Saturday, November 12, 2011

Occupy Tampa

Something tells me Chris Pronger doesn't play Chess.

Recently, I had the time to sit down and catch up on one of my favorite radio shows, Radiolab. In an episode from August 23rd the theme is games and why we are so fascinated with them. During one portion of the episode the discussion focused on how, at the professional level, the game of checkers was taken to an absolute stalemate by James Wiley and Robert Martins at the World Checkers Championship in Glasgow, Scotland in 1863. Between them, all forty games they played ended in a draw. Even stranger, 21 of the 40 games were the exact same game. They had taken checkers to its limit. As it turns out, there are a limited number of moves in the game of checkers and as professional checkers players they had memorized every possible move and executed their games perfectly. This led to checkers hitting rock bottom as a game.

In the same episode of Radiolab the hosts then go on to discuss the game of chess. I'm a big fan of chess so I found the following tidbit of information to be particularly interesting: There are vastly more possible games of chess than there are atoms in the universe. So, chess is cooler than checkers, but we already knew that.

In case you missed it, this week the Tampa Bay Lightning hosted the Philadelphia Flyers for a game of ice chess and indulged in some stunning theatrics.

No, not this kind

This kind.

As stated in the broadcast there is nothing wrong with the Lightning playing their 1-3-1-zone defense, just like there is nothing wrong with a hockey team playing any kind of trapping defense. Nothing in the NHL rulebook states that teams have to forecheck or play a style of defense that allows for an opposing team to have their way. Still, this did not prevent Chris Pronger and the Flyers from sitting on the puck on national television and, at least in Pronger's mind, taking a stand against what he and his coach, Peter Laviolette, believe is a defensive style that could kill hockey. Ironically, it took Pronger literally killing the game for him to make this point.

Since the dreaded days of the pre-lockout "trap", which did plenty to kill hockey’s popularity, hockey has become a much faster game. The subtraction of the red line after the lockout eased some of the pressure in the middle of the ice by allowing for two line passes and the game has seen much more fluid play through the neutral zone. Defensive strategies like the 1-3-1 are a response to this. The 1-3-1 defense takes away an offense's ability to gain speed through the neutral zone by placing three players across the center of the ice in an effort to restrict space while leaving one defender behind to clean up the mess. Not surprisingly, teams which insist on playing horizontal or East-West style games have trouble cracking this defense and suddenly, to them and some fans, the game appears to have been taken back to the days of the trap.

Seeing this defense, and obviously frustrated, Chris Pronger decided that he'd had enough. He would either prevent Tampa from employing the 1-3-1 by forcing the Bolts to forecheck, which breaks up their formation, or he was going to take his puck and go home. How sad.

In chess, there are a multitude of tactics designed to take advantage of a stifling defense, just like in hockey. If there are vastly more games of chess than there are atoms in the universe, then surely there are vastly more games of hockey than games of chess because there are more variables in hockey. Thus, it’s a shame that the Flyers and Pronger, who combine speed and brawn, chose to essentially quit playing rather than find a way to break through the Tampa defense. The Tampa defensive scheme is not new. Washington employed it in the playoffs last season. Pronger’s choice to sit on the puck rather than to advance it up ice en lieu of a forecheck smacked of weakness and, ultimately, lousy coaching.

Chris Pronger and the Flyers could have played chess, but instead played checkers.

Many NHL players have voiced their support of Pronger since he took his "stand". Their support is unfortunate. The players need to understand that defenses such as the 1-3-1 will not go away even if the NHL bans them. Furthermore, cries in the media to outlaw zone defenses make it seem like broadcasters with NHL experience never actually played the game. Hockey as a sport is hugely reliant upon zone defenses to the point where the game cannot be properly played if they are eliminated. For example, if zone defenses are banned what happens when a team is on the penalty kill and attempts to employ a traditional penalty killing defense, which is a zone? Let's take this thought experiment even further and imagine that the NHL is converted into a game where only man-on-man play is allowed. Wouldn't large, slow players like Pronger (who thrived in the old days of the trap) find themselves at an even greater disadvantage against the speedier players of today? Perhaps Pronger knew he couldn’t break the Bolt’s D and his effort, or lack thereof, was really recognition that the game is passing him by as well as an acknowledgement by the Flyers that maybe they aren't good enough to win when confronted with confounding defenses.

The biggest problem I have had with the neutral zone trap and its variations is that opponents are quick to decry its existence while failing to recognize it exists for a reason. Most forwards in hockey are fast and use their speed to take advantage of space. The elimination of space is necessary to maintain order on defense. Therefore, the elimination of space in hockey is a necessity and zone defenses and their hybrids, such as the left wing lock, are the best way to accomplish that goal.

The counter to that logic is that the NHL wants higher scoring games. But is alteration of the rules so necessary? The Torpedo System, which has been used for well over 50 years in and out of the NHL, should work in breaking up trapping defenses—especially since the elimination of the red line. Has Philadelphia considered employing this or similar tactics? Perhaps they did and decided quitting was easier.

Chris Pronger has a right to voice his opposition to Tampa's defense, but for he and the Flyers to do it in such a fashion smacks of selfishness and a lack of creativity. Additionally, Pronger seems to lack the ability to understand that in protesting defensive schemes like the 1-3-1 he will ultimately end up causing him and his cohort’s problems should the NHL outlaw such defensive innovation. It is actually to his advantage to laud, rather than protest, trapping defenses as they favor slow defenseman after all. Pronger should shut up, play some chess, and learn to innovate.

Next up on the DNP, I teach Chris Pronger that there is more than one way to make a ham sandwich before he loses his temper, goes to McDonalds, and holds up the line until they make him one.