Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/12/2018 (1300 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Watching NHL hockey nearly every night, it’s tough to argue against the thought that the game has never been more entertaining than it is today. While there were higher-scoring years, the level of play both in quality and speed has never been higher than it is now.
The general consensus of fans for a long time has been the need to get more goals back into the game, and that has been happening slowly but surely, with this season — up to this point — the third-straight year with an increase in goal scoring, and November was the third-highest scoring month in the history of the NHL with 1,317.
With all that said, I think we could still improve the game quite a bit, because despite coaches beginning to lean more towards offensive styles than defensive ones compared to the last decade, there could be a swing back at any time. I appreciate great defensive play almost as much as great offensive plays, but on average it’s offence that makes you get up out of your seat, not defence.
Looking at the history of NHL goal-scoring from Hockey Reference, we can observe what the modern era looks like.
There are clear eras of league scoring since the NHL began tracking power-play opportunities in 1963-64: from the free-wheeling 1980s to 1993 — where in all but two years — teams averaged 3.5 goals per team per game, to the dead-puck era from 1997-98 to 2003-04 when teams struggled to hit 2.75 goals per game, and finally the modern era, which has elements of both.
It wasn’t as well publicized, but we had another dead-puck era from 2011-12 to 2015-16, with five straight seasons in which teams averaged fewer than 2.75 goals each per game. Part of the reason this happened is that teams and players adjusted to defending without the clutch-and-grab style of the 1990s and early 2000s, but there’s another reason as well: officials just stopped calling penalties.
Since 1963-64, we've never seen an era with fewer penalties called than the one we’re currently in.
I think you can make a very convincing argument that the game is cleaner now than it was in the 1980s just by virtue of fewer players gooning it up, so there’s little reason to get up to the range of five power plays per game per team; we don’t need a third of the game to be spent on the man advantage.
Despite the small crackdown on slashing the last couple years that has caused a little uptick in penalties called, it’s very easy to notice that officials are letting more interference to go uncalled; the crackdown on obstruction coming out of the 2004-05 lost season lasted all of two seasons before it went back to the dead-puck era’s level of power plays.
And even that didn’t last, with a steep decline in power-play opportunities from 2005-06 to the last six seasons, where teams get an average of 3.11 power plays per game. In the dead-puck era, where obstruction and interference were essentially never called, teams averaged 4.35 power plays per game, a shockingly large difference that equates to more than 100 extra power plays per season per team.
There’s certainly less obstruction in the game now than there was in the early 2000s, but do NHL players today cheat less often? I find that a little hard to believe in a sport where the level of competition is so high and the speed of the game forces more mistakes than ever. If anything, players today may cheat smarter than players in the past, being more discreet with their illegal plays.
One reason why officials may be more hesitant to call penalties these days is that power plays are becoming radically more efficient.
It’s not perfectly linear, but ever since the low point of power-play efficiency at the beginning of the dead-puck era, the trend has been for power plays to get more dangerous, which to me says there’s a lot of focus from coaching staffs to take advantage of the few opportunities they get.
The last two seasons are the first in which the average NHL power play scored on more than 20 per cent of their opportunities since 1990, which may mean there is a genuine fear among the NHL’s executives that increasing power-play opportunities will make penalties a bigger factor in deciding the outcomes of games, but that thinking is wrong-headed.
Allowing infractions to go uncalled in the name of "letting them play" is allowing the officials to decide games as much as calling a bunch of penalties, if not more. All ignoring infractions does is to give an advantage to teams who make more of them, while punishing teams with elite power plays.
Officiating is an extraordinarily difficult job, made more difficult by mixed messages that come from the NHL’s front offices at times, and it would unquestionably be easier for them to have a strict standard to apply that doesn’t change based on the situation, like say, in the playoffs.
As great as the quality of the game is right now, we could get more scoring and less interference if refs were directed to call the rulebook as strictly as they did even in the dead-puck era.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.