Where did all the goals go and how do we get them back? – The NHL lockout issue nobody is discussing (Poll below)

New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi prevents a goal / contributes to the slow death of his sport

The reason why the NHL’s 30 owners and ownership groups are willing to lock out the players and miss hockey games is infuriating, arrogant, and undeniably true: When the dispute is over, the fans will be back. The revenue will be back. After a time, all will be forgiven, and the NHL will continue to rake in the profits during what has been perhaps the greatest period of financial growth in its history. In the past two years, we’ve seen labor disputes in the NFL and NBA settled with relatively little long-term fan backlash. Why not the NHL, too?

But there is a huge obstacle to this line of thinking that nobody seems to be talking about: The NHL is hemorrhaging goals. Scoring has been decreasing league-wide for decades. And if this issue isn’t fixed, the NHL could soon find itself dealing with far worse problems than a lockout alone could ever cause.

So what’s the problem?

Ok, maybe I was too dramatic. The scoring drop isn’t quite a hemorrhage. But the fact remains, NHL per-game scoring average has been decreasing almost continuously for two decades. Less scoring means less excitement, less appeal to the casual viewer, fewer new fans, and ultimately decreased profitability.

NHL goals-per-game by season, 1917-2011
Credit http://www.quanthockey.com/TS/TS_GoalsPerGame.php

The graph above represents total goals per game per season since 1917. Since a peak in the early 1980s, scoring has decreased from a peak average above 8 goals per game (GPG) to below 5.5 GPG in 2011-12. There are a number of factors that have contributed to the overall decrease (larger pads, better goaltending techniques, trap defense strategy, etc.) but the particulars here are not important.

The average fan, the guy or gal that makes up a vast chunk of the viewing audience, probably doesn’t or can’t appreciate what good defense looks like, except when it is displayed on the score sheet. I am a rabid fan and I’ll readily admit to having trouble evaluating defensemen I watch every game. Hardcore viewers and former players might be able to pick out and appreciate the nuances of a low-scoring game, but for your typical Freddy Flyers Fan, unless it’s a do-or-die situation, a 3-1 result sounds far less interesting than an equally-competitive 5-3 game.

When it comes to fixing this issue, you first have to diagnose the problem. And when you keep digging at the numbers, an obvious culprit emerges: shooting percentage.

————–

Below is a graph of NHL save % (shots – goals / total shots), which is an inverse statistic to shooting %. You’ll notice that, since the early 1980s, save % has been increasing pretty steadily. This is right in line with the overall decrease in goals shown above.

NHL save percentage by season, 1982-2011
Credit http://www.quanthockey.com/TS/TS_SavePercentage.php

It’s important to notice the significant dip right in the 2004-2005 range. This coincided with the return to hockey immediately after the last set of rule changes.

During the last work stoppage in ’05, the league realized that scoring was an issue and hammered out some rule changes that were meant to increase offense. Most notably, the removal of the two-line pass rule allowed teams to get up the ice faster, creating more opportunities for odd-man rushes. The numbers indicate that there was a significant jump in scoring the next season. The rule changes passed the eye-test, too. There seemed to be more ‘pretty’ goals, better passing, and all around ‘faster’ games.

But in the past few seasons, defenses have adjusted. I took a look at the pre- and post- All Star game splits for the league since that 2005 season, and what I found was alarming.

NHL Regular Season Shooting Percentage, 2005-11

This graph shows how well defenses and goalies have adjusted to the last rule changes. While a 1% difference may not seem like much, it can translate to a difference of 600 goals per season or more. It is pretty remarkable how consistent the decrease has been, and this trend seems to indicate that shooting percentage will continue to decrease for at least a few more seasons before it hits a scoring floor. I don’t know where that floor is, but the fact is that shooting percentage in the 2011-12 regular season is already lower than the low average set in ’03-’04 that necessitated the ’05 rule changes. There were 1476 fewer regular season goals scored in ’11-’12 than in ’05-’06.

