Category Archives: Devils

Celebrating My Favorite Professional Athlete of All Time, Martin Brodeur

On Monday; Martin Brodeur, my favorite athlete of all time, will enter the Hockey Hall of Fame.  Although I tend to spend less time thinking about the Football Hall of Fame and Hockey Hall of Fame than I do about the Baseball Hall of Fame, this is the most excited I have been about someone’s induction into any of the three.  If you watch any of the induction coverage, you will hear about Brodeur’s many, many records and his incredible statistics.  You will hear some people say that he is the greatest goalie of all time.  I happen to echo that sentiment, as he was dominant from 1993 to 2007 and very good from 2007 to 2010 (those endpoints and adjectives are, of course, subjective).  Patrick Roy was great, but he did not have a run of dominance nor consistency that lasted as long as Brodeur’s.  That said, my excitement for Brodeur’s induction stems mainly from the great moments of my life that he created.

To a non-sports fan, it is silly to hear that some of a person’s greatest moments in life involved watching athletes the person has never met.  I do not care.  Watching sports has given me many wonderful moments, and I want to touch on those involving Brodeur. 

*In 1993-4, the Devils had their best regular season to that point, and they won their first two playoff series of my fandom before falling to the Rangers in the best series I have ever watched.  The loss to the Rangers and “Matteau!  Matteau!” was devastating, but the joy in watching the Devils reel off 11 playoff wins before that loss was wonderful.  Though Martin Brodeur split time that regular season with Chris Terreri, Brodeur won the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year and started all but three of the playoff games.  That playoff run was my “coming of age” as a hockey fan, and Brodeur was a big part of the run.

*On June 24, 1995; I sat with my family in then-Brendan Byrne Arena as the Devils hoisted the Stanley Cup, representing the first championship for a true New Jersey team.  I was also present at the Meadowlands for a thrilling 1-0 overtime win over Boston in Round 1 (Randy McKay with the GWG), the Conference-clinching win against the rival Flyers, and the Devils’ Game 3 win over the Red Wings in the Finals.  Of course, the Devils ultimately swept the Red Wings in four.  Although I had been a casual Devils fan from Kindergarten (1987-8) through fifth grade (1992-3), it always seemed to me that the Cup was reserved for teams from Canada and the Penguins.  When the hated Rangers beat the Devils in 1994 en route to the Cup, I was upset but had hope that the Devils could someday win the Cup.  That “someday” came the very next season, and Martin Brodeur dominated for four rounds.  Thank you, Marty, for those nine glorious weeks of hockey.

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*On August 8, 1996; Martin Brodeur came to the grand opening of Garden State Plaza’s Lord & Taylor (only a few years after I had learned that the store chain was not actually owned by Lawrence Taylor).  My mom brought my brother, two friends, and me to the opening and to get Brodeur’s autographs.  My brother ended up with a picture in the newspaper with Brodeur.  We were all a bit jealous of him, but it was a great moment nonetheless!

*On April 17, 1997; I was sitting at then-Continental Airlines Arena (nee Brendan Byrne Arena), as the Devils nursed a 4-2 lead in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs against the Canadiens.  My friend Scott said, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if Brodeur scored a goal here?”  Sure enough, he did.  We jumped up and down a whole lot; it was pure elation.  I have watched this highlight a million times, and I get chills every time.

*On June 10, 2000; less than two weeks before my high-school graduation, I sat in my living room with my family and some good friends.  We watched Devils/Stars Game 6 extend into double overtime, when Jason Arnott’s goal clinched the Devils their second Cup.  Pure elation yet again.  As was the case in 1995, Brodeur backstopped the Devils the whole way through the playoffs.  The playoffs were a very busy time for me, as I had many exciting moments involving my pending HS graduation; but the Cup run was every bit as exciting as the high-school stuff.

*On June 9, 2003; my family was in Continental Airlines Arena again, as Martin Brodeur pitched a 3-0 shutout in Game 7 vs. the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.  This was Brodeur’s third shutout of the Finals and seventh of the playoffs and gave the Devils their third Stanley Cup.  At this point, I had finished my junior year of college, and Brodeur was one of only five Devils remaining continuously from the team’s first Stanley Cup.  It was the 10th year in a row in which Brodeur dominated and the 10th year in a row in which the Devils looked like a Cup contender for many parts of the season.  I enjoyed the first half of the playoff run at Colgate, as I wrapped up my junior year.  Then, I enjoyed the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals back at home in Midland Park (NJ) with many of my high-school friends.

