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Rough And Ready
Michael Farber
October 07, 1996
A NEW GENERATION OF YOUNG DEFENSEMEN, LED BY THE LIKES OF THE FLORIDA PANTHERS' ED JOVANOVSKI, IS READY TO HIT THE BIG TIME
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October 07, 1996

Rough And Ready

A NEW GENERATION OF YOUNG DEFENSEMEN, LED BY THE LIKES OF THE FLORIDA PANTHERS' ED JOVANOVSKI, IS READY TO HIT THE BIG TIME

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For the last 10 years a defenseman didn't need that bag of tricks. He could simply fire the puck into the offensive zone at any time, even if his forwards were well past the blue line; all his forwards had to do was skate back to the blue line and tag up—like a runner going back to third base before scoring on a sacrifice fly—and then chase the puck into the attacking zone. After experimenting with the old offsides rule in the exhibition season, NHL general managers voted on Sept. 25 to rescind the tag-up rule.

"I think the tag-up rule allowed bigger people to play at a lesser skill level because you didn't have to handle the puck," says Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Brad McCrimmon, a 17-year veteran. Even rookie Coyotes coach Don Hay, a former junior coach who insists the effect of the tag-up rule on development is overblown, agrees the return to the old rules will penalize the lumbering defenseman who handles the puck as if it were a hand grenade with the pin pulled.

Theory No. 2: The change in defensive strategy in the NHL during the past decade has stifled the development of backliners.

When the last group of brilliant defensemen blossomed, the Edmonton Oilers dynasty was in full flower. The Oilers, who took five Cups in seven seasons between 1983-84 and 1989-90, won with attacking, freewheeling hockey first made possible, in part, by the speed and offensive style of Coffey. When Coffey, who has scored more points than any defenseman in NHL history, was traded to Pittsburgh in 1987, the Penguins used that same attacking style to win the Cup in 1991 and '92. But with the addition of five franchises this decade—and the dilution of talent—came the neutral-zone trap.

The trap is a model of forechecking simplicity that reduces the options for both those playing the system and those playing against it. Creativity was out; short head-man passes or chipping the puck out of the zone were in. Jacques Lemaire, who coached the New Jersey Devils to the 1995 Cup with the help of the trap, kept the shackles even on defenseman Scott Niedermayer, whose coast-to-coast goal in Game 2 of the finals against Detroit that spring and his instant replay for Canada against Sweden in the World Cup last month offered tantalizing glimpses of his gifts. There have been rushing defensemen coming out of junior hockey, but they are being muffled by the NHL's dependence on the trap.

St. Louis Blues coach Mike Keenan is a contrarian, which augurs well for Pronger. When Keenan's 1993-94 Rangers won the Stanley Cup, defenseman Sergei Zubov led New York in scoring and Leetch was tied for third. Pronger should have a similar opportunity to play a two-way game for the Blues, at least if he and the coach are still speaking by Christmas. (Last September, Keenan ripped Pronger because he showed up for training camp out of shape.) Dallas general manager Bob Gainey thinks that "in two or three years [Pronger] could turn the league upside down." Says Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Gauthier, "Pronger's got skill and physical presence. He's got more jam." We'll see. Pronger can use Keenan's platform as a springboard to greatness or as a tower off which to jump.

Theory No. 3: The arrival of good defensemen is an overdue correction in the market, part of the natural hockey cycle.

The theory behind door No. 3 looks like a winner. Washington Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld, a solid NHL defenseman for 13 seasons and a proponent of the cycle theory, says there always will be ebb and flow. "Until Bobby Orr came along," Schoenfeld says, "the best young players didn't want to be defensemen. He changed the minds of those eight-, nine-and 10-year-olds who then wanted to grow up to be the next Orr. Bourque and Coffey are of that generation. Then Wayne Gretzky came along, and all the kids wanted to be centers. You always make believe you're some star when you play in the street, right?"

The wheel has turned. Expansion came, and all but the forlorn Senators looked to the model of hockey's best start-from-scratch team, the New York Islanders of the 1970s. Torrey built those Islanders from the back out, using Potvin as the cornerstone. He did the same for Florida by drafting Jovanovski in 1994 as the overall No. 1 pick.

Defense has become the sexy position in the draft of the 1990s. In a belated effort to emulate a professional hockey team, Ottawa selected defenseman Chris Phillips first overall in June, the fourth time in five years that a defenseman was taken as No. 1. In 1995 defensemen went 1-2-3 in the draft. In 1994 Oleg Tverdovsky of Phoenix was picked right after Jovanovski. The position requires a longer apprenticeship than forward—"You have to have seen a situation and been burned before you can master it," Islanders coach and general manager Mike Milbury says—but with defensemen at the top of recent drafts, at least a few seem destined to break through.

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