State of the Game: Part 2

Overtime Central will analyze the State of NHL hockey in a two part series. Previously we analyzed the NHL’s business problems. In today’s post we will cover what we see as the problems facing the NHL’s on-ice product.

In addition to the current labour situation the NHL faces many on-ice issues that must be solved. These issues have been building for quite a few years and each season discussions about cracking down on the rules, changing standards to keep up with the increasing equipment technology and adjusting the physical characteristics of rinks, nets, and pucks are undertaken. Tweaks to the rules and infraction crackdowns are implemented as a solution to restoring high scoring, free-wheeling, exciting hockey, but nothing changes for long. This post will not propose any major new concepts in rules, equipment and rinks as the ultimate solution to the fact that the NHL has been called “boring� more often than not in recent years. Instead I will try to show the relationship between some options and how some adjustments are linked to other changes for the intended improvements to be successful.

Infraction Rules

Many have called for increasing the number of rules and amending existing rules to rid the NHL of the obstruction, boring defensive schemes designed to slow down the game, and unskilled players. It has been said by many as well that all the NHL needs to do is to enforce the rule book they have or even the rule book from 1984. The simple fact is that hockey and the NHL has always had rules to protect the speed and skill of the game. These rules started to be less and less enforced as bigger players and coaches challenged referees to interpret the rules to the letter instead of the spirit. Let’s face it, no referee wishes to call 50-60 penalties a game. So they have to pick their penalty calls, letting all but the worst infractions go when a team built to neutralize skilled players comes along.

It’s hard to say when it started exactly. Even though the Edmonton Oilers were dominating the league in the early 80’s, and other teams quickly emulated their style, others started developing a defensive style with the players built around it. The 1986 Montreal Canadiens, runners up to the Stanley Cup and largely there due to the play of goaltender Patrick Roy were 10 times more entertaining than the 1989 Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens. By the 1990’s, after back-to-back champion seasons by Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the league seemed to adopt a concept across the board that the only way to combat the skilled, fast players that not every team had was to smother these players, whether within the rules or not. More balanced and exciting teams may have won some Stanley Cups along the way, but the regular season play really suffered. Bigger players also played a part, bigger players that also had increased speed and strength than previous generations. In addition, the increase of skilled (and non-skilled) European players did not meet the increased need for players in the NHL due to expansion. These factors, hard to see year-to-year, but more obvious now like the growth of a tree over a decade, have brought the NHL to a point where the average goals per game is close to an all time low.

So the facts are players have gotten bigger, stronger and faster. How do you address this with rule changes? You don’t. These players must play within the same rules that were used 20-30 years ago. If a current player however can perform an infraction with one hand instead of two, that infraction must still be called. The current rules should be sufficient. The hard part is changing player behaviour which is based on years of what they have been able to get away with.

Rink and Equipment Rules

A lot of proposals regarding changes to the NHL rinks and equipment have been unveiled this spring. In my opinion they range from the questionable to the ridiculous. The one area of rule changes addressed that is in the most need of updating is regarding player equipment.

One proposal is to reduce the size of the goaltender equipment, most importantly their goal pads. Done. Smaller blocker and catching mitt sizes have also been proposed. I can agree to reduce these as well as I don’t believe these reductions will have any adverse affect except to goalies goals against averages. Since today’s technology can protect goalies just as well with smaller pads, Synergy sticks should be banned as a counter measure to the equipment changes goaltenders face. Some may argue this would balance any increase in goals gained by goaltender equipment changes. I don’t see composite sticks adding to scoring at all. MLB doesn’t allow aluminium bats; I believe a similar policy to ban advanced sticks in the NHL helps maintain the traditional game.

Recent meetings involving the general managers and player representatives regarding rule changes produced proposals for larger nets. Stupid idea. You don’t want to increase scoring by providing a totally different target for players. How can there be any comparison for fans to any future accomplishment that was done on a larger net, whether still square, bended or tapered. Goaltenders are accustomed to a net and crease size and the time for them to become accustomed to a new size would be too long, meaning whole seasons where the scoring would be up, but to ridiculous levels that would not impress fans. Fans will be excited about skilled players being able to score on the existing net, not 50 goal years by Tie Domi on an inflated net. Allow the skilled players the room to play and add more skilled players to the league would be a more respected solution. This also affects all other hockey, as the minor and junior ranks must adopt the same net size so players do not have a huge adjustment coming to the NHL. Then the feeder systems for these leagues must adopt the new nets for the same reason. For this reason larger nets must remain a paper proposal only.