*On April 29, 2006; Brodeur earned the victory as the Devils finished off a four-game sweep of the Rangers in Round 1 of the playoffs.  While the Devils had already tripled the Rangers’ number of Cups in my lifetime, it was nevertheless a huge thrill to beat the Rangers in a playoff series for the first time.  While athletes sometimes have less passion than fans do, we Devils fans always loved that Brodeur hated the Rangers as much as we did.  That series win was big for all of us.  This win happened nearly two years into my working career (at the parent company of AvisBudget) but provided me with great revenge for the Rangers’ series win from when I was in sixth grade (1994).

*On March 17, 2009; Brodeur earned his 552nd win, to break Patrick Roy’s record.  While there was initially an asterisk here, due to Brodeur’s having opportunities at shootout wins; Brodeur would ultimately surpass Roy’s total by a greater amount than Brodeur’s number of shootout wins.  Thus, the euphoria I felt standing in the last row of The Rock (Prudential Center) was not phony.  I stood there with my brother and three friends as Brodeur cut the netting off the net to keep as a souvenir.  This was the first big moment at The Rock, and The Rock probably never would have even been built if it were not for all of Brodeur’s success at Continental Airlines Arena.  (The Rock opened in 2007.)  At this point, I was two years into my teaching career at Ramsey High School, and it was awesome to reflect on the 552 wins.  I thought of how many “great goalies” had come and gone from the NHL over Brodeur’s 15-17-year career (depending upon whether or not you acknowledge the few games he played at the end of 1991-2), yet Brodeur was the one constant great goalie over that whole time. 

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Image via Toronto Star

*On May 25, 2012; nearly two decades after Brodeur’s rookie season (and more than twenty years after his NHL debut), the legend managed to be involved in what I consider the greatest non-Cup moment in Devils history.  It was Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals – Devils vs. Rangers.  The Devils were up 3 games to 2, as the Devils had won earned their first two series wins in the era of The Rock.  I was in the 100-level of The Rock that night with my former roommate.  Less than two minutes into the overtime, “Henrique, it’s over!!!” happened.  Pure elation on the level of the Jason Arnott Cup-winning goal from 12 years prior.  In fact, this felt every bit like the Devils winning the Cup.  More than 18,000 fans, myself included, had out-of-body experiences of joy as the greatest goal song of all time (“The ‘Hey’ Song”) blared over the Prudential Center speakers. To knock off the Rangers in overtime in the Conference Finals was incredible.  Brodeur again rejoiced to a level befitting of knocking off the hated rivals in the Conference Finals.  He looked as happy as he would have if the Devils had beaten the Rangers in Game 7 in 1994, and the same could be said for me.  While the Devils would ultimately lose to the Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, the 2012 playoff run remains a wonderfully positive experience for Devils fans. 

*After 2012, Brodeur would play two additional seasons for the Devils.  In the latter, he split time with current Devils goalie Cory Schneider.  By the end of the 2013-4 season, Brodeur had comfortably set the records for wins, shutouts, games played, and many more.  For me though, it was most amazing to think of the amount of time I had this guy in my life.  He debuted with a few games when I was in 4th grade (1992).  He was a rookie when I was in 6th grade, and he was the Devils’ primary goalie from that year through middle school, high school, college, three years working at AvisBudget, and seven years teaching at Ramsey High School.  Fittingly, his last Devils season was my first school year teaching the legendary editors, Robert Sartori and Nick Costanzo, of this blog.  Thus, over 22 of my first 32 years of life, Brodeur left a mark. 

I should add that his on-ice success is not the limit of the mark he left.  He has also been the best interview of any player for whom I have ever rooted.  He has always been very personable, yet he has always managed to say things of substance.  So many NHL players speak solely in clichés, but this has not been true of Brodeur.  Additionally, as a Devils fan, it was a delight that an all-time great chose time and again to stay in New Jersey.  If the greatest goalie of all time had played in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, or any Canadian city, he would have been a mega-celebrity; but Brodeur was content to stay in New Jersey.  In New Jersey, he was celebrated, but he was never revered on the level of Derek Jeter or the other big stars of the NYC area. 

The only negative on his playing career is that somehow, the wonderful “Mar-TAN” chant from Continental Airlines Arena evolved into a “Mar-TEE” chant at The Rock.  You would think that, as he aged, the chant would move to the more dignified name, not to the less dignified name.  Plus, “Mar-TAN” accents the correct syllable, while “Mar-TEE” does not.  This turn of events has never made sense to me, but I do not blame Brodeur for that.  I am hear to applaud the man, the myth, the legend, that is Martin Brodeur.

Congratulations, Martin Brodeur, on your induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and thank you for being involved with so many great moments of my life!

NHL (and Devils) Playoff Preview

Heading into the MLB and NFL playoffs, I did not write much in the way of previews.  I figured that the other esteemed writers of the “Below the Belt Sports” staff had done a stellar enough job on their own.  Shockingly though, I am the only one on the blog writing about this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Go figure!  Therefore, allow me to cover two topics – how I expect the Devils, my favorite team, to do and how I expect the playoffs to turn out.

