“The best defense is a good offense.” — George Washington — Michael Jordan
Now in the year 2021, the age-old saying has reared its head once again; this time in the NHL. The NHL’s best forwards have stopped playing defense this year with the new emphasis becoming “Hey, just score as many goals and accrue as many points as you possibly can.”
Here are three of the top Hart Trophy candidates for the current season: Washington’s Alex Ovechkin as well as Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. All three were actually very solid defensively in 2020, especially McDavid who made mammoth strides on the defensive end during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season. However, that defensive prowess has all but disappeared in the current season. Have the players gotten worse? Not necessarily. Rather it seems like NHL teams are focusing more on letting their offensive players play offense while letting their defensemen do what they do best as well. It sounds like backward thinking. Why wouldn’t you want more well-rounded players on your team? Well, the score sheets pose a different question. Why weren’t more teams promoting this sooner?
The Capitals currently lead the Metropolitan Division, albeit with two extra games played over the Rangers who sit just one point behind. Meanwhile the Oilers are off to one of their best starts since the early 2000s. Yes, 2020 was a great leap forward for McDavid and company, but 2021 has been something special thus far. After starting the season winning nine of their first 10, the Oilers have certainly cooled off a bit, but their stellar play has continued, and they’ve done this despite having a pretty mediocre supporting cast and awful talent on the blueline, aside from Tyson Barrie (who is more of an offensive player as well).
So, why is it that essentially telling your best players to focus solely on just one aspect of the game has helped the team? With those players spending so much time on the ice, you’d think it would hurt them in the long run. Well, actually, it hasn’t. Ovechkin has posted a 2.2 On-Ice Goals Against per 60 minutes this season (oiGA/60) — his lowest since 2017. At the same time, he’s on pace to tie the highest oiFG/60 mark of his career (5.7). That second one makes sense given how effective Ovechkin is as a shooter, but that first one just makes you scratch your head. If Ovechkin is playing so poorly on defense, why doesn’t his team have poor defensive stats with him on the ice?
That’s just the thing. In the NHL, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the best defense is an insanely good offense. That’s become a much more prevalent realization among all sports lately. In football, a great way to defend against an incredible offense is to keep them off the field with long sustained drives. In the NBA, defense doesn’t really matter if you can score at will, just ask James Harden. Major League Baseball is the only Big 4 sport that still has a major emphasis on defense. I’d argue that pitching is vastly more impactful than hitting, but everywhere else, offense is becoming all that matters.
In the NHL, forwards are only on the ice for an average of 46 seconds per shift. Seeing as how Ovechkin, McDavid, and Draisaitl all start less than 45 percent of their shifts in the defensive zone (ranking each of them outside the top-200 among NHL forwards in that category), and both Ovechkin and McDavid start more than 59 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone, it makes sense that there just wouldn’t be enough time for Ovechkin and McDavid to strut their defensive prowess. Most of their shifts that see either of these two play any defense at all sees them managing a counterattack or entry into the defensive zone rather than actual in-zone defense. Yes, when they find themselves in that situation, they’re still not doing well, but it doesn’t matter because they’re such wizards offensively and that’s what gives their team the best chance to win.
This is good for the game of hockey. It’s nice to see the best scorers in the world put all their effort into producing on offense. Of course, there are still excellent forwards who play both ends effectively. Auston Matthews is the first example that comes to mind with how he improved in 2020, but players like Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, Mitch Marner, and Aleksander Barkov are still very prevalent and successful in the game today. I wouldn’t be surprised though if more and more top goal scorers became less focused on defense in the coming years.
Lastly, Ovechkin has earned every right to stop focusing on defense. He got his ring. He’s done everything he needs in order to reach the Hall of Fame already. Let him chase Wayne Gretzky’s goal record now. Let him dream!