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Bruce Dowbiggin

We Have Met The Goalies, And The Goalies Have Won

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The NHL’s problem, Boston Bruins GM legend Harry Sinden told us years ago, is that there are 30 teams. But just one Stanley Cup. That makes for a lot of disappointment.

As Toronto fans can now attest, that disappointment stings worst when you have a team with a likely Hart Trophy winner and an impressive regular season. By rights a healthy Leafs squad should have disposed of the defending champions from Tampa Bay, who finished five  points below them in the standings.

But the NHL is no place for favourites. Analytics have found that, generally,  you’d have to play a best-of-51 series before the higher-seeded NHL team would have the advantage. (The NBA is much more favourable to the chalk.) So, given enough time Toronto would have outlasted the Lightning. It could/ would have taken till August to do so, however.

Why? Because the NHL— despite fitful attempts to redress this discrepancy— has created a Frankenstein playoff model that allows lesser teams to clog the ice, funnel shots from bad angles and get away with fouls that wouldn’t stand in the regular season. Using the rules today, a defensive-minded team can clog the front of the net, blocking as many shots as does their goalie.

In Toronto’s Game 7 loss to Tampa, the Leafs directed 57 shots at impenetrable goalie Andrei Vasilevsky. He stopped 30 of 31 that reached him. His defence almost matched him, blocking 26 shots. (Toronto blocked 13 shots while goalie Campbell stopped 20 of 22 shots that rewashed him.)

Toronto buzzed the scoring zone, dominating puck possession.  They dominated faceoffs, winning 61.8 percent. In the end it meant zilch, be cause Vasilevsky was a brick wall.

It was the same for the Pacific Conference champion Calgary Flames against 23-year-old goalie Jake Oettinger and the Dallas Stars— who only snuck over .500 on the final day of the season. In Game 7 Calgary sent 129 shots toward the net, with Oettinger making 64 saves into OT. And his defence blocked 32 Calgary shots on Sunday.

On average the Flames outshot the Stars (272 shots) by over 20 shots in each of the seven games.  Yet the lower-rated Dallas almost escaped with the series win, because Oettinger was otherworldly. It took a bad-angle goal from Johnny Gaudreau in OT to propel the favoured Flames to a Round 2 Battle of Alberta with Edmonton.

The NHL shows no inclination  to reward hight-ranked teams, preferring to lionize the grinders and bangers by letting them hit opponents late and charging guys along the boards. If there were a goal that epitomized this credo it has to be  Gm.4 of the Kings/ Oilers series when Carl Grundstrom slid on his belly into goalie Mike Smith, pushing the puck under the Oilers goalie with a two-handed shove. Ugly? Yes, but effective against the massive goalies.

Of course, what are scorers to do when faced with 6-foot-5 goalies like Smith and his towering peers blotting out the sun? The epidemic of skilled giants wearing huge equipment has led to teams not shooting till they can screen the goalie or knock in a rebound. It was something we wrote about in February of 2021 following publication of an article by Ken Dryden in The Atlantic entitled “Hockey Has a Gigantic-Goalie Problem”.

 

“The problem isn’t the game. The problem is the goalie, who is changing the game”, declared Dryden. “This game, one that allows for such speed and grace, one that has so much open ice, is now utterly congested… Never in hockey’s history has a tail so wagged the dog.”

Dryden reviews the evolution of the position from goalies’ bodies protruding above the cross bar to having their entire body below it. “Pads that had been made of heavy leather, deer hair, and felt were replaced with nylon, plastic, and foam rubber. These lighter materials, which made the pads less awkward to move around in and less tiring to wear, could then also be made bigger. And bigger equipment, covering a body now in position below the bar, filled even more space.”

Dryden explains how a properly positioned 6-foot-3 or taller goalie can now block all avenues for the puck— from his knees. “But really, in that equipment, with those body strategies, why get up? Why move? What better puck-blocking position could he take?”

The response from coaches and shooters? “Rush the net with multiple offensive players, multiple defensive players will go with them, multiple arms, legs, and bodies will jostle in front of the goalie, and the remaining shooters, distant from the net, will fire away hoping to thread the needle, hoping the goalie doesn’t see the needle being threaded, because if he does, he’ll stop it

It’s not a formula Dryden likes. “All the players’ amazing skills, developed in hours of practice, visualizing and dreaming in basements, on roads and local rinks, in drills with coaches and expert teachers, their minds and hands now able to move as fast as their feet, to find and use all the open ice that is there. But with so little open ice where open ice matters, for what?”