First of all, I am extremely pumped that the Devils are back in the playoffs.  In a sport in which more than half the league (16 out of 31 teams this year, 16 out of 30 teams before this year) makes the playoffs, six years out of the playoffs is an eternity.  Making the stretch feel worse was the fact that, from 1990 through 2012, the Devils missed the playoffs exactly twice.  That is all in the past now.

This year’s Devils team has been a thrill to watch.  Whenever the team is down by a goal or even two goals, I fully expect the team to come back.  No, the Devils’ defense is not amazing.  Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Brian Rafalski are not playing back there, but the defense – led by the smooth-skating Sami Vatanen – is solid enough to back an excellent offense.  Taylor Hall has been a Hart Trophy candidate (for MVP), racking up 39 goals and 93 points.  If one looks at the Devils’ stats, one will see a large drop off from Hall to everyone else, but that does not mean that the team lacked offense behind Hall.  Nico Hischier put up 52 points in a rookie season in which he played like a veteran from Day 1.  Will Butcher earned 44 points, an excellent total for a rookie defenseman, and Kyle Palmieri tallied 44 points as well (but missed 20 games to injury).

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All season long but especially down the stretch, the Devils found plenty of depth scoring.  While there were no gaudy numbers beyond Hall’s, 9 other Devils did reach double figures in goals.  Many of those goals were huge.  Down the stretch, the Devils played several weeks of playoff-like games, and the team received huge goals from the likes of Blake Coleman, Stefan Noesen, Miles Wood, and Pavel Zacha.  Patrick Maroon, acquired at the trade deadline from Edmonton, has been a physical beast and has settled nicely onto a line with Wood and Zacha.  Michael Grabner, also acquired before the deadline, has provided great speed and countless breakaways.  Of course, he never ever ever scores on those breakaways, but he is due.  Throw in the steady two-way play of Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle, and the Devils have a great offensive corps.

While the Devils finished the season with 97 points and the #8 seed in the East, I think these numbers undervalue the current Devils team.  The Devils’ worst stretches of the season coincided greatly with games that Taylor Hall missed and games in which the team’s goaltending was downright abysmal.  Keith Kinkaid was underwhelming early in the season; Corey Schneider has been underwhelming in 2018; but Keith Kinkaid has been on fire since ascending to the #1 role in late February.

In fact, for most of this season, I repeated, “The Devils could be a Cup contender if I had any faith in the team’s goaltending holding up for 4 rounds.”  Of course, I did not have that faith for much of the season.  I do now.

To be clear, I am not saying that the Devils will win the Stanley Cup.  They will be underdogs in every series that they play, and they will have home-ice advantage in none of those series.  That said, when I say “underdogs”, I do not mean “#16 vs. #1 in NCAA Tournament” “underdogs”.  I mean that the Devils will likely be given a 40% chance of winning each series.  Yes, that makes the Devils underdogs, but it also means that they could legitimately win any series in which they play.  Therefore, without further ado, I shall now unveil my playoff predictions:

First Round:

Devils over Tampa Bay in 7: The Devils went 3-0-0 (OK, 1-2-0-0 by my 3-2-1-0 points system) against Tampa Bay this year.  Both teams are fast teams with strong offenses.  The Lightning have a stronger defense, led by Victor Hedman, but the Devils can win this series if Kinkaid keeps up his strong play.

Boston over Toronto in 7: This should be a delightful series between two evenly-matched teams.  I give Boston the edge because of Tuukka Rask and having Game 7 at home.

Washington over Columbus in 5: You know how I feel about the value of non-regulation wins.  Columbus had 15 of them and would have finished 6 points behind Florida and outside the playoffs with a 3-2-1-0 system.  That means Columbus is a “paper tiger, Champ” in this year’s playoffs.  This spells an early exit for the Jackets.

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Pittsburgh over Philadelphia in 5: In the NHL, it is tough to have a team pull a Lebron James-memorial “Coast through most of the regular season and turn it on in the playoffs” routine, but I am pretty sure we are seeing it with Pittsburgh.  The Penguins actually turned things on during the last few months of the season, and the playoffs are a much different animal than the regular season.  Plus, after back-to-back Cups, the Pens should actually feel relaxed as if they are playing with house money.  Bye bye, Philly.  No more greased poles for you.

Nashville over Colorado in 5: Colorado is similar to the Devils in that an MVP candidate (Nathan MacKinnon for the Avs) has led a team to a surprise run to end a playoff drought.  The only difference is that Nashville awaits the Avs.  I am not a homer here.  I would expect the Devils to lose to Nashville in 5 as well.  Nashville’s defense is stacked; its offense is deep; it has Pekka Rinne; and it is playoff-tested.

