Just a decade ago, a rookie Sidney Crosby scored 102 points and found himself over 20 points behind Joe Thornton’s league lead.
That same point total would've won him the 2014-15 Art Ross Trophy by 15 points.
So, yeah. The game done changed.
On top of ever-improving goaltending and tighter systemic play, shot-blocking has become a major area of focus - frustrating though that may be for fans.
New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal - a rookie in 2007 - explained what he’s seen change on the shot-blocking front:
"There's a lot more emphasis on collapsing in your D-zone, blocking shots, that type of stuff has come to the forefront, especially in the playoffs. You get hemmed in a little bit, and now teams just pack it in and wait for a shot to get through, and hopefully you get a block, or a save, and then you go the other way. It's not just penalty killers that are asked to do it - it's everyone."
As this evolves, the decision about when to pull the trigger on offense is becoming even more crucial. Packing it in on defense leaves the perimeter more open, which is something coaches are fine with; goalies should stop shots from there, meaning a player just “having” the puck out there is pretty harmless.
A guy who just mashes shots into shinpads - without moving it first or trying to find an open lane - is basically committing a turnover. (Random thought: will this make Fenwick more important than Corsi in the future? Stay tuned!)
One defensemen strategy that’s evolved is something that’s come to be referred to as “the Lidstrom bank.” The boards in The Joe are so lively that when Hall-of-Famer Nick Lidstrom didn’t have a shooting lane, he’d intentionally miss the net short side so the puck would kick out in front of the crease - a real trouble area where a good bounce can result in a shot or a quick goal.
"A lot of times you're just trying to get it by that first blocker. Whether that goes by the net or not, to get it by that first pair of legs is your biggest goal in the beginning. Gives our forwards an opportunity to have the puck or get a rebound. If you're seeing nothing, if (there's) four or five guys in front of you, if you get that lane off the end boards, sometimes that's the right play. Depends on the rink too. A lot of boards in a lot of rinks are a lot livelier. Sometimes it'll work, sometimes it won't. The way teams defend now, with everyone in the middle of the ice, it's definitely something that's challenging."
Feeling out the boards is something players take care of in morning skate. One of the first things you’ll see guys do on the fresh ice is pass pucks off the boards to judge how much touch they’re going to need on chips, dumps, and - for defensemen - their Lidstrom banks.
Staal spent 2014-15 sharing the ice with two partners damn near 50/50 - Dan Boyle and Kevin Klein - who have markedly different styles. As you’d expect, the two of them approach the shot-blocking conundrum from contrasting angles.
We think of Boyle as an offensive player, but sometimes it’s tough to see what one defenseman does different from the next to have that success. With Boyle, it comes back to what Staal discussed earlier: everybody is blocking shots, so the smarter offensive talents are the guys working without the puck, planning for the moment they get a quick touch.
"With Boyler and Kleiner, they're different players on the offensive blue line. Boyle likes to activate. He kind of roams around if he feels like he can see a lane, or movement, so, I kind of always gotta keep an eye on where he is. Kleiner loves shooting the puck, so if I can get it to him, or he has an opportunity to get a shot through, he's pretty good at pounding it."
Klein loves to shoot the puck, but few people would argue his technique - which I’d eloquently classify as MASH MASH MASH - is more effective at getting pucks through than Boyle’s lane-seeking style.
This trend of piling in and waiting for your opponent to shoot is only going to get worse, meaning it’s up to D-men to get creative, and get active. Shoot it wide, find the lanes before you get the puck, and for the love of God, whatever you do, miss that first set of shinpads if you want to stick around the new NHL for long.