As we reach the end of another National Hockey League regular season, the song remains the same. Goal scoring continues to dwindle at a troublesome pace, as the leaders of the game rapidly search for answers.
Is the game ready for changes that will improve the league’s entertainment value? Many General Managers and NHL executives are split on whether the game needs drastic changes to improve goal scoring.
“I don’t think the game needs more goals, I think the game needs more opportunity for lead changes,” Colin Campbell, the NHL’s current Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, said to NHL.com. “If you go down one or two goals, even three, you need the opportunity to come back. The game shouldn’t be over. You should be able to tie up another team.”
For those keeping score at home, the National Hockey League’s average goals per game has dropped to 2.70, a very alarming statistic for those who enjoy seeing goal scoring. The NHL has hovered between 2.72 and 2.74 for the past 4 seasons, but the 0.03 drop off from 2014-15 to 2015-16 raises more red flags for everyone involved in the game.
The goal well has dried up so much that it appears as if 25 goals scored is the new 35 goals scored. That might seem outrageous on the surface, but take a look at the table below. Statistics on the left side represent the first season post-2003-04 lockout while statistics on the right represent the current NHL season.
For more perspective, let’s take a look back at the last season before the lockout and compare it to today’s statistics. The similarities are going to annoy you.
Telling you the NHL has regressed to pre-lockout levels offensively is almost spot on at this point. This raises the question: how can the National Hockey League fix its issue with dwindling offensive numbers?
Smaller Goaltending Equipment?
Goaltenders can not catch a break, it appears, but upon further review, this may actually be the best and most logical step forward.
It is no secret that over time, the goaltending position has evolved into a position of talent and athleticism. Couple that with a large set of gear, and the opportunities are endless.
“I think the way the goaltending position has evolved as far as the athleticism of the player and how the position is being coached and the technology that they have given their equipment, how light it is and the size of it, given those dynamics, the net has become smaller and it’s harder to score,” Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said to Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
As goaltenders athleticism and talent have increased, so has the overall size of the average goaltender in the National Hockey League. It is no secret that the trend in the National Hockey League has become to obtain very large goaltenders. Once a position for small, agile players, we now see large humans occupying the crease for your favorite hockey team.
The graph below (courtesy of Hockey Visualized) highlights that once large gap between average skater and average goaltender height was heavily in the favor of skaters. Following the 2004-05 lockout, goaltenders have taken over and have not looked back.
With that being said, smaller goaltenders are still in the game and looking for any competitive advantage they can obtain. The name of the game for smaller goaltenders is to make themselves as big a possible, and the large goaltenders have begun to take notice.
“It has to happen (smaller equipment), ” Buffalo Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner said to WGR 550 in Buffalo. “I think it’s getting out of hand. I’m probably the biggest frame goalie in the league, and I’m a pretty big guy, and you have guys weighing about 160 pounds looking bigger than me on the ice. We should be athletes out there, we shouldn’t be operating equipment. We should save pucks. It’s not the equipment that should save the pucks.”
The one major detractor against smaller equipment is the potential safety concerns that come with less protection. A little over a month ago, Sportsnet’s Corey Hirsch took a look at what changes could be coming to goaltender equipment.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 18, 2016
Here is the too long, didn’t read version for those impatient readers:
The proposed Sportsnet changes don’t seem overly dramatic, controversial or unsafe. This would, as Robin Lehner said before, allow goaltenders to be athletes out on the ice.
Will changes like eliminating excess goaltender equipment solve the issue? There is a very good possibility but as time goes on, we can expect goaltenders and coaches to make the proper adjustments. That is how the National Hockey League got here in the first place, but more on that in a bit.
Refs call penalties again/adjust the rules?
Referees were notably tight on calling obstruction following the 2003-04 lockout, which led to offenses being opened up just a little more. As we have grown away from those rules, the “clutch and grab” style of play has taken over again, as referees more often than not choose to not call these penalties.
The thought process here is that if the referees just call the game like they used to, scoring will surely increase.
Yes, it is no secret that referees have seemed to sit back a little when calling a game. As you saw above, power play opportunities sat at 5.85 per game following the 2003-04 lockout. The game had wide open offenses and stars were able to be stars because they rules were not being bent to stop them from being great.
So often in today’s NHL, we see large amounts of interference that goes uncalled along with the aforementioned “clutch and grab” style of play. In an era where the National Hockey League boasts young up-and-coming talent, they certainly don’t seem to care much to showcase that talent.
Hockey is a business, one of the easiest things to comprehend in this confusing world. How is aforementioned young talent Jack Eichel or Connor McDavid scoring 10 more goals as season not good for business? Let’s wait patiently for an answer.
