stop. Even in basketball, you're allowed to run interference. Imagine football without blocking. I think they made a big mistake, and they have to find a happy medium to protect the defencemen."
Chelios says there are egos involved in the rules committees who make those decisions, and they don't like to admit they're wrong. He believes NHL defencemen have it much tougher than he did when he was in his prime, and they...and the game...are paying the price.
One thing's for sure: it's a lot harder out there for a D than it used to be. So maybe, if a defenceman misses a pokecheck or doesn't get good body position on an opponent from time to time, with so many of those trusty '90s-era weapons forbidden to them, they deserve a bit of a break.