Thursday, 26 September 2013

Why the NHL on ice product is wilting

There are several reasons why the NHL is suffering from a drop off in offensive production. This is not a "this year" problem, it actually is something that started in the early 1990's and has been growing slowly but surely every season. If you look at the stats from year to year, you will not see a steady path or reduction EVERY year but you can see the obvious trend. So why has this happened? There are several factors: 
Less teams making the playoffs since expansion 

In 1979-80 four teams "merged" into the NHL from the WHA. That brought the number of teams to 21 and out of that 16 teams made the playoffs. By the All-Star break it was generally accepted who was going to miss the playoffs and there wasn't as much pressure on the top 16 teams to push every game. Coaches would allow the players to enjoy a more offensive game because every mistake was not life and death. The dead puck era started after the lockout in 1994 but the seeds were planted once the league decided on mass expansion in 1991, adding 4 teams in two years. At this moment 53% of the teams make the playoffs, in 1980 is was 76%... 

Better goalies - bigger goalies - bigger and lighter equipment 

There is no doubt that goalie improvement is the number one reason scoring is down in the NHL, and there is nothing wrong with that. If you were to look back at highlights from the 1970's and 1980's, you would laugh at the level of goaltending. You don't see many week goals slipping behind goalies these days, which was common 20 years ago. 

What you wont laugh at is how much net you can see behind each goalie compared to what you can see now, which is pretty much nothing. Average goalie size now is 6'2"  197 lbs, up from 5'10" 177 lbs twenty years ago. That doesn't even take into account the new, larger equipment goalies are wearing that weights significantly less than the equipment worn in the 70's and 80's.

Better players - bigger players 

How does better players equate to lower scoring? Easy, they can be taught to defend and that they have. Team defence has improved so much in 20 years its staggering. Players are also for the most part bigger as well as faster. As of 2011 the average size of a player was 6'1" 205 lbs. In 1966-67 players were on average 5'11' and 180 lbs. Bigger, stronger, faster certainly applies. Players are also closing the gap now faster than ever. Less time and space for skilled players = less offence. 

Rink size 

The size of the NHL hockey rink has not changed (outside of Boston and Buffalo) for decades. The average NHL player is 10% bigger and I would argue at least 10% faster if not more. The skill players have less room to work. Period.

The Loser point 

The business of the NHL loves parity. More teams in the race is good for the box office, no one can deny that. While it may not be good for the on ice product (see point one) no one can argue the growth the NHL has had financially in the past several years. The overtime and shootout loss point has done more for parity than any one single factor. as long as the NHL stays with the 2-1-1 point system, there will always be 12 teams in the playoff race in each conference. I read where Columbus gained 3 points in the standings from two 0-0 games this year. If that isn't a problem for you then your system is a mess. 

Better coaching - all levels 

There is currently more coaching support for Teir 2 players in Canada than there was in the NHL 25 years ago. Strength and conditioning coaches, two or three assistant coaches, goalie coaches, special teams coaches, and video coaches. What's next, a coach for the coaches? At all levels of hockey, coaches are for the most part trying to improve skill and development. The NHL is the only league that is not trying to improve the offensive game. Instead the NHL collectively coaches to defend and stifle offence. Defensive scheme's are the buzzword of the NHL. Years ago you had a "shadow". If you take a step back from the game and think about that for a second its sobering. We are privileged to watch the best players in the world play chip and chase hockey for millions of dollars... 

So what didn't work? 

The clamp down on obstruction after the 2004-2005 lockout gave us a nice bump in offence. Most of that can be attributed to the huge increase in power play attempts. Several seasons later we have all witnesses the standard slipping and of course the goal output slipped as well. Many also now feel that the clamp down on obstruction has let to an increase in concussions and more injuries to defensemen because wingers can now come down at full speed where as in the past you were able to "hold up" the players.

To be fair, hooking and stick infractions have been for the most part upheld and that has helped somewhat. One can only imagine what the league would look like if they allowed the hooking we saw ten years ago. 

The red line was also eliminated after the lockout and has had little positive impact. To be honest I almost forgot that the rule was changed until recently I saw a player standing near the other team's blue line and he chipped the clearing "pass-dump" from the defenseman so they could make the change. The rule has helped the defensive team more than the offensive team in my opinion. 

The trapezoid was introduced as well and other than making goalies angry, it had no effect really. For every goal that resulted from a fore-check that was allowed because a goalie couldn't play it, I would argue that just many didn't happen from a sharp outlet pass from a Marty Brodeur. Most goalies now wait for the puck to come to them or get ahead of the goal line. This has also allowed for more injuries to defensemen in my opinion. They can take those lines away and save the painting crews the hassle.

Delayed off-side was taken away, and then put back. The problem with this rule is that if you blow the whistle immediately on a delayed off-side it destroys the flow of the game. If you allow the teams to do what they do now, you are letting the defensive team fall back into a 1-4 position of defence. I read recently an idea that if you go offside, the face-off comes back into your zone. At first I thought was harsh, but there might be something to that. 

So what else can be done? Coaching is not going away although that would be the easiest fix. Players are not going to get smaller. This much we know. But... 

Rinks can get bigger. If the players are 10% bigger at least, why not give them 15% more space to work with? I haven't heard or seen one person who suggests moving to the IIHF size of rink but just slightly more room in the offensive zone and slightly wider would make a big difference I believe. Obviously it would have to be tested and the owners would have to make a financial investment in that plan. I think its a solution that is 15 years overdue when the wave of the NHL rinks arrived but better late than never. 

Goalies are not going to get smaller and they are not going to be able to reduce the size of the equipment either, as it's become a safety issue as much as anything. With that in mind, nets need to get wider. Taller is not going to happen due to player safety, but wider should happen as early as next season. Period. If the shot off a rush comes back into reality, it will open up the rest of the game because defensemen will have to play different. (Note, the NHL HAS managed to reduce goalie equipment size this year, we will see if it has any impact) 

Ditch the loser point or at very least reward a team for winning in regulation. Critics will say that this will only further add to the problem of teams clamping down once they have a lead. Optimists point to the fact that with more points on the line, teams who are losing are more inclined to "go for it". I'm on board with the latter group but the argument is there. And to the people who are "traditionalist" who don't want three point games I offer you this. The NHL has always been about change, that is their tradition. The NHL used to play with 6 players per side and didn't allow forward passes. Times change and the NHL needs to evolve with it. 

There has been talk of an NHL wild card. Why not copy MLB and the NFL, it's not like they haven't done that before... I don't see this having a positive effect, if anything it may add to the problem with having even more teams in playoff contention.  

The NHL could also look at some of the tactics the NBA used years ago to fix their problems but things like illegal defence should be only as a last resort. One thing for certain, the NHL needs to stop rewarding the defensive teams. Case in point - a forward hand pass IS allowed in the defensive zone, but NOT in the offensive zone... 

In conclusion, I believe that size is the issue to help blend some offence back into the NHL. Bigger rinks and bigger nets would go a long way to bringing the flow of play back. May the days of stacking 5 players in the slot and blocking 30 shots per game be in the rear view mirror soon and never be seen again!

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