SUN Hockey Pool

A lockout myth

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

In the past, there have been a number of Great Canadian debates. We've had them about conscription, confederation and the constitution, and in each circumstance resolution was made more difficult than it needed to be because of misplaced beliefs.

At the moment, the Great Canadian Debate centres on the National Hockey League lockout and again, statements are made as fact when they're no such thing.

One of the most common is the oft-expressed wish that when the lockout ends, it takes a few teams with it.

"The league is watered down," the assertion goes, "so if we can get rid of five or six teams, we'll have better hockey."

Unfortunately, the exact opposite is true. Getting rid of teams won't make the spectacle better. It will make it worse.

It's easy to assume that because there are 30 teams, the talent pool is diluted. But that assumption fails to take into account that in recent years, the talent pool has grown at a level far greater than that of previous years -- and far greater than the rate of expansion.

Europeans are taking to the game more than ever, and their coaching borders on fanaticism. Even in North America, the levels of coaching are far higher than they have ever been.

It might not be easy to see it on a year-to-year basis, but if you think of the game 10 years ago and compare it to today's, you'll find that the players are much bigger, yet they're faster, stronger and in far better condition.

If you think the talent is diluted, name a player who doesn't skate well. Name a player who doesn't have a good shot. Or can't pass. Even the enforcers can do all those things. If they can't, they don't stay in the NHL. The talent level is simply too high.

A guy like Donald Brashear is an NHL enforcer because he's an excellent fighter. But when he played for Team USA in the world championship, a tournament in which fighting is not a part of the game, he was not out of place. He showed offensive skills that many fans didn't know he had.

Certainly, there are problems with the NHL game. Certainly it is not as exciting as we would like it to be. And yes, by extension, great plays are less frequent and scoring chances are fewer.

But that's not because there's not enough talent. It's because there's too much talent.

Long gone is the a sluggish lead-footed defenceman who can be danced around by a nimble forward. Long gone is the slow, checking forward who got regular fourth-line duty 10 years ago. Long gone is the backup goalie who was guaranteed to be easy pickings against any of the quality teams.

The reason that there are so few great entertaining offensive plays is that the defenders are too good. And these days, everybody is a defender at some point in the game.

All the lower-price players can not only skate with the stars, they can match their conditioning and strength.

The coaches are smart enough to make the most of these attributes. They devise systems that call for these guys to prioritize their defensive responsibilities because they know those orders will be followed.

The players will do it because there are other skilled guys waiting in the wings, only too eager to take their place.

BREAK LOOSE

If the league were to drop six teams, you'd get rid of the 180 or so worst players -- and no matter how talented the league's players all are, there still has to be some who are better than the others -- and you'd make it harder still for the stars to break loose.

If the stars can't shine now, how could they do it against the guys who are half a step faster than the 180 guys who are not in the league anymore?

It is indeed possible that in the New Order, there will be fewer teams. But that won't make the hockey any better. Just the opposite.


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