Water cooler talk, it turns out, is not just limited to fans of the game. NHL coaches do it too.
"You get asked this question a lot," said new Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz: "'Who's the greatest player who ever played, the best player of all time?' and my answer is always, 'He has not been born yet and he hasn't played yet.'
"I can talk to you about who might have had the most distance over his colleagues in his era. In my lifetime, the names that come to mind are Bobby Orr, who's been my favourite from Day 1, and the Gretzkys and Lemieuxs. But the next greatest player in the league is going to be the next guy who comes along – and it's just because players today are way better than they were 20 years ago."
In the past 10 years, or ever since the lockout of 2004-05 shut the league down for a full season, the quality of play has soared in the NHL.
Scoring is up slightly. Fighting is down significantly. The introduction of the salary cap helped level the playing field, narrowing the gap between what used to be known as the NHL's haves and have-nots.
The playoff races invariably go down to the wire and in two of the past three seasons, the team that won the Stanley Cup did so after barely qualifying for the playoffs.
Thanks to the removal of the centre red line, allowing for two-line passes, the speed of the game has increased dramatically. Plodding defenceman obsolete and fewer teams carry designated fighters any more because they can't keep up.
The net effect of the myriad of changes, according to Trotz, is "the game is quicker and faster than it ever has been.
"As a coach, you see the detail and smarts of the players now – and the skill level is off the charts. I watch some of the stuff the guys do on a night-in night-out basis and it's mind-boggling – how good they are and what speed they're doing it at, with all the people around them, trying to hit them and take the puck off them.
"The coaches and the technology and the analytics, all those things have made the game better – and harder to play."
To Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill, nowadays any team that actually qualifies for the playoffs is in the running to win a championship and Los Angeles is the best example.
"The L.A. Kings have won two of the past three years," Nill said. "The first time they won it, they just got in the playoffs. Before they got into the playoffs, everyone was calling for the head of the GM. The coach [Terry Murray] had been fired. They were talking about what a bad trade they'd made for [Jeff] Carter and [Mike] Richards. Then they win the Cup. Then last year, they had a good season, but they were third in their division and here they win the Cup again.
"If you look at the standings, we're all three or four wins away from being the top team and we're all three or four wins away from being out of the playoffs. If the wrong guys get hurt halfway through the year and they're your best players, I hate to tell you but you're in trouble. That's the cap world. That's the game we're in now."
Indirectly, the cap world helped get hooking and holding out of the game because heavily outmatched teams with minuscule payrolls were no longer trying to do whatever they could to slow down highly skilled teams that were able to pay up to four times as much to players.
Because their salaries are governed by an entry-level system that maximizes their remuneration, it also contributes to making the NHL a younger man's game. Teenagers coming straight out of the draft are often younger, cheaper alternatives who can help a team get in under the cap. But they're also having an impact at a far younger age, said veteran Detroit Red Wings defenceman Niklas Kronwall.
"Today, these guys who come into the league, like [Nathan] MacKinnon last year, they are ready at 18 or 19," Kronwall said. "They're built already; they're already mentally prepared to take the step into the National Hockey League in a completely different way than they were 10 or 15 years ago."
Although the NHL has been reluctant to ban fighting completely, the number of fights is down over a 10-year period, from 789 in 2003-04 to 469 fights last year. With the speed of the game and the fear that coaches of putting out a player who can't keep up, combined with the new awareness of concussion, it seems to be weaning itself out of the game.
Instead, most teams are going to the L.A. model, which involves running four lines and dividing the ice time more equitably among all forwards.
"The days of the hard fourth line, where they were just pure tough guys, is slowly diminishing," Trotz said. "There's still room for it – and there's still a need for it – but it has become a higher-skilled, tighter-spaced, five-man game than it ever was."
Defence is harder to play than ever because the crackdown on obstruction heightened the pace at which the game is played. It means that fore-checkers bearing down on defencemen come so fast that there's little time to make plays. Defensive systems are designed to take away time and space, frequently leaving players with just split seconds to make puck-handling decisions.
"The faster it gets, the more you have to adapt," said Buffalo Sabres forward Brian Gionta. "Either you can make the play under pressure, or you're not going to be around very long in the league."
NHL scoring, from 2003-04 until now, is up just a tick – from 5.13 goals a game, to 5.34 game. Scoring hasn't increased the way some NHL executives thought it might, largely because the quality of goaltending has kept pace, according to Gionta. And even though the trapezoid was introduced to restrict goaltenders' ability to assist their defencemen by handling the puck, most are able to do what few did a generation ago.