Winnipeg over Minnesota in 5: Winnipeg is the second-best team in the league.  The Jets are fast, have a strong defense, and have the most underrated goalie in the league in Connor Hellebuyck.  In fact, Hellebuyck is the best goalie I saw this year.  He has the form and calm of a young Martin Brodeur.  No, I am not saying this guy is tied with Brodeur for being the GOAT, but I do believe he is the closest to a Brodeur prototype I have seen.  Minnesota, minus Ryan Suter, will not have enough to beat the Jets.

Los Angeles over Vegas in 7: Just a hunch here.  Everything on the ice has been a breeze for Vegas this year.  The Golden Knights have exceeded expectations all season long and thus have felt no pressure.  All of a sudden, Vegas is now the favorite in a playoff matchup.  I expect nerves and for Vegas to lose its first two games at home.  The Knights will recover to extend the series to 7 games, but Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, and Anze Kopitar will pull out their first clutch playoff win in a few years in Game 7.

San Jose over Anaheim in 7: Honestly, I have no idea about this one.  Both are regular playoff teams who have often disappointed in the spring.  I am flipping a coin on this one.

Second Round:

Boston over Devils in 6: Sorry, Devils fans.  Boston has been more physical with the Devils than other teams have been this year.  The Devils have not looked great against Boston.  I give Boston the series win.

Washington over Pittsburgh in 7: It is time.  Washington is finally going to get over the Pittsburgh hump.  Washington has been better than Pittsburgh in the regular season (again), and here is a hunch that Washington finally takes care of business.

Nashville over Winnipeg in 7: Look, many people have said that they do not like this playoff format.  I agree.  This is yet another year in which the best two teams in the conference will meet before the Conference Finals.  My solution: Return to the old format in which the #1 and #2 seeds are division champs, while #3-#8 are given to the next six-best teams in the conference, regardless of division.  This scenario alone would have saved Washington-Pittsburgh for the 2016 and 2017 Conference Finals and would save Nashville-Winnipeg for the 2018 Conference Finals.  I know that the NHL likes having a bracket, so I would be OK with not re-seeding the second round.  I would rather have re-seeding, but I can live without it.  Anyway, I wrote this long thing to hide the fact that I do not have a good reason for picking Nashville other than “Game 7 is in Nashville.”

Los Angeles over San Jose in 6: Unfortunately, Peter DeBoer is taken down as he was in 2012 by the Kings.

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Conference Finals:

Washington over Boston in 6: Now that Ovechkin has gotten over the Pittsburgh hump, the Capitals confidently roll past Boston and into the Stanley Cup Finals.

Nashville over San Jose in 6: Nashville is the deepest and most balanced team in the West, and this fact reappears against the Sharks.

Stanley Cup Finals:

Washington over Nashville in 6: Sure, Carrie Underwood is easy on the eyes, but karma comes back to bite her for changing “I’ve been waitin’ all night for Sunday night” (a wonderful, albeit factually completely incorrect song) into “Oooooooh, Sunday night” (a brutal song, aside from the fact that she is in the video).  Meanwhile, the Ovechkin train keeps rolling, and #8 finally hoists his first Stanley Cup.


That is what I think.  Hopefully, I am wrong, and the New Jersey Devils end up winning the Cup!

Bring Back “The ‘Hey’ Song”

To all the Devils fans out there, this is a letter that I have mailed to Hugh Weber, “President – Prudential Center and the New Jersey Devils.

Dear Mr. Weber,


Please bring back “The ‘Hey’ Song” (“Rock and Roll Part II”) after Devils goals.  I know that you are always looking for ways to improve the fan experience, and this is the #1 way that you can achieve this objective for hard-core Devils fans.  All of our greatest moments as Devils fans involve this song.  From “Henrique, It’s Over!!!” to Jeff Friesen’s two goals in Game 7 against Anaheim to Neal Broten’s and Randy McKay’s overtime goals in the 1995 playoffs, this is the song to which we celebrated.  Thus, this is the song to which I – and most other Devils fans – would love to celebrate future Devils goals.  If you could bring back this song for this year’s playoffs (in an ideal world in which the Devils make the playoffs) or for next year’s opener (in a less-than-ideal world), I – and many, many other Devils fans -would be very grateful.

At the same time, I understand why you scrapped this song a few years ago.  You did not like that many fans would chant, “You suck”, while cheering.  I agree with you on that one. The “You suck” is juvenile, and it actually devalues the Devils’ accomplishments, in that anyone should be able to score against someone who “sucks”.  That said, the people who chanted “You suck” during “The Hey Song” now do it twice as often.  They chant it during the current goal song, and they also chant it a few minutes later when the crowd sings “The Hey Song” on its own (with accompaniment from a horn).  Therefore, by bringing back “The Hey Song” as the official goal song, you would actually cut the amount of “You suck”s in half, which is a good thing.