Moving the nets back to their original position is a no brainer. Never should have been changed in the first place. Widening the blue lines I am indifferent about. It has little affect on the fan experience, but if helps linesman then implement it.

Many fans advocate a larger (Olympic size) ice surface. Fact is it won’t and can’t happen. Even with all the new and modern rinks in the NHL, very few could handle a larger ice surface and the NHL is not going to allow different sized rinks just years after it finally got rid of the super-small rinks in Buffalo and Boston.

Game Play

No-touch icing in general improves the fan experience, speeding up the game much like the quick face-off rule (like there was a rule that face-offs were to be slow). It does take away exciting races for the puck, but the few lost battles are worth the many gains to speed up the game. Tag-up offside is another returning rule that is overdue. This is where a linesman’s discretion should come into play. Based on how and where the player shoots the puck in, the linesman should be able to call offside or wave it off for a player to tag-up. By letting officials make these judgement calls we can get the best of both situations, fewer off sides keep the game moving while players can be penalized for playing a shoot-in game. Not ideal I understand so this one needs more examination before any implementation.

The longest coming rule change if it is ever implemented is the removal of the red line. The idea is that it will open up the game with the opportunity for longer breakout passes. Some analysis says that will be the case in the short term as defenseman get used to the new situation. Over time players will adjust and understand their new surroundings, returning break-away passes and odd-number rushes to the current levels. I would like more experimentation of this rule in the minor ranks before it sullies the game at the NHL level.

Another proposal facing goalies is to restrict their ability to travel outside the crease to move the puck. While noble in its effort, it seems rather silly in fact. Only 25 years ago with the start in the popularity of the mobile goaltender which brought the game to new levels, they want to institute a rule to restrict this? A better idea is to leave goaltenders to standard rules when outside of their crease. A few goaltenders being hit behind the net without any penalty called and possibly some goals scored will keep a lot of goaltenders in their nets more often.

For the regular season, with 12% of the average NHL team’s games ending in overtime ties, overtime shootouts are proposed. The idea is that coaches can’t play for a tie in a shootout. To start to eliminate this strategy the point for the overtime loss must be eliminated with or without any overtime format changes. Certainly for the regular season a shootout provides some excitement for the fans. A 3 to 5 player shootout would bring the game to an end as quickly or quicker than a 5-minute overtime period. However I would propose that other alternative overtime formats be investigated. For example instead of the current 4-on-4 overtime, why not return to 5-on-5 overtime but only allow 3 players to be within their own zone at one time. The other two skaters would have to remain outside their blue line. Defenseman in the offensive zone would be more likely to pinch and get involved in the play to take advantage of the 2-man advantage while breakout passes to the two neutral zone players would be available and create exciting scoring chances. If the red-line is not removed for regulation time, it can be for overtime, increasing the space for offensive passes.

Coaching

You can’t regulate coaching schemes. Other rule changes can make it harder for them to implement defensive schemes and rely on low scoring to be competitive. The real responsibility lies on the owners to hire and instruct coaches to teach offence. Perhaps even league level bonuses can be paid to coaches whose teams goals per game are above the league average. In the end it is up to the NHL to allow coaches to open it up by providing the rules and skilled players which encourage scoring.

Season

The NHL season needs to be reduced. Ideally it could be reduced by 10 games to 72 games per team. The extra days could be split between reducing the days between games for teams and ending the season earlier. If 72 games can’t be done, even a reduction to 78 games would have a positive effect. As it is now the regular season is too long, wearing players down and reducing the quality of the on-ice product, both at the end of the season and in the playoffs. The main factor preventing this from happening is the elimination of the revenues streams provided by and additional 5 home games and the associated box and television revenues. However, the players are the NHL’s assets; they would be wise to take care of them.

