Monday, October 17, 2005

Obstruction Crackdown

One of the biggest changes to the NHL this season is the NHL's obstruction crackdown. Thus far, I have been yet to comment on it because I am still undecided as to whether or not it is a good thing. Nevertheless, I feel it is time to comment because the in the comments on my Goaltenders, Bad Ice and Atlanta post of a couple days ago Jes Golbez made some comments that indirectly relate to it and I feel are worth some discussion and because, as Tom Benjamin notes, the NHL appears to be already letting up on this crackdown.

The NHL has maintained, since the mid-1990's or so, that the reduction in scoring in the NHL is a bad thing. They have claimed that this is largely due to the "clutch and grab" techniques used by some of the lesser talent NHL teams trying to slow down the faster better teams so that they can compete with them. I do not buy into this theory exactly, but it has been sold well to many of the fans. The logical conclusion of this theory is that if they just crack down on the "clutching and grabbing" with an obstruction crackdown, scoring will go up and everything in the NHL will be better.

There have been several attempts to crack down on obstruction which have failed. This one is the most serious attempt so far. It has successfully increased the number of goals per game this season.

The first thing that I reject is the idea that higher scoring hockey is better hockey. I am definitely not sold on that. I have seen some very good low scoring games and some very bad high scoring games (and vice versa). I'm also not sold that the average NHL fan will find higher scoring hockey to be better in the longterm - and for the most part I do not care what the average fan thinks. The average fan believes a lot of things that I disagree with - many of which are clearly myth. Raising the scoring level in the NHL is not necessarily a good thing from my point of view.

I also reject that the reason the scoring rate in the NHL has decreased in years past is due to "clutch and grab" obstruction. It has many causes. The most important cause is better hockey players. Bigger, better, faster players are finding it harder to find open ice. Successful defensive schemes have been developed to remove open ice. These defensive schemes are disrupted by the obstruction crackdown and thus scoring rises - at least temporarily.

The majority of the extra penalty calls made by referees are occurring in are right in front of the net. If players cannot defend their net physically, they will have to do it by playing a better positional game. Of course it takes time to learn to play this different game. Hockey is a game played at high speed and much of what players do is drilled in through repeated practise as they do not have time to think out their actions at the speed of the games. It takes time to learn to play a game differently - even with players of NHL talent. In time, better defensive schemes will be developed by coaches and learned by players. In time, players will adjust to the changes. How they adjust is yet to be determined. What kind of hockey will be played after these adjustments are made? That is not at all clear. Most likely, the results will be dramatically different from what is intended.

My best guess is that there will become less of a premium of big tough players who can survive the battles in the slot. Smaller more mobile players will replace bigger tougher players. This would occur both offensively and defensively. Power forwards and tough stay at home defencemen will be less important. Many of them will be lost. If this makes the NHL a faster, more talented game, this could be a good thing. However, it would make the NHL a less physical league. I do not think that is a good thing? I miss the good physical play in some of the games that I have seen this year. I am not sure yet if this will turn out to be a positive change or not.

When I watch games this season, there are a few complaints that I have. When I watch games and see offensive players in the slot who are not fighting off defencemen it looks wrong to me. They should have to fight to be in that real estate. I think that is largely a state of mind. I think it can be unlearned. I am not sure if it is better to not have a scrum going on in the slot or not. I have found the battles there exciting, but what replaces them might also be exiciting. I also dislike the increased number of penalties. I do not like the fact that a large part of most games are played on special teams. It disrupts the flow of games to have constant whistles and it takes away from the normal five on five play which I find the most exiciting part of games. My biggest complaint is also a state of mind complaint. Because more goals are scored this year, I find myself asking if every goal I see is a "cheap goal" that would not have been scored in years past that only exists because of the obstruction crackdown. More goals reduces the novelty of goal scoring and I find myself wondering if each goal is an "extra" one that would not have been seen in years past.

There is one clear unintended consequence that has already developed. There are more players in front of the net able to "run" the goalie at full speed. This is in addition to the goalie groin injuries that I have seen that are attributed largely to bad ice and still out of shape goalies who missed last season. An example of a goalie injury this has caused is Rick DiPietro of the New York Islanders concussion. Goalies need some more protection under this new scheme. Something will have to be done to fix this quite quickly unless we are willing to sacrifice many NHL goalies to needless injury.

This may all be a moot point because the NHL may not follow through with their obstruction crackdown. Higer scoring means more blowouts. Bad teams will lose be even larger margins. It will make bad teams more obvious. If fans do not support these bad teams, maybe the NHL would rather have then in more closer, lower scoring games. The NHL appears to be unwilling to gamble on this if they change the obstruction crackdown early in the season.

The best course of action for the NHL is to not make radical changes. Radical changes should not be made in between seasons - but it is too late for this. Radical changes should definitely not be made during a season - such as making a significant difference in obstruction calls during a season. That said, something must be changed to better protect goalies because that is despirately neeeded. This is a problem with radical change. Sometimes, it forces other change in mid-season because an unintended consequence from the radical change reveals a needed further change. Hockey is best when there is continuity from one year to the next. Fans should not have to learn a new system every year. Fans will lose their patience and be lost. Players should not have to learn a new system each year. It reduces the quality of play and removes any team's ability to do any longterm planning. Radical changes were made this summer. The NHL is best to follow through with these changes. If they do not work out they can be removed next year and it will be clearer what their effects were so they will not be tried again in the future producing the same results. It would have been better not to make any changes at all if the NHL is not willing to follow through with them.

I'm uncertain whether or not the obstruction crackdown will make the NHL any better. I have reservations but it may work out. If the NHL "chickens out" on the obstruction crackdown in mid-season that could be the worst possible move they have under the current circumstances. It is beginning to look like maybe the obstruction crackdown will not last.

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