Monday, March 17, 2008

Lowest Scoring Games

One assumption of Gary Bettman's NHL marketing plan is that fans like high scoring games and changes must be made to NHL hockey to raise scoring. I do not believe this to be true. I think fans like good hockey games and the scoring rate is a poor measure of hockey quality. Many suggestions have been made to try to increase NHL scoring. One of the recent suggestions, which would probably work to marginally increase scoring without adversely affecting the game has been suggested by Scott Mellanby on the Hockey Night in Canada Hotstove segment is to have teams start on the opposite sides of the ice. This would have teams further from their benches in the first and third periods (and closer in the second period). It would make it harder for line changes to occur and thus lead to more goals on broken line changes and when tired players get stuck no the ice defensively. In the current NHL, teams only have a long line change in the second period and this is the highest scoring period throughout the season as a result.

I am against any changes to NHL hockey that are done for no reason but to increase scoring. Will the small increase in goals make any difference at the box office? I doubt it. Does it make hockey a better game to see more tired players and blown line changes? Again, I doubt it, but at least this change would not be a drastic one.

I wrote earlier this season, that the New York Rangers have the lowest scoring NHL games and do not seem to have any problems with their attendance. While the Rangers are a low scoring team (as are their opponents), the least goals this season have been scored in games involving the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have been the fourth lowest scoring team in the NHL this season with only 2.46 goals per game scored. Their defence has been very good, allowing only 2.28 goals per game (third best in the league). That means 4.74 goals are scored in the average Anaheim game this season, which is the lowest total in the league. Anaheim has been playing to a more than capacity house at home, so if there is any correlation between scoring rates and attendance they are a clear counterexample.

Anaheim is the defending Stanley Cup champions and hve a solid chance to repeat. That means that we will likely see a lot of low scoring Stanley Cup playoff games, should they succeed. I don't think playoff attendance or TV ratings will be hurt in any way by these low scoring games. I think the push for a higher scoring NHL is largely a wasted effort.

Carolina are the 5th highest scoring team but are 19th in attendance as a percentage of capacity and 20th in average attendance.

Chicago is 11th in goals scored and Chicago games feature 5.62 goals per game and yet the Blackhawks are 29th in attendance as a percent of capacity and 21th in overall attendance.

The Washington Capitals score a lot of goals and give up a lot of goals and have maybe the most dynamic and fun to watch players in the NHL but they rank 26th in attendance as a percentage of capacity and 24th overall attendance.

What the NHL needs to focus on is increasing the passion and intensity of games. Fans like hard a hard open ice hit from Dion Phaneuf as much as they like the flash of Sidney Crosby.

And despite what the Bettman thinks, mass-mediocrity is not necessarily best for hockey. There is nothing wrong with dynasties and elite teams.
Bettman has a marketing plan? how did I and every other American miss it?
I want to preface what I say by first saying that I love your blog. Its the most thoughtful NHL focused blog that I've ever come across. Having said that I'm 99% sure that you are wrong. I love hockey the way it is, indeed I spend hours and hours watching it (and playing it) but I am also almost absolutely sure that more scoring would make NHL hockey more interesting to watch. With only 5 or so goals scored per game there is usually 12 minutes of play between goals. Sometimes there are so few goals scored that it seems almost impossible to score one. The goaltenders take up almost the whole net. The quality of a scoring chance needed to result in a high probability of a goal is ridiculously high. I've always felt that more scoring would make the game more exciting but I've recently taken to analyzing just why it is that it is so damn difficult to score goals in the NHL.

I've started paying very close attention to which plays result in goals and which plays almost never do. I've come to the conclusion that over half of the goals in the NHL are the result of unexpected bounces or changes of possession that leave a player in an unusually advantageous position to score. The pretty creative play resulting in a goal has become very rare. Much much too rare.

I still haven't answered why it is that this is so. I think that the net is too small for the game these days. The goaltenders are too good. You need to be point blank to have a 50% chance to score. (shootout % is like 40). Also the referees allow defenders to hook opposing players as long as it doesn't impede the TOO MUCH. They shouldn't be allowed to touch opposing players with their sticks above ice level.

More scoring will definitely help to grow the sport of hockey and to make it more exciting.
That last anon post was me. I wanted to address some of the arguments that you made in your post. You mentioned Anaheim and the Rangers. The problem is that there is no control group. The Rangers have a loyal and dedicated fan base and they will always draw very well whenever the team is good. Anaheim is the defending Cup champs.

The fact that 2 teams can win and draw well in spite of playing in low scoring games really doesn't prove anything. There are more factors involved than just the amount of scoring.

The amount that scoring needs to increase to really make the game more exciting would make the worst offense in the NHL look like the best. The ideal hockey game is 4-3. Thats a great back and forth battle with enough goals to keep people excited. A poor offense should average 3 goals per game. A good offense over 4. Watching play go on and on and on for 20, 25, 30 minutues without a goal is not exciting. Goals are exciting. You watch and hope for your team to score waiting to erupt in a cheer and you get to do it maybe 3 times? Not enough. Give fans more like 4 or 5 opportunities to celebrate and they'll enjoy the game a lot more. The lack of scoring is not compensated for by increased intensity when it does happen.

