Friday, April 28, 2006

The Special Teams Playoffs

One of the bigger changes the NHL has seen this season is the obstruction crackdown. In an effort to open up the NHL and increase scoring, they have decided to stringently call all possible penalties (including some phantom penalties where a player falls down in a crowd). This has successfully increased scoring somewhat. The biggest reason scoring is up is increased power plays. Scoring has also increased in even strength situations, but it is a smaller increase then on special teams.

Gary Bettman has mandated that the refereeing will not let up in the playoffs. Any referee who does not continue to call penalties using the regular season standards will not call more playoff games. One reason for this is to ensure that the same type of hockey that won in the regular season will also win in the playoffs. Another potential reason might be to ensure that overtime games do not run too long for the networks that the NHL wants to carry their games.

As a result of the increased attention on officiating standards, penalty calls have gone up from the regular season standards. Scoring in special team situations has become a higher percentage of total scoring. In the regular season, 2863 of the 7443 goals score were special teams goals. This is 38.5% of the total goals over the season. So far in the playoffs, 80 of the 181 goals scored have been special team goals. This is 44.5% of the total playoff goals. Special teams have become more important in the playoffs then they were in the regular season. The NHL over-corrected a perceived problem and now the reverse of that problem exists. To be a successful playoff team, special teams scoring is more important than it is to a regular season team.

Is this the league Gary Bettman wants? Does he want a higher scoring game with less 5 on 5 play? Does he want a league where teams alternate power plays to increase scoring? That is the league he appears to be building.

I don't view the scoring rate as a meaningful variable to evaluate the quality of hockey. High scoring means worse defence. Is that an improvement? A good game is an exciting game. I have seen high scoring exciting games and low scoring exciting games (as well as high and low scoring less exciting games). I do think that for the most part, hockey should be a five on five game. Penalties are necessary, but there is no reason to call a penalty if there was no harm from the foul. If a player maintained possession of the puck why stop the play? There is no need to call a penalty every time the puck goes into a crowd and somebody falls down. Let the teams decide the games and not the referees.

Interpretation of hockey rules in always a problem. If we adopt the strictest possible interpretation of rules (above and beyond the current obstruction crackdown), a penalty could be called several times a minute, almost every time contact occurs between players. This is undesirable. Where is the happy medium? I believe that the NHL has passed that point with their obstruction crackdown.

This much is clear, the Stanley Cup will be won by a team with very good special teams. It is impossible to win it without them.

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