Anyway, I am a simple man.  I love coming to Devils games, and I love hearing “The ‘Hey’ Song” after goals.  That is all I want.  I am jealous when I hear fans of the Rangers, Blackhawks, Isles, and countless other fans get to cheer along with their true goal songs.  I, along with many other Devils fans, wish to hear the Devils’ true goal song played once again after goals as well.

Thank you for your time.



Michael Walker

Expansion Teams are Supposed to be Terrible.

Expansion teams are supposed to stink.  This is one of the basic principles of sports.  The New York Mets, the Houston Texans, the Ottawa Senators, the Vancouver Grizzlies, etc.  I could list bad expansion teams all day long, but that would be silly.  Therefore, I will stop.  Just know that, before 2017, every single expansion team in the history of the four major North American sports leagues had been bad.

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This whole premise makes perfect sense.  Fans of expansion teams are ecstatic to have a team.  These fans do not need a good team.  Having a bad team is better than having no team at all.  Therefore, a league can milk several years of good attendance out of bad expansion teams.  It is a tried and true formula.  Nobody would be dumb enough to mess with it….except of course the man who continues to value an overtime/shootout win the same as a regulation win, the same man who stopped letting teams skate around the ice before the beginnings of periods (because it would make sooooo much of a difference in terms of keeping the ice slick).  Yes, the man is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

During Mike Francesa’s last few radio shows, he interviewed Bettman.  During the interview, I heard Bettman say that the league deliberately let this year’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights build a great team because he did not want to deprive their fans of playoff hockey.  If ever there were an NHL version of an “Occupy Wall Street” protest, he probably heard this idiotic short-sighted idea there.  OK, OK, I do not want to get too political here, so I will use a different analogy.  Bettman essentially said that the 30-year-old guy who has been rejected by women all his life should now be handed a supermodel girlfriend.  That is ridiculous.  That guy is going to be happy being in a relationship with any woman.  As a society, we do not need to waste a supermodel (in limited supply) on this “happy to be with any woman” guy.

Well, in reality, the Vegas hockey fans are this 30-year-old guy, and the Golden Knights – currently in first place in the Pacific Division – are the supermodel.  Meanwhile, standard terrible expansion teams represent the “any woman”.  Golden Knights fans would have been perfectly happy rooting for teams of this low caliber, just as “the 30-year-old guy” would have been happy in a relationship with any woman.

You might be wondering how the NHL set Vegas up to have such a strong expansion team.  In the expansion drafts, teams were allowed to protect no more than 11 players.  This was different from the last expansion draft of 2000, when teams were allowed to protect at most 15 players.  This might seem like a minimal difference, but the change meant that many more quality players were available for Vegas to draft than for previous expansion teams to draft.  I do not like this.

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To me, it was a great story when the Ottawa Senators finally made the playoffs in their fifth season or when the Nashville Predators finally made the playoffs in their sixth season.  I was excited for their loyal fans to finally experience playoff hockey.  However, I am not pumped for Vegas’s fans to get playoff action in the team’s first season while loyal fans of teams like Carolina, Buffalo, Florida, Arizona, and Colorado must suffer through yet another playoffs-less season.

Moreover, when the supermodel eventually breaks up with the 30-year-old guy, that guy is going to be disappointed by all future girlfriends.  The same goes for Vegas’s fans, when the team regresses and misses the playoff next season.  Instead of Vegas’s fans getting 4-5 seasons of joy by watching a bad team grow into a good one, the fans get immediate gratification followed by inevitable years of disappointment when the team misses the playoffs.  Therefore, instead of 4-5 seasons of guaranteed large crowds, Vegas is guaranteed 1 season of a large crowd.

Classic short-sighted move by the NHL.  Expansion teams are supposed to be terrible.  This allows for expansion teams to do well financially for their first 4-5 years instead of their first 1-2 years.

Hockey: Where the Outcome Retroactively Becomes the Strategy

The New Jersey Devils, off to a surprising 9-3-1 start fell on Tuesday night, 3 to 1, to the St. Louis Blues.  The Blues were one of the NHL’s top teams last year, and they are off to a strong start this year.  In Tuesday’s game, the Devils scored a few minutes into the game to take a 1-0 lead.  They would allow a late second-period goal and an early third-period goal to fall behind 2-1.  The last St Louis goal was an empty-netter in the final minute.  My takeaway from the game was that, while the Devils’ offense has looked vastly improved this season from last season, the offense is not yet good enough to handle a top-flight defense like St. Louis’s.