He contrasts how basketball solved its size problem: introducing the three-point line to open up scoring in what was becoming a stalemate beneath the hoop. “If a big guy can’t pass and shoot, there’s no place for him. With big guys dispersed and away from the basket, little guys now even get rebounds. All 10 players are involved. All 10 players can have a role. All 10 players, on the best teams, and on even better teams in the future, need to have a role to win. This NBA game, played on a much smaller surface than a hockey rink, is now far more open, much less congested.”

Dryden’s solution is a reluctant one. “The clever cat-and-mouse game between goalies and shooters has run its constructive course. The goalies, by winning, have changed the game.” So the net must be made bigger. “Maybe only six inches or a foot wider, maybe only six inches higher. And only for those in junior and college leagues and above.”

Whether the NHL can see beyond its cherished myths of grinders and role players to admit it has a problem is the question. A question that, as long as Gary Bettman is commissioner, will never be answered.

 

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). The best-selling author was nominated for the BBN Business Book award of 2020 for Personal Account with Tony Comper. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book with his son Evan Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History is now available on http://brucedowbigginbooks.ca/book-personalaccount.aspx

BRUCE DOWBIGGIN Award-winning Author and Broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience . He is currently the editor and publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster website and is also a contributor to SiriusXM Canada Talks. His new book Cap In Hand was released in the fall of 2018. Bruce's career has included successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster for his work with CBC-TV, Mr. Dowbiggin is also the best-selling author of "Money Players" (finalist for the 2004 National Business Book Award) and two new books-- Ice Storm: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever for Greystone Press and Grant Fuhr: Portrait of a Champion for Random House. His ground-breaking investigations into the life and times of Alan Eagleson led to his selection as the winner of the Gemini for Canada's top sportscaster in 1993 and again in 1996. This work earned him the reputation as one of Canada's top investigative journalists in any field. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013) where his incisive style and wit on sports media and business won him many readers.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

When Leadership Fails: Add Panic And Stir

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High comedy this week from pearl clutchers in the Land of Woke. They are currently having a sacred cow about the crackdown on Chinese protesting brutal Covid restrictions in that country. Indignation and virtuous rage being the popular responses. These would be the same people who lustily cheered Prime Minister Justin Trudeau employing mounted police while seizing bank accounts of truckers protesting Covid restrictions in February. Because honking.

Yes, panic is in the eye of the beholder. As a legal standard it leaves a little something to be desired. But in Canadian politics you take what you can get when trying to whip up an emergency. And do your best to censor the rest.

The Public Order Emergency Commission and the new Alberta Sovereignty Act both require that the Canadian public see some imminent threat to justify shifting the status quo. In the case of the interminable POEC proceedings a perceived sense of urgency— a threat to national security— convinced the prime minister to adopt sweeping powers to financially crush a rowdy band of truckers who parked on Ottawa’s Wellington Street for three weeks or so.

Despite no significant police or jurisdictional body publicly urging him to pull the pin on the Emergency Measures Act— besides a legal opinion no one is allowed to see— Trudeau saw his dramatis persona as the last bulwark against chaos. Drama teacher as hero. So he went full Duchy of Fenwick.

Forget that the Ottawa Police Service, the OPP and RCMP were finally operating as a joint command, working on the plan that would finally clear the capital’s streets later in the week. Trudeau called in the lawyers and the bankers to stifle dissent. And portrayed himself as put-upon Lincoln by rebels.

The problem in stoking this panic is that the Ottawa segment of the pushback by truckers was the least significant of three major Covid pushbacks in February/ March 2022. The most serious— the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ont., and Detroit, Michigan— was wound up through negotiations and a few tow trucks in a matter of days.

The second— the blockade of the vital Coutts, Alberta, crossing to the U.S.— was more vexing, with Ottawa and the Alberta’s government passing the hot potato on the problem. There were allegations of armed vigilantes and irreparable harm to Canada/ U.S. trade. But this, too, was settled without bloodshed or mounted police charging into crowds. Or the Emergency Measures Act.

In both cases leadership prevailed. The third episode was the truck protest on Wellington street that spiralled out of control when civic, provincial and federal authorities all expected some one else to solve a traffic problem. From the prime minister— who deigned to meet the unwashed mass of truckers— down to the Ottawa police chief, avoidance, not leadership, seemed the solution.