Violence

Now for the most controversial topic, violence and fighting in the NHL. I have recently come to the conclusion that the NHL must do more to curb the fighting in the game which is there for entertainment purposes only. At the risk of offending a few fans, the benefit is attracting a whole segment of the population which is turned off by this fighting as the sport persona of the NHL. Growing up in Canada, where hockey is most likely the first sport you learn and understand, the fact that fighting earns a five minute penalty seems sufficient to most. Fighting in every other sport would result in penalties but also the minimum of banishment from that game and perhaps more. The NHL needs to adopt an automatic game misconduct penalty for anyone who engages in fisticuffs.

In addition to stricter rules on fighting, the NHL needs to crack down on violence. Careless stick handling and retaliatory stick swinging must be punished severely. Players must be educated on employing self-control, and this should be taken down to the lower ranks so future players will have these attributes when they arrive in the NHL.

Future long-term retaliation incidents involving defenceless players such as Todd Bertuzzi’s attack on Steve Moore should be dealt with by implementing a lifetime ban with no possibility of appeal or reinstatement. If the punishment is known in advance there can be no complaint over the outcome. These changes will go a long way to improving the NHL’s on-ice image.

Conclusion

Reading the NHL’s rulebook you quickly realize that many current rules are failing to be enforced, from advertising on the ice and boards to obstruction penalties. New rule proposals seem to consider each rules affects in isolation. I believe that any changes, from equipment, to the lines on the ice and the (re-)enforcement of the current rules must have all there affects considered together.

In summary, my changes:

  • Enforce today’s rulebook.
  • Reduce goalie pads. Reduce blocker and catcher mitt circumference if they have increased in the last 20 years.
  • Ban composite sticks.
  • Move nets back to 10 feet from end boards.
  • Widen the blue lines.
  • Implement no-touch icing.
  • Reinstate tag-up offside rule.
  • Goaltenders are open to standard contact rules outside of their crease.
  • Eliminate point for overtime loss.
  • Overtime 5-on-5 with zone restrictions as described.
  • Reduce season to 72 games.
  • Automatic game misconduct for any player given a fighting penalty.
  • Pre-defined, harsh suspensions for retaliatory acts, especially pre-meditated ones which occur during future games.

What do you think? Any rule changes I missed that you would like to see?

2 Responses to “State of the Game: Part 2”

  1. Jim Says:

    Tough problem with no easy solution… or maybe no solution period. I think the biggest reason for the change in the game is the coaching. It has ‘improved’ 2000% since the days of the Oilers dynasty. It is a science now, whereas before it was merely personality. The result is limited offense. Coaches coach defence because it can be taught… offense isn’t nearly as easy to teach and in some cases impossible. By combining video and pre-scouting with the improved knowledge in the coaching field, coaches can literally nullify an opponent’s scoring chances. The problem isn’t solely with the ‘trap’. The trap can be aggressive. There is a problem with the ‘waiting’ game that many teams choose to play. But is this bad coaching, or impressive strategy?
    The bottom line is that a coach will always be judged on wins and losses. Their name will never go down in history for having a team that scored alot of goals. I don’t see a way to change there motivation. Having a high-flying team is great, but hockey is a game of inches and your team could have 20 good scoring chances and miss all of them, even if only by a hair. In a situation like this the score could easily be 9-0 and games like that cost coaches their jobs.
    I believe the basic problem is too many teams, and not enough talent. The league expanded way too far, and hasn’t had the players to keep the talent level up.
    I don’t believe making the ice surface bigger will have the desired effect. Olympic sized ice for me doesn’t add anything to the game. It just takes away the collision factor, which I like.
    I think it’ll be tough to have fighting penalized like other sports. It’s been part of the hockey culture for a long time, and many still think that it’s needed to help police the game. In my experience, this is true. Hockey is first and foremost (especially in playoffs) a game of intimidation.
    To add offense, I’ve thought about the extreme measure of only rewarding teams with points for a win, not a tie. Then coaches couldn’t coach their teams to just ‘not get scored on’. Most if not all coaches would be against this however. Not sure if it would work or be accepted by the fans. I’m not too high on this idea myself.
    My only other suggestion would be to reduce the size of rosters. Drop 2 or 3 skaters from the game sheet. This changes the game in alot of ways. First, it makes it less desirable (from a coaching standpoint) for players to take penalties, especially majors and misconducts. Second, it gets rid of the thugs. Third, it gives more ice time to the top lines, who will have to be used in every situation. This will make the players a little more tired. How will fatigued players help produce more offense? Simple. If you are tired, defence suffers more than offense. Players will be too tired (or unwilling) to catch their guy on the way back, but they’ll also be in the perfect spot for a long stretch pass if their defence is able to turn the puck over. The result will be the fire wagon hockey that some of us remember from the 80’s.