However, Devils’ coach John Hynes had a different takeaway.  After the game, Hynes said, “That’s a test of maturity, and I would say in tonight’s game, we failed the maturity test of understanding what it takes in a 60-minute battle against a top-five team in the league.”

Devils’ forward Brian Boyle added, “When you score in the first period, you don’t try to hang on to win 1-0.”

These two quotes are hilarious to me, and they are the ultimate proof why I am not the ideal hockey coach (even though I was one for two years).  If I were the Devils’ coach, I would have simply said, “The Blues have a great defense, and we could not generate many quality chances against them over the last 30 minutes of the game.”  Done and done.  However, that’s not how it works with hockey coaches.

Only in hockey does the outcome retroactively become the strategy.  Only in hockey is perfectly normal for a coach to say that a team must learn that it is hard to maintain a 1-goal lead for 58 minutes.  NHL players have been playing hockey since they were 5, but a coach can say that players have to learn to keep trying to score goals even if the team is up 1.  So silly.  I watched the full Devils/Blues game.  There was zero part of me that felt throughout that the Devils were resting on their laurels, trying to nurse a 1-goal lead, or generally trying not to score.  However, because the Devils ended up scoring only one goal, Hynes feels he is right to say that the Devils were not trying hard enough to score.

You do not hear this craziness in other sports.  You don’t hear baseball managers saying, “Yeah, we scored 2 in the first inning, and the players have to learn not to mail in their at-bats after that.”  You don’t hear NBA coaches saying, “Yeah, these players thought they could win with 55 points tonight, but they have to learn that even bad teams score at least 65 per night.”  This would be laughable, but it is normal in hockey.

My Hynes and Boyle quotes are not isolated incidents.  I remember hearing Ken Daneyko say two years ago during a Devils loss at the Rangers, “Hopefully the Devils learn some lessons during this game so they can play better tomorrow against Edmonton.”  Again, those Devils had been playing together for four months that season and had been playing hockey in general their whole lives.  Were there really great hockey lessons they were going to learn during that one loss?  Of course not!  Fortunately, announcers of the other sports know how dumb they would sound saying lines like that, so we are not subjected to Gary Cohen saying, “Hopefully the Mets learned something in their first two losses in Washington so they can beat them tonight.”  Pro athletes lose many games, but, in most of them, they really don’t learn large lessons.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the newest stupid hockey-cliche craze is that all teams want to “play a puck-possession game.”  John Hynes stressed that when he was hired as Devils coach.  It was as if, five years ago, hockey players and coaches had not yet realized that possessing the puck greatly  helps teams win hockey games.  Time and time again over the past five seasons, I hear players say things like, “We need to play more of a puck-possession game.”  Translation: “We need to have the puck more”.  Again, this is as silly as a football team saying, “We need to try to gain more yards on offense” or a baseball team saying, “We need to try to get more runners on base.”  Wow, brilliant.  It’s like hockey coaches one-upped Einstein with a new theory of relativity.

Anyway, all of this said, let me return to my earlier premise that, in hockey, the outcome retroactively becomes the strategy.  There is a reason why hockey coaches can get away with this practice.  The players buy into it.  Hockey players genuinely believe that, if they don’t score enough goals, it is because they weren’t trying to score goals.  They believe that, if an opposing player scores on a good shot, it is because their team “didn’t play tight enough defense” or “didn’t play within the system.”  Never mind that, if a team is much worse than its opponent, the “system” typically won’t matter.  That said, these mind games do work for hockey players.  If you make a hockey player think that he wasn’t playing hard enough offensively or defensively, that player (unless I am that player) will believe you.  I think I am the only person involved with hockey who does not believe these principles.

This also shows why I was not a great hockey coach.  In almost all games I coached, I thought that players were trying their hardest in all zones and were in the correct positions.  Likewise, in the NHL, players are typically air-tight positionally.  This means that I cannot and could not blame “the system” for things that go or went wrong. Therefore, I attribute(d) success or lack thereof on the ice to a combination of talent, execution, intellect, and a little bit of luck. When I coached, I knew we sometimes lost games because we didn’t make plays that we could have made.  However, I never felt like the team was not trying or was holding back.  I never felt the team needed to “learn how to win”, a cliché often spewed by hockey coaches, players, and announcers.  To the contrary, I assume that every team knows how to win.  The “knowing” is the easy part. It is everything that follows the “knowing” stage that is tough to do.  Unfortunately for me though, telling the players on a team that they weren’t playing hard enough, needed to learn how to win, or were holding back is a hallmark of a good hockey coach!  I guess I’ll stick with my day job of teaching…and my night job of writing for “Below the Belt”.

