A Modest Proposal to Increase NHL Scoring
One Puck Short returns from its summer vacation with a guest blog from InGoal Magazine writer Paul Campbell, who takes a sly look at the NHL’s obsession with increasing scoring:
A Modest Proposal to Increase NHL Scoring: What do the Analytics Say?
The new rules introduced by the NHL Board of Governors for the 2015-2016 season have done nothing to address the league’s universally-acknowledged goal-scoring shortage. Players, fans, mascots, and mangers are hungry, maybe even desperate, for explosive NBA-style scoring. So far, the league has refused to take serious action.
Many half-measures have been employed over the last 20 years, but none has had much impact. The usual culprits have been called out again this season: Goalie equipment is too big! The nets are too small! The rink isn’t big enough! There aren’t enough powerplays! Too many teams have watered down the talent in the league! A change in any of these dubious scapegoats would, perhaps, result in a temporary increase in scoring. But as we have seen with previous changes, the soul-destroying conservatism of modern coaches would see them employing tactics to impose their control.
Frankly, short of expanding the goal by a full foot in both directions, none of the usual proposals would work (and even that massive net expansion would be countered by 2020, when goalies are expected to average 6’9”). It’s also clear that the hockey community is simply not ready to accept a change to such a fundamental aspect of the game as the size of the goal, which has been the only constant in the white-water rapids of NHL rule changes. So where does that leave us?
The most obvious solution is also the simplest: eliminate goalies.
It’s become clear that goaltenders are improving at a higher rate than scorers. This season’s average save percentage was .915 – that’s the league average, and it’s on the increase, as this chart clearly shows:
According to my projections, by 2025, this number will be .984, and elite goalies will have save percentages of 1.000. By 2035, the league average will be 1.000 and save percentages of 1.100-1.200 will be common among the elite. Surely, even the most goal-phobic, defensively-minded coach in the league would resist this trend toward negative scores. Unless we take very serious action, we could see a Stanley Cup Final game seven end in a score of -1 to -3.
However, many I have spoken to in the advanced statistics/analytics community argue teams without goalies would allow fewer goals. This is highly counterintuitive, but when we investigate the numbers, their logic seems unimpeachable.
First, they point to the death of the defensive defenseman. Former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett sums up the case most eloquently:
“We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck.
“Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman.” (Source)
A stalwart defender may be better than a flashy puck mover once the puck is in his own end, but the puck mover spends so little time there that he ends up allowing fewer chances against overall. By analogy, a goaltender may stop more pucks than other players once a shot is directed his way. However, an extra skater would move the puck so much more effectively that there would be far fewer shots directed at the goal.
A second argument draws a parallel between saves and hits. It’s a plain fact that hitting indicates a lack of possession – if you’re laying a hit, you don’t have the puck, so hits are simply an index of failure. Similarly, saves made by a goaltender are nothing more than a clear sign the team is chasing the play. A goaltender’s shot generation potential is approximately zero, with all their ice time being wasted making purely defensive, reactive moves. They do not drive play, and their goals or even points per 60 minutes uniformly ranks them far below even the worst fourth liners. Goaltenders have traditionally been known as anchors for their teams – analytics is proving this true, but only in the sense that they weigh their teams down.
Third, and most convincing, is the fact that the vast majority of goals are scored with goaltenders on the ice. Last season, 95.6 percent of goals were scored against goaltenders. That means only 4.4 percent of goals were allowed by teams that had pulled their goalies for an extra skater. These numbers make it obvious that eliminating the goaltender would result in 22 times fewer goals being scored.
In short, eliminating goaltenders would not increase scoring; it would virtually stop it.
Part of the problem with scoring in hockey is the game’s inherent two-dimensionality: the puck is almost always on the ice, moving in only two dimensions. The players, heavy and skate-bound, are similarly limited. Making the puck a rounder, softer, larger object would enable far more bounce, facilitating more scoring potential through an exponential increase in shooting and passing angles. A softer, rounder puck would also eliminate the need for much protective equipment, making players lighter, and enabling them to exploit the third dimension themselves though enhanced abilities to leap into open spaces. This would allow the net to be placed at a height, boosting scoring further by making it harder to defend.
The ice itself is a major impediment to offense: control is very difficult to maintain on such a hard, slippery surface. The NHL should consider moving from ice to rubberized concrete or wood. There would admittedly be a loss of speed, but the increase in control would more than compensate, offensively speaking.
Perhaps the final inherent impediment to scoring in the NHL is the artificial necessity of sticks. A length of wood is far less reliable than a player’s hands for manipulating any projectile. There would be some loss of velocity, but again, this exchange of power for control can only benefit the offensive side of the game.
Some might argue that such changes would fundamentally alter the very essence of the game. I don’t see this at all, but even if it were true, it’s obvious that the new version of the game would be far more popular in the most desirable American markets. It would generate far more revenue for the players, league, and owners, and command better television ratings. Since these are the NHL’s primary objectives, I expect to see the new format implemented shortly, likely halfway through the 2015-2016 season.
Thanks to Paul for taking the time to put this one together. You can follow him on Twitter @77PGC