In comparison to the two other crises, it would be hard to describe what Trudeau faced as a national crisis. The airport, train station, stores, vital utilities and Parliament itself functioned as they had under the government’s own restrictive Covid regulations. The protesters were not that far removed from the homeless encampments in public parks, sidewalks and under bridges that refused to budge for six months or more.  (Okay, the truckers honked horns instead of criminal drug dealing and sexual assault.) The homeless-crew protests were as thoroughly political in their goals and methods as were the Convoy bunch.

For the PM, however, the images of Bouncy Castles and open-air concerts broadcast to the world were intolerable. Embarrassing. Galling. “The protesters didn’t just want to be heard, they wanted to be obeyed,” he said. “The situation was out of control, with the potential for violence, not just in Ottawa but across the country.”

And he’d done nothing to create this conflagration, he claimed. In the POEC hearings, using his glassy Montgomery Clift voice, Trudeau swore under oath he’d never described the protesters as anti-science misogynists and racists. He then declared himself satisfied at having stanched the alt-right hordes, locking up their leaders and braving the sarcasm of the foreign press.

His purchased media concurred, projecting public urination and honking trucks into armed white supremacy. They made up arson stories. Pollsters, too, told him Canadians in general didn’t like the image of the plebes who deliver their crudités and cheap Chinese clothing acting like Trump Americans. This was a can’t-miss.

He saw panic, he’d looked it in the eye, and now he was “serene”. He also knows that in in the contemporary “Victims ‘R Us” culture he can get away with anything he damn well pleases if it creates panic. Hell, he’d called Canadians genocidal at the UN, and no one flinched. Who’d start holding him accountable now?

Alberta’s new premier Danielle Smith has the opposite “panic” problem. She has little assurance that the agitated conditions she cited Tuesday will warm her province to the Alberta Sovereignty Act. But to get them to go along she must rile up enough of the Conservatives traditional base that Ottawa is coming to to destroy the oil patch, seize their guns and impose more harsh Covid lockdowns.

As opposed to Trudeau, Smith does not have a media sussing out Putin and Confederate flags for her. The same Edmonton-based opinion makers harassed her predecessor Jason Kenny into resignation over his handling of the Covid protocols since 2020. (No surprise that Smith rapidly cashiered the upper echelons of Alberta’s healthcare bureaucracy and championed the non-vaccinated citizens who, she said, had been rendered second-class citizens for rejecting what we now know was a flawed and perhaps dangerous vaccine program.)

Smith’s biggest impediment to creating indignation— in what is now a far more progressive electorate— is the recent boom in Alberta’s financial situation. Put simply, the province is again awash in cash, the government is declaring a $4 billion-plus surplus and Albertans are once again engaging in their traditional Hawaii, Palm Springs and Scottsdale retreats.

Smith is already spreading out that largesse to families, senior citizens, gas prices and more. Will it work? “The Land Is Strong But Ottawa Is Wrong” is a wobbly campaign slogan to take into next spring’s provincial election. Her polling is terrible, and the sale on Alberta Sovereignty is a long shot.

Maybe Saskatchewan will join in, but who knows? When you play with the panic bull you sometimes get the horn. Unless you’re Justin Trudeau and you have Jagmeet Singh in your pocket. Then you’re “serene”.

Sign up today for Not The Public Broadcaster newsletters. Hot takes/ cool slants on sports and current affairs. Have the latest columns delivered to your mail box. Tell your friends to join, too. Always provocative, always independent. 

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his new book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via http://brucedowbigginbooks.ca/book-personalaccount.aspx

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Bruce Dowbiggin

NFL Run/ Pass Maestros: Can’t Catch This

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There was a time when the CFL was the league of Air-Raid football. Mobile quarterbacks throwing off the run to receivers spread across the field. Think Warren Moon. Doug Flutie. Jeff Garcia. As we saw in the recent Grey Cup game, CFL teams still spread around the ball, producing last-minute dramatics.

The NFL, by contrast, was always  the league of pocket passers, riveted in place throwing rockets to receivers like Lynn Swann or Jerry Rice running proscribed routes. Think Terry Bradshaw. Ben Roethlisberger. Tom Brady. Running from the pocket was never a designed scheme but one of survival from defensive lineman with malicious intent.