Lastly, I want to make one tangential commentary.  Only in hockey do announcers talk in every game about “what a great effort a team is giving”.  Usually, the announcer is talking about the losing team in this case.  (OK, usually it’s Ken Daneyko talking about the Devils…)  Again, in no other sport is this a discussion piece.  The Mets play 162 games every year, and I cannot think of a single time that Gary, Keith, or Ron praised the Mets’ or their opponent’s effort.  Granted though, that is baseball, and hockey is a much more grueling sport.  Therefore, let me discuss football.  All I remember are times when announcers criticize teams for a lack of effort (see “Giants vs. Rams”).  You do not hear NFL announcers saying, “The Bills might be losing, but they are really playing hard today.”  Of course, they are playing hard!  That’s the norm.  That’s the expectation.  In any pro-sports game, players are supposed to be playing hard all the time! That’s why the get paid.  That is not praise-worthy, but only in hockey do people render that praise.

The NHL is Great, but It Needs to Fix Its Points System

When I joined the esteem staff of “Below the Belt Sports”, the question was not, “Would my first hockey post be about my hatred for the NHL’s overtime and point system?”  The question was, “When would I write that post?”  After watching the Devils blow a 2-goal lead in the last two minutes and then seeing the team and fans act like everything was great after “winning” the shootout, I realized that the answer to the second question needed to be “Right Now”.

Let’s start though with the good in today’s NHL.  I believe that the NHL is a more exciting game than it was 10 years ago.  I am not basing this off stats.  This is purely from the eye test.  My eye test.  Compared to 10 years ago, the NHL currently has more speed, more stars, and more quality scoring chances.  In the media-crazed world in which we live, small-market teams are more marketable than they once were.  The excitement of the Nashville Predators’ run to the Finals is proof of that.  Additionally, as much as I have complained about the league putting teams in “non-hockey” markets over the years, the truth is that the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes are the only two teams that have never really become big draws in their home regions.  (The jury is still out on Vegas, but I think that one will work out just fine.)

Furthermore, to many people, the NBA and NFL are worse than they were 10 years ago, and this helps the relative appeal of the NHL.  Everyone knows the ratings are down in the NFL this year, and I am not going to belabor the possible reasons.  We all know the theories.  As for the NBA, I realize the Association is quite popular these days, but it is popular because of the soap-opera stuff.  We are roughly a month into the NBA’s preseason, and the preseason will end in mid-May.  Nothing that happens between now and mid-May matters unless it is a major injury to a major player on a major team (see “Hayward, Gordon”).   24 of the NBA teams have roughly no chance to win the championship, and there’s at least a 90% chance that either Cleveland or Golden State will win it.  Again, I know the NBA is popular.  People still tune in to see great dunks, great shots, great passes, and great Tweets.  The last item there is keeping afloat.  I swear that, every time I go to (wait, why do I ever go there?), half of the headlines are about tweets or comments made by Lebron, Durant, Curry, or Westbrook.

If you like that stuff, you like the NBA.  However, if you like seeing great competition night in and night out, if you like knowing that everyone in the league has a chance at the playoffs as of the start of the season, if you like games with fast action and few stoppages, and if you like a sport where at least half the league has a legitimate chance at a title; you are watching the NHL over the NBA.  Also, every second of a hockey game is riveting because there are 5 goals scored per game on average.  Therefore, a goal in the first few minutes could be the game-winning goal.  In the NBA, you can wait until the third or fourth quarter to tune in, because no point scored in the first half is that significant.

Anyway, the NHL should be the perfect game, and it is…for 60 minutes.  Then, overtime and the shootout come along, and it is a disaster.  From 1999 through 2015, overtime was 4-on-4, and I had no problem with it.  I actually loved it.  It was still real hockey.  After all, we are used to seeing 4-on-4 whenever there are matching minors or overlapping penalties.  By taking two players off the ice, 4-on-4 overtime served the NHL’s objectives of making overtime faster, more exciting, and more likely to produce a goal.

Image result for nhl overtime rules

Unfortunately, after the full-season lockout of 2004-5, the NHL felt it needed to make some major changes to win back fans.  While two of the rule changes were excellent (allowing two-line passes and preventing line changes when a team ices the puck), two of them have angered me and continue to anger me.  One of those is the trapezoid (“The Martin Brodeur Rule”).   Meanwhile, the one that most angers me is the shootout.  As of 2005, after overtime, games do not end in ties.  Instead, they go to shootouts.  Therefore, a great team hockey game is decided by an individual-skills competition.  For you non-hockey fans, this is akin to deciding baseball games by home-run derbies or basketball games by 3-point-shooting contests.  It just doesn’t feel right.  When the game is on the line, you should not change the game to a completely different game.

