Category Archives: NHL

Six Ways I Can Improve Sports

I think that most sports fans would agree that instant replay is usually a wonderful thing.  I think that most sports fans would agree that instant replay is occasionally a terrible thing.  I think that most sports fans feel that replay should exist to eliminate the egregious bad call that every TV viewer immediately knows is bad.  I think that most sports fans feel that replay should not be employed to use “super slo-mo” to overturn a call that looked completely fine to everyone in real speed.  In this vein, I have one major fix that we need to make to replay.  Following that, I will add two smaller fixes that also would serve replay well.  Following that, I will add three other fixes that will improve professional sports.  In the end, you will see six changes that can make your sports-rooting lives so much better.  Merry Christmas from me.

  1. With the exception of reviews of NHL goals, no replay should last more than one minute. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Dez Bryant, Jesse James non-Decker.  All of these gentlemen have been involved with high-profile receptions/TDs that were overturned to the chagrin of most viewers.  In the cases of Bryant and James (not Kobe and LeBron), many people take umbrage with the fact that the NFL requires players to “complete the catch to the ground”.  Thus, many people say that the NFL should take away said rule that a receiver must “complete the catch to the ground”.  I disagree with that general sentiment.  If a player makes a diving-catch attempt only to have the ball come out as he hits the ground, that should be called an incomplete pass.  The player did not “complete the catch to the ground”.  The issue fans truly have is when a player either takes a few steps while falling, juggles the ball while taking a few steps, or turns to dive into the end zone while repositioning the ball in his hands, etc…….and THEN loses the ball when hitting the ground.  These are the plays where everyone watching in the stadium or on TV thinks it is a catch….and everyone watching is livid when the “catch” call is overturned.

That said, it is tough to legislate exactly when it should or should not be necessary to “complete the catch to the ground”.  By the letter of the law, the guy who loses the diving catch as he hits the ground is in the same circumstance as Jesse James on Sunday night.  After all, Jesse James* did not technically have possession yet as he dove for the end zone, just as a receiver trying for a diving catch does not have possession yet when the ball hits the ground.  However, we all generally feel that the former is a catch, while the latter is not….but how do we fix this?

In my mind; since it is tough to change the “complete the catch to the ground” rule to cover all circumstances appropriately, we need instead to implement a “one-minute replay” rule…..and we need it in baseball, football, and basketball.  An official/umpire/referee should get one minute to watch replays.  That is all.  Within one minute, an official can overturn an obvious knee hitting the ground before a fumble, a ball short-hopping before entering a receiver’s or outfielder’s hands, a foot on or off the three-point line, a second foot on or off the sideline, or a “safe”/”out” call.  Of course, “obvious” is the operative word here.  An obvious bad call will be easily overturned within a minute.  However; if a call cannot be overturned in a minute, then the call on the field could not have been that egregiously bad, and we should stick with the call on the field.

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One minute would not have been enough time to overturn the Jesse James play, the Dez Bryant catch, or either of this year’s Seferian-Jenkins plays.  Needless to say, most of America outside of Massachusetts and Wisconsin would have been pleased to see these calls on the field stand.  Moreover, if you think we need this rule in football – with a 16-game schedule – then you know we really really really need it for baseball and its 162-game schedule.  Find me one person who wants to watch a five-minute replay to see if a base-stealer’s butt came off second base for a split second before his hand touched the base.  Stop it.  Nobody wants that.  Likewise, as a veteran of four years of umpiring in the Midland Park Baseball Association in the late ‘90s, I know that a first-base umpire is to listen for the sounds of the runner touching first base and the ball entering the first base glove’s pocket.  Whichever “pop” comes first dictates the call, yet now we are subject to five-minute soundless replays where we break things down to super-super-super-super-duper-slo-mo.  (Even if the sounds are actually the most reliable evidence in some cases)  Again, that is not the spirit of replay.  Replay is for Denkinger, Galarraga, and Beltran (in Santana’s no-hitter); it is not for the afore-mentioned garbage.

2) NFL teams should be able to challenge penalties. It is ridiculous that replay can take away ASJ’s seemingly obvious Jets touchdown and give the Pats the ball, while replay cannot overturn an egregiously terrible 50-yard pass-interference penalty.  It is my understanding that 31 of 32 NFL coaches usually turn down the proposal of being able to review penalties.  Bill Belichick is the only one who votes in favor of it.  Apparently, NFL coaches do not want to have to worry about something else, while Bill Belichick knows that, being so much smarter than the other coaches, he will be better than the other coaches at challenging penalties too.  I have watched enough bad coaches over the years to know that he is correct, but that does not change my view in the slightest.  Furthermore, I feel that the rookie coaches like Sean McDermott, Sean McVay, and Kyle Shanahan are much smarter than old coaches in terms of game scenarios (when to punt, when to kick a FG, when to go for the first down, when to kneel, when to tell the running back to stop before the goal line, etc.).  Therefore, they would probably be better at knowing when to challenge penalties too.  Regardless, nobody likes to see games decided by phantom holding, illegal-block-in-the-back, unnecessary-roughness, or pass-interference calls, and many of these penalties are game-changers.  Therefore, they should be subject to replay, just like anything else.