While we wait, lets look at a few different potential rules changes that could help improve scoring league-wide.
Could creating a better set of shot blocking rules open more offense?
First of all, this would represent a very small change for the National Hockey League, one that could potentially do more harm than good.
Coming out of the 2003-04 lockout, Adam Gretz of CBSSports.com points out that 25 percent of 5-on-5 shots were blocked. During the 2014-15 season, 28 percent of 5-on-5 shots were blocked. Could some of those shots turn into more goals? Absolutely, but this seems more like splitting hairs than actually making a concerted effort towards increasing scoring.
As Jonathan Willis of Bleacher Report pointed out back in March 2014, the shot blocked numbers could be rising for a different reason. “The increase in shot-blocking probably isn’t suppressing goal scoring, because it isn’t having a major impact on the total number of shots made on net and the shots that end up getting blocked tend to be disproportionately low-percentage shots from farther out.”
One potential way to cut down on shot blocking is to shrink the neutral zone back down to 60 feet. The neutral zone was expanded following the 2003-04 lockout to encourage more room for play-making but, as you’ll read, coaches adjusted relatively quickly to that and rendered the neutral zone size increase almost moot.
Yes, it has become very frustrating to watch a defenseman or forward just lay down on the ice in front of your favorite goal scorer but to disallow that from happening seems a little outrageous and as just mentioned, like more harm done than good.
Have we gotten too smart?
Over time, people in and around the game have gotten smarter. There is no getting around this.
Analytics have become the hot button topic throughout the entire sport. As teams develop analytic departments, the game has drastically changed. The craziest part about all of this? It has only taken place over the last handful of years. We are still essentially in the infancy of analytics in hockey, which is hard to imagine.
Players can analyze goaltenders more effectively to gain an advantage by studying movements and tendencies. Goaltenders can do the same for forwards, we’ve heard all this from the players themselves over the past few years.
Coaches have become more defensive-minded, with many thanks to analytics. This has allowed them to essentially slow down the game and play to situations. Unfortunately, this has turned players into smaller cogs of a bigger, much more complex overall system being run.
Adam Gretz of CBSSports.com put it best when he said, “coaching and systems have become bigger than the talent on the ice and rob players of their ability to create plays.”
We saw this recently when Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien benched defenseman P.K. Subban for essentially being a very talented defenseman. Subban found himself try to extend and make a play, but instead Subban lost an edge and the puck. The turnover led to a game-winning goal for the Colorado Avalanche. Instead of deflecting any blame after the game, Therrien went all in and told the media, “an individual play cost us the game tonight.”
A quick search into advanced statistics show us and confirm that P.K. Subban is and has been one of the game’s best defensemen, but Therrien continually wants Subban to play the defensive-first system employed since Therrien’s arrival in 2012.
P.K. Subban’s slip caused his team one game, in a lost season of injury and disappointment. “When it comes to Subban, it’s been proven that the good far outweighs the bad,” said Marc Dumont of Eyes on the Prize, following the incident.
Let these talented athletes be talented athletes. Let them take over the game, stop trying to lock them down to a role and make them play specific systems all the time.
When it comes down to it, we might need to just accept defeat when it comes to analytics. Coaches and players are so much more intelligent now than in years past. Couple that with advances in science, hockey players playing hockey from infancy, dedicating themselves to the sport and just an overall increase in the level of talent in the younger generations.
Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Scott Darling spoke to Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times last November, and he might have hit the nail on the head.
“Fans want to see goals,” Darling stated. “Everybody loves to watch highlight-reel great goals, other than the goalie who got scored on. It’s what people want to see. But coaches and players adapt, and find out new ways to play defense or keep pucks out of the net. I don’t know what else you can do other than stop people from getting better and changing their game.”
We must go back in time and stop analytics from ever happening.
On the surface, it appears that there truly is no cut-and-dry solution to solving the National Hockey League’s scoring deficiencies. One change will not solve the problem; it will merely kick the can down the road another 5 to 7 years while ownership and management work on figuring out why the game isn’t gaining popularity.
After going through a few options on the National Hockey League’s plate, it seems that maybe a little serving from every category might fill the need for more goal scoring.
Shrink the goaltender equipment to leave more of the saves up to the actual goaltender and not the gear he is wearing. Adjust the rules to call a little tighter. There is no need to have zero room for error, but there should be no reason to essentially have interference encouraged in hockey. Also, utilize analytics but let the players play and the stars be stars. Yes, that feels like the old “does he pass the eye test” argument but it really seems like the best solution in this scenario.
Will these solutions solve the problem? It is hard to say with all the moving parts, but we all know at this point that Gary Bettman and the entire National Hockey League is officially on notice. Changes need to be made. The puck is in your offensive zone.