Darren Eliot
Monday October 27th, 2008

If you haven't noticed, in the fourth season of the league-wide crackdown on hooking, holding and interference, the NHL game is fast. It's really fast -- which, of course, was the desired result. And while some aspects regarding style of play were predictable, many of the subsequent adjustments and outcomes have proven to be pleasant surprises.

First up is the reemergence of the defenseman as an offensive threat. With forecheckers no longer rerouted and derailed by lumbering and largely one-dimensional rearguards who relied on stick leverage and strength more than agility and foot speed, the fear was that defensemen league-wide would be in peril -- sitting targets for vicious hits by forwards bearing down at full speed. The response has been to rely on d-men who can skate nimbly enough to retrieve the puck, avoid the brunt of forecheckers and make a quick outlet pass.

So, while the original intent was to free up open ice for the league's skilled offensive forwards, a nice by-product has been the quick realization that blueliners with skating skills and puck prowess are essential. And the proliferation of that element has meant more full-ice back-and-forth hockey as teams embrace and encourage their defensemen to rush the puck and aggressively support the attack. The result of playing five-up on offense and five-back on defense is end-to-end action, which by default leads to more open ice and room for offensive creativity.

Not that we've reverted to the helter-skelter "I've got my man" one-on-one play of the eighties. Teams are still highly structured and organized. Because of the need for mobility on the backend to defend, though, if you don't include defensemen in your schemes to score, you probably won't. It is too tough to do when you're relying on just the three forwards because every team collapses five men down low to defend.

The answer? For more and more teams, it's giving their defensemen the green light to think offense in transition. By doing so, more out-numbered options are created in the open ice. More movement in the offensive zone allows a greater number of teams to keep forechecking and cycling pressure alive. It's exciting to see defensemen challenging strongside wingers -- pinching down to keep the puck in the zone -- and jumping in from their point position to challenge for shots in the slot.

The other aspect of the crackdown on restraining fouls that maybe wasn't projected at first is the benefits for the big man. Sure, we all saw that by eliminating the ability to restrain while defending, both on the puck and away, smallish skilled scooters a la Martin St. Louis and Daniel Briere would flourish. But with a premium placed on backend skill, size and strength up front is once again becoming a source of offensive dominance. If a big man has good hands and the wherewithal to get from the boards to the net, the smaller d-men can't deter his looming presence.

It makes sense when you consider that the open ice created by using speed to defend against speed will create space for more than just the burners. Thus, Nik Antropov in Toronto, as utilized by new coach Ron Wilson, is leading his team in scoring by occupying room in front of the net. Likewise, emerging star Milan Lucic of the Bruins. He's rangy and strong on the puck. So while Phil Kessel is backing defenses off with his outside speed, Lucic is able to chug down the left side and amble to the front of the net undeterred. Defenders are forced to front him and try to "out-quick' his stick. It doesn't always work, as his overpowering hat trick proved on Saturday night.

You add it all up and the NHL must feel a sense of satisfaction. The game is being played at a blistering pace and only getting better. Yet, mandates go only so far. The best endorsement comes from the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. We all think of their remarkable skill and marvel at their ability to control the puck. But watch the Wings closely. Their defensemen -- from Nicklas Lidstrom through Brett Lebda -- engage in the rush and their forwards are masterful at establishing inside position on defenders with their bodies.

The result? The Red Wings get the puck to the point and shoot quickly -- with people at the net. It's as simple as that and it is beautiful in its execution -- the essence of a five-man attack. Judging by the number of teams that emphasized retooling their backend this summer, plenty of people have been taking note.

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