NFL QBs have a running tradition going back to Fran Tarkenton in the 1960s, but their rambling was more of a survival instinct in a brutal time. Even when the NFL stuffed shirts allowed  Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Randall Cunningham, Daunte Culpepper, Vince Young  and Michael Vick to break from the pocket their careers were compromised by injuries.

The most notorious might be San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, who did much to start the read-option craze in the league but ultimately was broken down by injuries in his fourth year as a starter— with three surgeries following the 2015 season. (Kaepernick left football to become the John The Baptist of BLM.)

Then, in act of mercy or perhaps to juice offence, the NFL took pity on the athletic QBs. “It feels like the NFL is in a moment when a defender can get called for roughing the passer or unnecessary roughness simply by breathing hard on the QB,” writes Joe Mahoney of SB Nation. “It’s a reason why the career longevity for running QBs like Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields, Josh Allen, and Taysom Hill should be much longer the career lengths of some of the previous elite dual-threat QBs.”

Today’s NFL is indeed a changed beast at the QB position. Call it the attack of the Run/ Pass Option. The League is now Brady’s Bunch versus Pat’s Ma-Homies. Traditional maestros of structured football like Tom Brady against the chaos artists led by Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts. They bob and weave and double back, improvising as they go, forcing defensive backs to cover receivers for as long as 10 seconds.

The Chiefs’ genius Mahomes is like a welterweight, rambling from sideline to sideline to keep himself from hard hits as he makes time till Travis Kelce or Marquez Valdes-Scantling get open. Buffalo’s Allen, by contrast, is a heavyweight bruiser like Mike Tyson who buys time and crushes opponents by running them over with his 6-3, 235 pound frame. Baltimore’s Jackson is a sly middleweight who uses the field the way Floyd Mayweather used the ring.

As the expression goes, “If it’s not one thing it’s another”. Paul Domowich 33rd Team has the numbers: “For the first time in the modern era of the NFL, there currently are seven quarterbacks among the league’s top 50 rushers – the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson (9th, 480 yards), the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts (17th, 432), the Bills’ Josh Allen (39th, 269), the Bears’ Justin Fields (43rd, 243), the Giants’ Daniel Jones (44th, 241), Washington’s Taylor Heinicke (45th, 232) and the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes (48th, 229). Last year, there were six in the top 50.

Six quarterbacks are on pace to have 80-plus rushing attempts this season, including four – Jackson, Hurts, Allen and the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray — who are on a 100-carry pace. And a record 11 quarterbacks are on pace to have 25 or more rushing first downs.”

Judging by current statistics The Mahomies are in the ascendance while the Brady Bunch is just holding on. Quarterback rushing yards accounted for 15.4 percent of all rushing yards in 2021 (9659 of 62,694 yards). While the percentage of rushing TDs from QBs came down from its record high in 2020, QBs still accounted for 19.4 percent of all rushing TDs in 2021.  Through the midway point of the 2022 NFL season quarterbacks have run for 3310 yards which is 14.7 percent of the 22474 rushing yards so far this season.”

Brady and the stick-in-the-pockets like Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins and Matthews Stafford are still viable threats, but it’s clear that to stay one step ahead of defensive coordinators a QB needs the option of rolling out, isolating a defender and making him choose between the run or pass.

And that requires the athleticism previously left to running backs and receivers. For a glimpse of the future look no further than Caleb Williams of USC, the favourite to win the Heisman Trophy in U.S. college football. Williams is a hybrid of Mahomes and Lamar Jackson who makes wine from Gatorade. His two-TD performance as USC crushed Notre Dame this weekend was his defining moment in capturing the Heisman.

According to CBS: “His 267 total yards are certainly good enough, but his impact clearly went beyond his yardage total. Williams was a force. Entering this game, Williams was already one of the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy with 3,480 yards passing, 316 yards rushing and 40 total touchdowns. This showing against Notre Dame may have just sealed the deal.”

NFL teams will have to wait one more year for the sophomore Williams— who transferred from Oklahoma. But you can bet that— injuries aside—when his time comes he’ll go No. 1  in the 2024 draft. He won’t be alone, either. There is a posses of mobile QBs circling the airport. Because, as they’ve learned from this generation of NFL wizards: Catch Me If You Can.

Sign up today for Not The Public Broadcaster newsletters. Hot takes/ cool slants on sports and current affairs. Have the latest columns delivered to your mail box. Tell your friends to join, too. Always provocative, always independent. 

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his new book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by bookauthority.org . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via http://brucedowbigginbooks.ca/book-personalaccount.aspx

 

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