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3) NHL offsides should not be reviewable once the defensive team has possessed the puck.  I left the NHL out of the “one-minute replay” rule because the bulk of NHL reviews deal with whether or not a goal is legitimate.  In a sport in which a team scores an average of fewer than three goals per game, the league cannot afford to get a goal-call wrong.  Plus, NHL games have a fast pace and rarely last beyond 2.5 hours.  Thus, the NHL can withstand a few longer replays for a good cause.

However, it is ridiculous that a team can have a goal called back because the team entered the zone offside two minutes prior.  Therefore, the league should change the rule such that, when replaying a goal, the officials may watch footage back to either the moment when the puck entered the offensive zone or the moment when the defensive team most recently possessed the puck – whichever of the two is most recent.  This way, replay will continue to overturn goals on clearly-offside odd-man rushes.  However, it will eliminate most cases in which the offside entry happened well before the goal.  If a defensive team has had the chance to clear the puck but has not been successful in doing so; the defense, not the offside entry, is responsible for the goal.  Thus, the goal should stand.

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4) If an offensive player fumbles the ball into and then out the opposing end zone, it should be considered a loss of down with the fumbling team getting the ball at the other team’s 20-yard line. This is my proposed change for the Seferian-Jenkins/Pats and Derek Carr plays.  In sports as in life, the punishment should always fit the crime.  If the defense has not recovered a fumble, why should that team get credit for a turnover?  Furthermore, if the fumble goes out of bounds before the pylon, the offensive team keeps the ball at the 1-yard line.  However, if the fumble hits the pylon or goes out of bounds slightly beyond the pylon, the defense gets the ball.  To quote Jackie Chiles, this seems “capricious and arbitrary” to me.  My plan continues to punish the fumbling team, in that the next down takes place at the 20-yard line.  However, the team maintains possession.  If the fumble happens on 2nd and Goal, the next play will be 3rd and Goal from the 20, and so on for other downs.  If the fumble happens on a play that gains the first down, the next play will be 1st and Goal from the 20.  Of course, if the play happens on fourth down, the defensive team takes over possession at its own 20-yard line.

Image result for batting ball out of end zone

With this change, the punishment will fit the crime.  The fumbling team suffers a loss of yardage, but it maintains the likelihood of earning at least a field goal.  That seems reasonable to me.  Also, I did hear Bill Simmons mention a similar idea to this in a podcast a few weeks ago, but I swear I thought of this before hearing him.  That said, I just want the world to be a better place.  If this rule change happens, I do not want any credit.  That is all Bill’s.  I will be a happy man knowing that society is better off.

5) In the NHL; the “delay of game” penalty for shooting the puck over the glass while in your own zone should apply only if you have possession of the puck. In other words – if a defenseman takes a whack at an uncontrolled puck, and the puck goes over the glass; that should not be a penalty.  That is not the spirit of the rule.  The rule is intended to deter players from deliberately sending the puck over the glass in order to get a stoppage in play.  If the player simply hits an unpossessed, loose (and often bouncing or airborne) puck; he is unlikely intentionally sending the puck out of play.  Therefore, that should not be a penalty.   Only if the player has control of the puck and shoots it over the glass should a penalty be called.

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 6) On NFL Sundays, there should always be at least 4 4:00 games. I don’t get it.  When I was a kid, there was better balance between the number of 1:00 games and the number of 4:00 games.  However, that was before DirecTV and RedZone and thus before we NFL junkies could reap the benefits of having multiple games at a time.  Nonsensically, now that we have these wondrous viewing creations, the NFL too often saddles my idol Scott Hanson with only 3 or sometimes 2 (gasp!) 4:00 games.  What kind of garbage is this?  There should be at least 4 games at 4:00 every Sunday.  4 is the minimum number of games needed, in my mind, to ensure that there is always something of some interest taking place in at least one game.  With 2 or 3 games, there is too great a chance of all games being in commercials or at halftime at the same time.  While Scott Hanson does a great job with that filler time, it is an inefficient use of his wonderful talent.  Even on a 6-bye, London-morning NFL Sunday, there are 9 Sunday-afternoon games.  That should break down as 5 games at 1:00 and 4 games at 4:00.  If we can achieve this 4-game minimum with 9 afternoon games, we can certainly achieve it during other weeks that have between 10 and 15 Sunday-afternoon games.  This past Sunday, we had 8 games at 1:00 and only 3 at 4:00.     Not on my watch!

 You are welcome, America.  I just made sports better in six different ways.

 

* Yes, I started a sentence with two Cher songs.  Yes, I am aware of it. Yes, I am very proud of it.

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 espn.com afloat.  I swear that, every time I go to espn.com (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.

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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?

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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.