The Death of the NHL Superstar

The biggest issue in hockey today is killing the trap – the grinding, defensive mode of playing that results in boring, slow games.

The trap also results in low-scoring games. And the result is that it has killed hockey’s superstars.

Scoring in hockey is down from the high-flying 80’s … something like 2 goals a game. More goals equals more excitement. More exitement equals more fan interest. More fan interest equals bigger stars.

But the trap – focusing on defense first, stifling neutral-zone puck movement, bottling up offenses, slowing down rushes, forcing dump-and-chase hockey – results in fewer goals.

So what do you do?

NHL efforts have focused on officiating. If we call all the clutching and grabbing, the reasoning goes, players will have to compete on skill. And more goals will be scored. It’s a nice thought, but it’s completely wrong.

The problem is that there is too much skill already.

Your average-to-marginal player on a hockey team today is bigger, faster, and probably more skilled than the equivalent player of the 80’s. In fact, the average skill level of all players is higher.

Why? Simple – the talent pool is much bigger. Before the 90’s, hockey players were almost exclusively a Canadian export. Today, Russia exports hockey players. More Europeans come over and play in North American leagues. All the other former Eastern Bloc countries whose players (and people) were behind the iron curtain are now able to come west and play for the big money.

The results are obvious. It’s tougher to get into the NHL – there is a much bigger pool of potential skaters. Ergo, the skill level is higher.

More skill sounds like a good thing for the game of hockey. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the distribution of skill between players has evened out. If the best players in the 80s were a 9 or 10, and the average players were a 5 or 6, now the best players are a 8 or 9, and the average players are 6 or 7.

And that’s why we no longer have hockey superstars.

Superstars scored at well over a point-a-game pace … and the elite of the elite – Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux – scored over 2 points a game in their prime.

Today’s ‘superstars’ are actually the star (not super) players of yesterday – the 100 point men who were certainly in the elite, but were not going to challenge for the scoring title.

Examples: Jarome Iginla. Joe Sakic. Forsberg. You name them. Today, a point-a-game player is amazing. 50 goals is what 80 goals used to be.

Think about it: in one year, his best offensive year, Gretzky almost scored more goals (92), never mind assists, than Martin St. Louis scored points to win the scoring race this year!

When the skill level is much more tightly distributed, and your average player is closer in skill to your star player, it’s much harder for the stars to really shine. The gap is the critical missing link in today’s game: the gap between the skill level of the superstar and the skill level of your average NHLer.

That gap is the wellspring of heroes and superstars – and more to the point for this article, that gap is a critical source of offence. When one player simply beats another player 1 on 1 by speed, by stickhandling, by deking, chances to score are created.

More gap, more scoring. Less gap, less scoring.

Less scoring, fewer superstars.