Therefore, from 2005 through 2015, I thought that the shootout was the worst thing that could ever happen to hockey.  I was wrong.  In 2015, the league changed overtime to 3-on-3.  Now, instead of having one gimmick end a game, there are two of them back-to-back!   3-on-3 hockey is not hockey.  While 4-on-4 maintains standard hockey strategy, 3-on-3 is just a bunch of basketball-like possessions.  One player can skate circles with the puck while waiting for his linemates to change.  There are a bunch of “offensive rushes”, but, since a 3-on-2 is considered a “rush”, the overtime is one never-ending set of rushes.  Therefore, the excitement of a rush is gone.  Plus, with so few skaters on the ice, it sometimes feels like ping pong as teams trade chance for chance.  It does not take that much skill to get an overtime chance.  There are six skaters on the ice; the puck is going to find you if you are out there.  Why do you think John Moore has so many points in overtime and so few in regulation?

Image result for john moore nhl

Furthermore, the league, in its infinite wisdom, has decided this year to have teams change sides for overtime so that it is a longer distance to complete a line change.  This means that players get more tired as they wait for an appropriate time to change, and it is more likely that people will deliberately skate the puck out of the opposing zone to allow his linemates to change.  I saw Erik Karlsson, one of the top NHL players, do it two or three times alone last night.  It’s a joke.  It’s not hockey.

At last night’s Devils game, there was a thrilling finish to regulation.  I was angry because the Devils had blown a 2-goal lead, but it was real hockey.  As soon as overtime began, my hockey gut realized, “Wait, if the Devils score a goal in this ping-pong tournament, then that erases the 2-goal lead they just blew?  That doesn’t seem right.”  I have never felt like shootout wins were real wins, and I do not feel like 3-on-3 wins are real wins either.  Therefore, something has to give.

I realize that this crap is here to stay.  I know that sports are a business, and, if 3-on-3 and shootouts are good for ratings, they are going to stick around.  However, if these gimmicks are going to stick around, the NHL needs to change its point system.  I am a huge Devils fan, but I feel guilty getting 2 points from a skills-competition win in which the team blew a 2-goal lead.  Likewise, I get angry when their rivals earn two points for the same reason. For those of you who do not know; when the league went to 4-on-4 overtime in 1999, the league created the “loser point”.  This rule means that teams earn 2 points for any win, 1 loss for an overtime or shootout loss, and 0 points for a regulation loss.  The rule has stayed as the NHL introduced shootouts and then changed 4-on-4 overtime to 3-on-3.

Therefore, the league correctly acknowledges that a loss is less “real” when it happens during a gimmick – 3-on-3 or shootout.  Given that, why the heck does the league not acknowledge that a win is less “real” when it happens during a gimmick contest?  I am not the first to suggest the easy fix to this problem, but here it goes anyway.  A team should get 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an overtime/shootout win, 1 point for an overtime/shootout loss, and 0 points for a regulation loss.  This way, each game is worth the same number of points; a gimmick win is appropriately valued; and you eliminate the ridiculous practice of rooting against games in your conference to go to overtime.  Seriously, how dumb is it that any NHL fan who knows math has to root specifically against games going to overtime?  It makes sense though.  Do you want your competitors earning a total of 2 points in a game or a total of 3 points?  The 3-2-1-0 system gets rid of this problem.  Every game is worth 3 points – either 3 go to one team, or 2 go to one team while 1 goes to the other.

This solution also eliminates two problems, one of which much has been written and one of which little has been written.

  • Teams, especially in inter-conference games, “play for the tie” for the last few minutes of regulation. This way, both teams guarantee themselves at least a point.  Now, with the 3-2-1-0 system, teams are motivated to avoid overtime to earn the 3 points.
  • This new system would actually make it easier to erase big deficits in the standings. This is the component that many hockey writers miss.  One of the reasons for the league’s preference for the current point system is that the league does not want teams falling too many points out of the playoff race.  Ironically though, the 2-1-0 system makes it tough to erase even 6-point standings deficits, because teams so easily and often earn at least 1 point.  By changing the system to 3-2-1-0, there is greater variance.  While teams can fall more points out of the playoffs, it easier to close gaps as well.  Any time a team wins in regulation while the team it is chasing loses in regulation, the team gains 3 points.  Therefore, a team could a six-point deficit in two games.  That sounds good to me.


Lastly, I hope nobody is concerned about what this change in points would do to the record book.  As it is, if you compare point totals now to point totals in 1999 and earlier (when overtime was 5-on-5; there was no loser point; and there were still ties), you are wasting your time.  The point totals now are already noticeably inflated from those days.  Who cares if we inflate them again?


Anyway, that’s enough for today.  The NHL is in a great place right now, but it needs to fix its point system.