The Undervaluation of Defence

Posted: March 10, 2011 in Sports
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The people who score the goals get all the glory, not the people who stop them.

Wayne Gretzky is widely considered the greatest hockey player of all-time because he scored 894 goals (and assisted on 1963 others) and when you look at a list of the other nominees for greatest player you’ll see names like Orr, Howe, Lemieux, or Richard, all of whom were prolific offensive players and goal scorers.

Even Bobby Orr, one of the greatest defenceman of all time, is more widely celebrated for his ability to score goals and/or assist on goals than his contributions to keeping others from scoring on him.

This then begs the question of why do we value goal-scorers over goal-stoppers?  Alternatively, it makes us wonder why we should value goal-stoppers at all if the most valuable players in sports are all goal-scorers?

The first question is easy to answer.  In today’s world of the business of sports, where fan excitement equals dollars in the owners’ and league’s pockets, the goal-scorers are the primary entertainers and the goal-stoppers the antithesis of that entertainment.  Each goal adds the the fans’ excitement, making them more willing to watch the product being sold to them.  The goal-stoppers seek to shut down this excitement.

Thus, the goal-scorers are paid more, publicized more, and and valued more by the general public.  After all, it is the goal-scorers that give the fans the highlight-reel moments that are sure to stick in the collective memory.  It might be a physics-defying deke or a lighting shot to the top corner that raises the fans’ excitement.  Even in highlight-reel saves or defensive plays the goal-scorer plays his part by creating a chance so likely to lead to a goal that the goal-stopper is forced to do something miraculous in return.

So now that we know why the goal-scorer is valued, we must turn to the question of why we should value the goal-stopper.  Why should we value the player who dampens our excitement and stops other players from giving us the highlight-reel moments that we love so much?

While some people are likely to say that we shouldn’t value these players, I think that without the goal-stopper the sports that we love would be the lesser.

Consider that for half of any game one team is on offense and the other is on defence.  That means that for half of any game each player will have to play either offense or defence (unless it’s American football, in which case the players need to learn to play both sides of the ball before I can take the sport seriously).  It also means that if you can’t or don’t have the skills play both offense and defence, then you are only actually playing half of the sport.

For example, take a goal-scoring winger in hockey who doesn’t backcheck or block shots, e.g. Alexander Ovechkin.  For all of Ovechkin’s offensive prowess, he will never be a candidate for the Selke trophy for best defensive forward.  You will never hear commentators praise him for his defensive positioning or picture-perfect shot-blocking technique, those kinds of praise are reserved for work horses like Anton Volchenkov (who only plays half the game on the defensive side).

On the other hand you have players such as Pavel Datsyuk or Nicklas Lidstrom who play effectively on both sides of the puck.  Datsyuk, a regular 90-point player, is consistently among the top players in the league for forcing turnovers and plus/minus.  Lidstrom, in addition to his defensive skills, routinely puts up 50 points each season – reaching a career high of 80 points in 2005-2006.

And it’s not just in hockey that we see this opposition of the goal-scorer and the goal-stopper.  Other sports such as basketball, soccer, and rugby all require players to play both sides of the ball with equal effectiveness.  However, as with hockey, the goal-scorers get most of the glory.  After all LeBron James isn’t famous for grabbing defensive rebounds, but rather for making highlight-reel dunks.  Lionel Messi isn’t famous for making key tackles or marking effectively, but rather for his phenomenal skills with the ball at his feet.  Jonah Lomu wasn’t famous for smashing people in a tackle, but rather smashing through other people’s attempts to tackle him (just ask Mike Catt…).

None of these players are as effective on the other side of the ball.  LeBron doesn’t combine shut-down defense with his offensive game in the same way as Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett.  Messi does not possess the all-round qualities of a Paul Scholes, Bastian Schweinsteiger, or Gerard Pique.  Lomu didn’t get around the pitch in quite the same way as modern masters Dan Carter or Richie McCaw do.

For a true sports fan, the defensive side of the game holds much merit.  There is a subtle art and a brutal efficiency to playing defence.  A perfectly timed body check or the instinct to latch onto a loose pass from the opposition and turn it into a scoring chance the other way is just as beautiful as Ovechkin’s latest shootout move or one-timer.

Therefore, the player that does both, the one that paints on both sides of the canvas so to speak, is much more valuable and much more deserving of our respect and admiration than the player that does one exclusively.

So I then have to turn the question around: why should we value players who only play half of their given sport?  Why should we elevate the goal-scorers to a status above that of the player who can both score and prevent others from scoring?

Why?

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