Better coaching, however, doesn't necessarily make for exciting hockey. Despite off-season rule changes intended to increase scoring, through Sunday the NHL's goals-per-game average (5.3) was unchanged from last year, and shots on goal, 55.9 per game, were much closer to last season's 54.7 than to the 60 or so that were the norm over the past two decades. Yes, the addition of six expansion teams in seven years has diluted the number of talented scorers (INSIDE THE NHL, Nov. 9, 1998), but the curse on hockey comes from today's film-studying, scouting-aided, strategy-mad coaches.
A sophisticated defensive system can make a winner out of a modestly talented club. Thus, teams have increasingly hired career coaches to guide them rather than former players, who tend to coach more viscerally than nonplayers. " NHL coaches are better today because they're usually professional coaches," observes Boston University coach Jack Parker, who was courted for the Bruins' job in 1997. "You see a lot more Scotty Bowman types than [former player and recently dismissed Blackhawks coach] Dirk Graham types." Six of the top eight teams as of Sunday, including Bowman's Red Wings, have coaches who never played in the league.
Designing a throttling defense has become even more important with the close of the regular season approaching and playoff berths at a premium. Coaches are mindful that failing to reach the revenue-generating postseason could cost them their jobs. "Some teams are so defensive-minded that even when they get the puck, they want to get back," says Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn, whose team is one of the few that plays a wide-open style. "You have a mental framework built in that almost takes the adventure out of the players."
One immutable trait of NHL coaches, no matter how well schooled they've become, is their eagerness to follow a successful trend. "Everybody's playing the trap because that's what's winning," says Flames defenseman Derek Morris. "The straight offense ain't winning." No, but it sure would be fun to watch.
A New Game In Town
The Sharks' most avid checkers are more likely to do damage with their rooks than with their forearms. "We're total chess freaks," says forward Joe Murphy. "Either we're playing it, or we're talking about it."
Murphy and his fellow pawn stars—winger Owen Nolan, defenseman Bob Rouse and goalie Steve Shields—have been battling for the title of team grandmaster since Rouse brought a chess set on San Jose's 17-day road nip last month. Shrugging off taunts from card-playing teammates, the foursome play on every flight and refine their skills at a caf� in nearby Los Gatos where chess players gather.
One recent evening Shields became so upset at losing a best-of-five showdown to Murphy (who promptly went into a victory dance) that he stormed from the caf�. "The better you are, the more fun chess is," says Shields. "Some of the guys in the caf� are awesome. Of course, they don't know who we are. Chess players aren't big hockey fans."