"There was a time when Marty Brodeur was the best puck-handler in the game," said Gionta, of his former Devils teammate. "Now you look at every goalie and that's just the standard. Guys are bigger, faster, stronger and so it's obviously going to lead to better performance, but at the same time as you try to open up scoring, goalies are more athletic than they ever were before too."
One of the hardest adjustments for teams was figuring out what to make of the shootout, which was introduced at the start of 2005-06 to eliminate ties. In the beginning, teams treated the shootout as a lark, but eventually learned that the extra points could make the difference between qualifying and missing the playoffs.
In 2009-10, the New York Rangers had a chance to make the playoffs with a shootout win in the final game of the regular season, but failed to do so and missed out. Last year, the New Jersey Devils lost all 13 shootouts they were involved in and missed the playoffs by five points.
"The shootout is a big part of the game right now," said New Jersey centre Travis Zajac. "Those are big extra points and, whether you like it or not, it can make or break a season. I think it's good for the fans, but coming off last year, I'd like to see something else brought in even before the shootout. Going from four-on-four to three-on-three wouldn't be a bad idea either."
T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues, who had a memorable shootout performance in the Olympics playing for Team USA, thinks differently.
"I think there's nothing worse than a tie," Oshie said. "I think [the shootout] good for the game. The fans like it. When they stop liking it, then we should get rid of it, but I think it's great. It brings out a different skill in a very skilled game."
There had been some talk in recent years about making nets bigger to enhance scoring, but that hasn't happened. Last year, the nets were made shallower, permitting players more room to manoeuvre behind the goals. Artificially inflating offensive production isn't necessary, according to Trotz, who now has the NHL's leading goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin, at his disposal.
"What makes [hockey] unique is you can have a fantastic game and you don't need a lot of scoring," he said. "Each game can be different. What we talk about, entertaining the fans, we want to showcase the star players. Scoring goals gets people out of their seats, no question. A great save does, even the fights do. We have a real good product. People love the intensity of our sport. I think that's what sells. We wanted speed in the game and we've got that now. It goes unappreciated sometimes how quick guys really are."
The 12 most significant changes in the game since the lockout
Ten years ago, the NHL faded to black. A lockout that began just before training camps for the 2004-05 season were scheduled to open spilled into the regular season and ultimately cost the league and its players the entire year, the first and only time in the history of modern pro sports that a labour dispute managed that.
The fight between owners and players largely focused on the game's finances, but the happy byproduct of the work stoppage was that the two sides also addressed the game's most pressing on-ice issues as well. Brendan Shanahan, now the Maple Leafs' president, but then just a member of the NHLPA's rank and file, organized a think tank dubbed the Shanahan Summit that helped usher in a comprehensive package of rules changes and interpretations that debuted when NHL play resumed in 2005-06.
The modifications resulted in a night-and-day shift in the way the game was played. The style of play seen a decade ago would be almost unrecognizable now. In the span of those 10 seasons, the NHL made several changes.
Penalties: Put a renewed emphasis on enforcing hooking, holding and interference penalties. Along with the decision to eliminate the centre red line for two-line passes and the reduction of the neutral zone from 54 to 50 feet, it resulted in a significant increase in the speed with which the game was played.
Overtime: Introduced a shootout to settle a game that remained tied after five minutes of overtime, with the winner earning two points, the losing team one.
Offside: Reinstated the tag-up offside rule to speed up play.
Ends: Developed a designated trapezoid-shaped area behind the net where goaltenders were not permitted to play the puck.
Subs: Prevented teams that ice the puck from making a player substitution on the ensuing defensive-zone face-off.
Icing: Adopted hybrid icing as a safety measure.
Goalies: The size of goaltenders' equipment reduced.
Safety: Created the department of player safety and developed mandatory concussion protocols. The NHL also adopted Rule 48, which made illegal a bodycheck in which the principal point of contact was the head.
Fights: Discouraged staged fights by penalizing a player who instigates a fight in the final five minutes of regulation or in overtime with automatic minor, major, and game misconduct plus a one-game suspension.
Facial protection: Made visors mandatory for players entering the NHL after the 2012-13 season, with the rule change grandfathered for existing players.
Salaries: Adopted a salary-cap system that obliged teams to spend within a defined ceiling and floor, thus eliminating the large gaps that used to exist between teams' payrolls, encouraging parity among the 30 teams. Since play resumed for the 2005-06 season, every team has qualified for the playoffs at least once and 13 different teams have advanced to the Stanley Cup final.
Relocation: Winnipeg received a franchise again, increasing Canadian content to seven teams and setting in motion a realignment allowing Detroit and Columbus to move to the Eastern Conference. A wild-card playoff system for the bottom two playoff spots in each conference was adopted.