  2. Jon Says:

    Jim: I have to agree with your analysis of the coaching. Hockey has been the most affected sport by this “sciencification” of the coaching world. But what is wrong with the old style where they were just personalities, there for motivation when necessary? Wasn’t the game greater when it was in the hands of the players? Now it is a chess match between coaches, and except for a player failing to follow the system or chance (bad bounce, broken equipment) the outcome isn’t up to the players’ intelligence, skill, or motivation. Why? Probably because of all the money involved in the game. Most players are comfortable being told what to do as long as the coach produces wins and their salary continues to rise. I don’t believe the passion to play the game for room and board (as the situation now attests) to be able to drink from the Stanley Cup exists in more than 10% of the top 400 players today.

    I’m not saying the players should only make room and board. But you have to be motivated as if you were only making that. The money is a bonus you count at the end of the season. Most owners don’t make decisions for coaching styles. Instead they task a hockey manager with making money and maybe winning and the manager must decide the safest way to him to do that. Owners should be in it for the love of good, exciting skill-full hockey, and know something about the game, not to double their investment every year, or win a Stanley Cup and then decimate their team as they maximize their profits. I am not saying they can’t make money, it all goes back to my first article on the business side.

    Your comment about coaches being judged on wins and losses (well mostly wins and championships, right?) is a cliché. But there are 30 teams in the NHL, only two go to the Stanley Cup and only one wins it. There are probably a half dozen other coaches that get fired each year, some or all using defensive focused systems. Wouldn’t it be smarter for the coaching fraternity to base their system on the players at hand instead of adopting what has had success for others? For if their team doesn’t perform well, in any system, they will be fired. At least with offence, you may pack the crowds in (at least in a hockey appreciative community) and keep your owner happy that way. Take the first couple years of the Moose Jaw Warriors. A team that wasn’t going to compete for first place, but with a wide-open style, played exciting hockey, stole some games, and was close a lot of the time too and gave fans their money worth despite missing the playoffs. 9-0 games should never cost a coach his job, unless the situation warrants, like it repeatedly happens to a top ranked team. But ownership and coaching is out of the control of any rule changes, no matter what people say they can do.

    In regards to the ice size, I agree with you as well. This point may have not been clear in the article, as before even discussing its value I was taking the position it was impossible anyway, so why discuss it.

    You’ve hit on a lot of good suggestions, like reduced roster sizes. I don’t see this being tried in the NHL (NHLPA isn’t going to give up roster spots), but a new league may prove it out. I will have another post soon about the recent events in the NHL/NHLPA mess and where I think that is going.

    However the point of my article was not to suggest radical changes which may be necessary, but show that a relationship between the changes instead of the current method which seems to be introduce this, it doesn’t work, pull it out a few years later. Now we are at the point where they want to change the nets to space-age curved posts and cross-bar to increase scoring. It’s artificial. They need to focus on making changes as a package, including reversing some changes they’ve made in the last 20 years that have hurt scoring, like one I forgot for the article, the “Edmonton Oiler” rule, where coincidental penalties are not served as one-man short. A rule that was adopted because for a brief period, the Oilers were good at exploiting it.

OC Jottings

No jottings in the last 7 days. Here is a random jotting.

  • December 7, 2006
    NFL Provides $300 million Loan for New Stadium at the Meadowlands → Toronto dreamers bidders will be smacking their lips looking to get some of that action. If the richest teams in the NFL cannot build there own shared stadium, and want to avoid personal seat licenses, how can a Toronto franchise build one totally on their own under a $1 billion franchise debt? #
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