Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Unintended Consequence of the Obstruction Crackdown

One of the many significant changes to the NHL this season is the obstruction crackdown. The idea is that by calling many more infractions, the ice would open up and scoring would rise (apparantly high scoring hockey is supposed to be better than low scoring hockey). Scoring is up this season. The largest increase in scoring comes from an increase in power plays. Scoring is also up at even strength, but it is not nearly as big an increase.

The NHL has repeatedly been telling the story of how scoring and penalties are up (and how this is a good thing). This has been repeated so often, that some fans parrot back the increased scoring and penalty rates as though they show the health of the NHL (and not for example the decrease in revenue). The idea is firmly entrenched in the public's mind that the "new NHL" is improved because it has more scoring and more penalties.

Over time, there have been problems developing with this approach. Players have adjusted to the increased penalty calls. They have adjusted to the obstruction crackdown by reducing obstruction. So naturally, penalty calls should go down. With less power plays, scoring should also go down. This cannot be allowed. The scoring rate and the penalty rate have become barometers for the health of the league. Gary Bettman has to threaten the referees that if they do not call enough penalties theh they will not call any more playoff games. This has created the special teams playoffs. This is a playoff where more goals are scored on special teams than ever before. This is a playoff where in manyu cases there is no need to press for that game tying goal at even strength because if you wait a few minutes you will undoubtedly get a power play opportunity to score it.

Worse still, this is a situation where the definition of a penalty is constantly changed in order to maintain the scoring rate and the penalty rate. If there are less penalties then we need because players have adjusted to last month's penalty definitions, we will just call more questionable penalties that would not have been called in the past. The integrity of what is hockey is at stake. If refereeing standards are constantly redefined in order to increase penalties and to increase scoring, this refereeing threatens the impartiality of the game's officiating since it has an indirect goal of creating more goals.

Tom Benjamin has reached a similar conclusion.

So are you saying we should go back to clutch and grab hockey? I'm not a big fan of some of the crackdown because it has resulted in decreased physicality in front of the net, but the "old NHL" was slow and boring at times (see NJ and Minnesota) and had very little pace. Watching last nights Edm/SJ game with that 5 on 3 in the 3rd, when SJ had only 1 player with a stick, while it's not true hockey, it certainly was exciting and that is what needs to be the barometer of the "new NHL", it's level of excitement.
Also, a good stat to look at might be even strength shots. Are they up? Just because goal scoring isn't significantly up, doesn't necessarily mean that there as just as little offense as before. Skill players are being rewarded with more opportunities to create offense and potentially score. Whether they have or not is for a different discussion.
Its not an either or situation. We don't have to either have an endless string of phantom penalties to keep scoring up or else "go back to clutch and grab hockey". There is plenty of middle ground which you left out of your choices.

I never understood what was so wrong with the hockey we saw in the years before the lockout. I really enjoyed it.

The game we are seeing in these playoffs often lacks an intensity. To win, a team must maintain an emotional control and not play on the edge that leads to the most intense play.

I think using scoring or the number of shots as a barometer of whether or not the hockey is any good completely misses the point. We all have seen some very good low scoring games and some very bad low scoring games. We all have seen some very good high scoring games and some very bad high scoring games. Scoring rates (or shooting rates) are at best very weakly linked with the quality of the game.
The problem that the NHL is getting itself stuck into is the ever changing definition of what is a penalty which is designed to keep the scoring rates up.
I full agree with the inconsistant position of the league and how easily influenced they are. A coach or player will complain about something and the league will nod and listen immediately. On the first day of playoffs, Brodeur complained about goalie interference, now every single player touching a goalie is called. After game 6, Calgary's Darryl Sutter complained that Anahiem got many more power plays including 8 5-on-3 to none for Calgary. Refs immediately gave the Flames a bunch of power plays in game 7 but it didnt help cause they played like crap.

Intensity is down, scoring chances are down and continuous power plays are boring. The league continues to shoot itself in the foot.

The best game in the 2004 playoffs was Calgary's Game 6 win over Detroit. It was 1-0 with about 60 shots and end to end action and drama. The American media totally ripped it as boring because it was 1-0.

Americans just dont understand the game. Why is it a 1-0 baseball game is a classic yet a 1-0 hockey game or soccer game is boring?
Come on. To think that we could go from an obstruction rodeo to a harmonious, fast but tough game in one year, after a decade of apathy, would be no different than thinking that you can overcome years of bad dietary choices and laziness by taking magic weight-loss pills. It takes time, effort, and consistent re-evaluation to get it right.

Sure, I hate the 20-penalty games as much as anyone else, but I also hated the obstruction rodeo that we watched two years ago, not only because a rule is a rule and needs to be either enforced or, if proven ineffective or unnecessary, altered or removed, in sports as in law, but also, because the trap-and-grab systems made it difficult for you to succeed in the league unless you were 6' or bigger. Now, small guys with skill can use it and entertain people with it (let's not forget, this is an entertainment business), and big players who can adapt to the new rules (Pronger stands out to me, because I follow the Oilers) continue to flourish, and yes, use their size and physicality to their advantage, while those who can't (where'd half the enforcers of 2004 go?) wind up out of the league.

In the long run, I think things will come around to something most people can enjoy, and I think we're already seeing it in some series. I know Edmonton-SJ has been great fun, with lots of heavy open-ice hits (how many people could get up to speed to lay one of those babies down before?) and smart defensive play, but very little obstruction.

Of particular note in that series is the fact that the first three games of that series ended 2-1, 2-1, and 3-2 in triple OT. Remember that 1-0 Calgary-Vancouver game earlier this year? One of the best games I saw this season, with lots of physical intensity and up-and-down action. As noted here, smart hockey people know that low scores do not equal boring games: like Scotty Bowman pointed out, it's not the scoring that matters, but the scoring chances. As long as the NHL bears this in mind, and makes use of the smell test to supplement the fancy but ultimately only partially informative statistics (and I think they will--the hockey people on the competition committee generally know their stuff), we should see the game continue to improve.
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