Make no mistake. Even though the NHL has become much more popular and financially successful in the last few years, there will come a point where the casual fans will start to walk away. Thanks to the 10-year, $2 billion television deal with NBC, the league is under more pressure than ever to draw these viewers. Something has got to give.

Is there a solution?

Some may suggest that goalie pad-size is the issue. Others might posit that widening the goal-mouth is a better solution. But I don’t like either of those because they just mask the underlying problem. The eye-test over the last few years tells me that there are more ugly goals being scored now than there were in ’05. Less pretty passing, more dump-and-chase, throw-it-at-the-net-and-pray style offense. I don’t have a statistical measure for that, but it’s what I have observed. Smaller pads or a bigger goal will only increase a team’s propensity to just chuck it to the crease and see what happens.

A much better way to increase offense will be to increase the space on the ice. NHL players, like those in every profession sport today, are bigger and faster than ever before. As a result, there is quite literally less space to play with now than any previous era in the NHL, even though the size of the rink hasn’t changed in decades.

Difference between NHL and International rink sizes
Image thanks to http://icehockey.isport.com/

The image above shows the difference in standard rink size for the NHL and European/International rinks. Although the two are nearly the same length, the NHL rink is a full 15 feet thinner. This translates to a difference in total surface area of nearly 3000 square feet.

Expanding the NHL rink to the international size, or even somewhere between the international size and and where it is now, can only benefit the sport in the long run.

First and most obviously, passing would become a lot easier. A defenseman would be forced to defend much wider passing-lanes, and forwards would have a much easier time creating separation and finding space. Offenses would have a much easier time possessing the puck, and this would undoubtedly lead to more of the aforementioned ‘pretty goals.’ Players would have a much better chance of creating shots from the area in front of the net because the defense would be stretched.

The secondary benefit of a wider surface would be a decrease in open-ice hits. The NHL has a major concussion issue and is actively trying to change the culture of the game to move away from dangerous head shots, as evidenced by the extensive list of suspensions handed out by league VP Brendan Shanahan in 2011-12.

While a wider surface wouldn’t necessarily decrease the danger of boarding, it would give skaters an easier time avoiding open-ice hits. Open-ice hits are much rarer than hits against the boards but more dangerous, because the boards actually help reduce the amount of force that a player takes from the collision. (Check out this great video of the science behind this fact.) Couple this with the fact that the game would, over time, shift to a more finesse-oriented, speedy, skilled style of hockey, a wider ice surface can only help to expedite the culture change that the NHL is trying to execute with respect to concussions and head injuries.

So now I leave it to you: Should the NHL widen the ice surface? Should it do nothing? Change some other rule?

Posted on October 1, 2012, in Flyers, Hank Mushinski, Posts, Sports Philosophy, Stats Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. imo, International size rinks suck dick to play on. also, it would mean less seats in current stadiums and less money for owners. It’ll never happen.

    • That’s a good point about the seats. But as the NFL and MLB demonstrate, you can get a lot more money from TV than you can from attendance. This sort of depends on what kind of profit-sharing the owners set up among themselves as well, because small market teams right now probably couldn’t afford to lose those first few rows without a lot of help from the rest of the league

  2. I disagree with your premise that lower scoring games = less exciting games. I personally find that not to be true and often think low scoring games are more exciting than high scoring ones, especially in the playoffs. A 1-0 score with 1:00 left to play is nerve wracking. But, I am a deeply committed hockey fan, not a casual one. Still, your own evidence suggests that you are trying to solve a non-existent problem. Scoring has been going down for two decades, as you show, but at the same time the sport’s popularity has been going up, as has its profitability. You suggest that casual fans might get tired of low scoring games and walk away, but that hasn’t happened yet. Things aren’t broken; there’s no need to fix them.

  3. It’s the pads, period. Now when a goalie butterflies, he blocks the entire lower part of the net. Also, there are very few marquee names in the league. I’ve never seen so little talent in 38 years of watching. There are about 20 teams you couldn’t pay me to watch. I can’t understand why so many people enjoy watching a sport where the first team to 2 goals wins. Boring!

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