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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why the NHL Doesn't Need More Goals

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After the lockout, fans and management alike were quick to congratulate the game for ridding itself of clutching and grabbing and creating a much more exciting product on the ice. Goal scoring was up and teams could no longer sit on a lead in the third period, otherwise they would quickly find themselves on the losing end of the scoreboard.

Flash-forward to the present day and most people agree that the league is as strong as it has ever been.

People generally acknowledge that an increase in goal-scoring is the cause of the league’s revival, but the numbers actually paint a different story.

During the Dead Puck Era, which I’m defining as the seasons between 1995-1996 and 2003-2004, each game averaged 5.53 goals per game. Since the lockout, goal scoring has increased, but it has only gone up .25 goals per game. Statistically, this increase is not significant.

There was an initial jump of one goal per game during the first season back from the lockout. This is likely attributable to the major increase in penalties called as players were still figuring out exactly what constituted a penalty, plus there were tons of players like Dave Andreychuk who had yet to retire but were clearly too old and slow for the new NHL.

The difference in scoring between the post-lockout and the Dead Puck Era is not as pronounced as everyone believes in their head, but, historically, the amount of goal scoring over these two eras actually mirrors that of the 1950s and 1960s.

The 1950s had slightly lower levels of goal scoring than the Dead Puck Era and the 1960s had slightly higher goal scoring than the post-lockout, but there is no actual statistical significance in their differences. The level of scoring is relatively constant.

When looking at the graph above, you can see that current scoring levels are slightly below the historical average, but, for the most part, remain very similar, despite a few outlier decades that pull up the average.

The major outlier, at least in the modern post-WWII era, is clearly the 1980s, which had games with about two more goals than games in the past 15 years.

The spike in goal scoring began in 1970 and steadily increased until peaking in the mid-1980s, at which time rates slowly declined until stabilizing in the mid-1990s.

One of the most striking statistics from the 1980s is that the 50-goal plateau was reached 76 times during the decade, yet was only previously hit 24 times in the years prior. Players went goal crazy. How did this happen?

One of the reasons for the increase in goal scoring during the 1970s and 1980s was expansion. Between 1967 and 1975, the league expanded from 6 teams to 18, diluting the talent in the league. In 1979, the WHA merged with the NHL, adding another four teams to the league.

The 1970s and 1980s had more goals, but they weren’t necessarily the product of better players; and they did not equal better hockey either. A game with eight goals does not inherently make it more exciting than a game with four goals. Games that are close and have back-and-forth action are generally the most exciting games, whether they be 2-1 or 7-6.

I argue that the current era actual possesses the best hockey, despite fewer goals than in the 70s and 80s.

First, the influx of European players, which didn’t come into full effect until the 1990s, has brought the talent level in the league way up. Second, goaltending is obviously much, much better because of better technique and equipment. The equipment is good enough that goalies are actually willing to stand in front of 100 mph slap-shots. Third, coaching is far superior. Technology and scouting makes it easier to analyze opponents, break-down tendencies, and develop the best way to defend against opponents. Also, shot blocking has increased tremendously. Now it’s required that pretty much every player blocks shots in every game. Before it was a tactic employed primarily during the playoffs, not a random game in November. All these factors contribute to fewer goals per game, but also make for better hockey.

Just because goals are down from the highest scoring era in NHL history does not mean that there is a desperate need to increase scoring. We’re in an era flushed with talent on every team; goaltending is superior in every way; and coaching is equally strong. The games are fast and exciting. Most importantly, watching a hockey game is fun again! Creating a rule like increasing the size of goalie nets is excessive. It’s an attempt to fix a problem that does not exist.

Thankfully, last week's research and development camp, led by Brendan Shanahan, isn't seriously looking at such massive overhauls to the fundamental elements of the game. They’re simply researching new and innovative ideas. Some will work and make subtle, but meaningful changes to the NHL (e.g., the new line in the net that indicates when a goal has officially crossed the goal-line), and others won’t work and will never be mentioned again, except maybe in some bizarre ‘what-if’ fan-fiction.

Yes, scoring is down compared to certain outlier eras, but it’s basically the same as it has been for much of the league’s history. The game is strong and doesn’t require major changes. However, the league would be doing itself a disservice if it didn’t at least test out some ideas, regardless of how outlandish they might seem. All major companies pour millions into R&D, so why shouldn’t the NHL? I'm happy they are, as long as they don’t develop something like New Coke.

3 comments:

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