The National Hockey League (NHL) isn’t unlike the other major professional sports in that they have reactionary rule changes to combat advances they simply cannot control. They’ve moved the blue line, altered the two-line pass rule, gone to four-on-four hockey in overtime and most recently, added shootouts instead of having games end in ties. They’ve changed these things to create a more visually pleasing game, but it backfired — defense is winning championships and the scores are plummeting.
Similar to how the National Football League changed their rules on defending receivers, Major League Baseball raised the mound and the National Basketball Association changed rules on hand-checking, the NHL has tried to make changes to create a much more open, exciting brand of hockey. They’ve succeeded to an extent, as the game is much more free-flowing and easier to watch for the casual fan, but it’s also had some unforseen and undesirable consequences.
The NHL is currently on a streak of eight consecutive years with per-team scoring averages below 3.00. The last time the NHL had a streak like this was from 1996-97 through 2003-04 (also eight seasons), which saw them run headfirst into a year-long work stoppage. The goals per team average in that last season was a measly 2.57 per team. The defenses weren’t playing that much better, but the rules — specifically the slower, plodding style that teams had to get used to — were hurting the flow of the game.
During that 2003-04 season, save percentages averaged .911, which has been beaten the last four seasons. In fact, since save percentages were first introduced in 1983-84, goalies are performing better than they ever have. A new record was set in 2013-14, with goalies stopping 91.4 percent of shots. Is it that teams are focusing more on defense? Are we in the era of the goalie? Or is it something more?
DEATH OF THE NHL’S POWER PLAY
The power play was always meant to be extremely penal to the team breaking the rules. Opening up the defense and making them skate a man short is something that no team can get away with for too long. Power play percentages have been fairly steady in the last 10 years, with a low of 16.46 percent successes and a high of 18.95. There hasn’t seemed to be much rhyme or reason for the ebbs and flows to success rate, but there is one alarming trend that stands out — opportunities.
With a more open game, the players simply aren’t making as much contact and thus, aren’t committing as many penalties. The power play opportunities per game are at a 36-year low, with just 3.27 opportunities per team on average. Since the post-lockout season of 2005-06, we’ve seen a decrease from 5.85 opportunities per team to just 3.27 last year. In fact, there’s been only one season (2012-13) when the average opportunities rose and that was just .01 percent.
The elimination of these chances paired with the improving save percentages is creating an exciting flow, but it’s not resulting in goals. Shots per game have remained remarkably consistent over the past decade, staying within the 29.0-30.3 range since the 2005-06 lockout.
SCORE FOR SHOW, DEFEND FOR DOUGH
The Stanley Cup champions have held a common strategic goal — allow as few goals as possible and let the time run off the clock. Take a look at the last five Stanley Cup champions and how they’ve fared defensively:
Regular Season Goals Allowed (NHL Rank)
2013-14: Los Angeles Kings, 174 (1st)
2012-13: Chicago Blackhawks, 102 (1st)
2011-12: Los Angeles Kings, 179 (2nd)
2010-11: Boston Bruins, 195 (3rd)
2009-10: Chicago Blackhawks, 209 (5th)
Each of these squads have been dominant on the defensive side of things. They’ve built their success on the back of their goaltenders and have ridden them and their defense to the Stanley Cup. Teams that have the high octane offenses without defense simply aren’t winning any more. Sure, they can win high scoring affairs, but they can’t grind out the clock and they can’t control the puck when they have a lead.
WHAT’S THE NEXT CHANGE?
You can bet the NHL is hard at work trying to find a way to make another change to keep their game viable to the masses. As the unquestioned fourth sport out of four North American professional leagues, they have to do everything they can to make their sport more attractive. Remember this video spots that Nike did for Major League Baseball?
Chicks don’t dig the shutout…neither do the dudes. Hardcore hockey fans might love a grinding 2-1 victory and may marvel at the open-ice checks and the crisp puck handling. Casual fans…aka the ones who will either keep the sport alive or let it rot…want to see more scoring. They want more excitement. It’s the same reason that America tends to only watch soccer this time of year — we dig scoring. Defense may win Stanley Cups, but it’s just too boring to watch.