Even if there was a "scientifically proven optimimum number of goals in an NHL game", I would not suggest the NHL run out and change rules to try to attain that number. The problem is there is no magic knob to turn that will raise scoirng in the NHL without adversely affecting other things. I think that most often the cost of damage to other parts of the game is bigger than any benefit from more goals.

After the lockout, the NHL relaunched with multiple rule changes to increase scoring. There was an increase - which seems tied to the number of power plays in a game. More power plays mean more goals. But when players adjust to the refereeing standards and power plays decline so do goals (we have seen this in the last couple of years). What do you do? Do you call phantom penalties just to keep up scoring? In my opinion that is stupid and threatens the integrity of the game. You create other problems in an attempt to solve one perceived problem.

The best solution is to make sure the hockey is high quality hockey and let the goals fall wherever they fall.

I dispute the idea of an optimum number of goals in a hockey game. I have seen games that were low scoring that I was very happy with. Games that I thought were very good games. I have seen games that are high scoring that have been disappointing poorly played games. Of course, I have seen everything in between as well. I think that if any correlation exists at all between my happiness with a game and the number of goals scored it is so weak that it is not worth making significant changes to raise the scoring rates.
The idea is not necessarily to create goals, but scoring chances. That's what makes a game exciting. That brings in the second element: the skill of the goalie to thwart that chance vs. the skill of the shooter to convert it.

The lack of these two elements ruin soccer in the US, for example. One knows that most of the dangerous rushes often come to nothing because of an offside trap or a poorly-struck shot. But if a shot is on target, then the goalie is usually helpless. It's to the point that they keep track of corners, even though they don't often result in shots, and they track shots even when they miss the target. (You'll see in the summaries something like "Shots: Man U 11, Aresnal 8" and then "Saves: Man U 3, Arsenal 3." And the score? If you're lucky, 1-0. Yawn.)

I agree with PSH that a 2-1 game can be just as exciting as a 5-4 game; but not if there are only 40 shots total, with most of them coming from the perimeters. If there are 65 shots, with a lot of them coming as teams trade end-to-end rushes and create good chances, then the point holds - you'll get a 2-1 game if the goalies are excellent, or higher if the shooters are better - but either way each chance will take on a lot of urgency. Will this finally be the tie-breaker? Will this finally be the one that puts these guys away?

And speaking as a goalie myself, I can say that it's good for the team to only permit 10 shots and win 6-0, but I really enjoy games like we had last night, where I had to make several excellent stops and we went to shootouts. I don't want them to let that happen on purpose, of course - I just know that I will remember last night's game far longer, and feel much better about it, for it having been a really competitive game. Winning when it's a foregone conclusion is ultimately not nearly as satisfying as running a real risk and succeeding. That's good hockey.

So create an opportunity where the play flows well and teams can create chances, and that will serve to better separate good teams and players from the lesser lights; and it will result in more enjoyable games. Shrink the pads a bit: 10" width on the legs, reduced height on the shoulders and width in the arms, and maybe reduce the cuff and the circumference of the trapper.
Nightfly, good point about scoring chances but your soccer analogy underscores the problem. When you become accustomed to low-scoring games fewer and fewer plays actually seem like good scoring chances. We all know the feeling that you get when you think there is a good chance to score a goal. You see the play develop and you get excited as it seems a goal might come of it. Unfortunately I get that feeling a lot less than I used to because the goalies are so damn good that I rarely feel like a play will result in a good scoring chance. Sometimes I just watch and watch and watch and I think 'will somebody on either team please score a goal' (part of the problem is that I root for the Islanders but that can't explain all of it because I watch games on VS and NBC also).

The Puck Stops Here,

Your point about rule changes to increase scoring having the potential to make the game less enjoyable is well taken but its not axiomatic. Some rule changes might be good and others bad. Also regarding the increase in scoring that seemed to be tied to increased power plays, I think the refs have backed off because of the incessant whining of some in the NHL world that 'you have to let them play'. If ever there was an empty and stupid complaint that is it. When players don't hook each other AT ALL, and when they don't hold AT ALL, and when they don't obstruct AT ALL, the game is MUCH MUCH MUCH more fun to watch. The refs seem to think that they are supposed to determine an acceptable amount of obstruction etc. They are wrong. Get rid of it. It impedes the flow of the game and allows less-talented players to prevent good scoring chances by superior players.

I think the refs never did really start calling it the way they should have. The problem is the damn broadcasters always saying 'Oh I think you gotta let that one go' (Why?) and 'Its a contact sport' (hooking is not contact and body-checking is still allowed).
There is clearly a difference between making a rule change with the intent to make the game better and making a rule change with the intent to increase scoring. Sometimes they may have the same outcome and sometimes they will not. If your primary reason for a rule change is to increase scoring you will consider some ridiculous concepts that don't improve the game in any way. I think some of these have been introduced into the current NHL game. How does it improve the game to have a trapezoid behind the net where the goalie can play the puck, but not allow it in the rest of the area behind the goal? Was anyone really suggesting that what was wrong with hockey was watching goalies play the puck behind the net outside this trapezoid region? It seems its a dumb idea that might increase scoring, since it is harder for a goalie to defend against a dump in and afterall what the hockey world needs is more dump ins.

The obstruction crackdown that followed the lockout is another example. Referees were heavily pressured to call penalties. When you have that, you have false positives. Penalties called where none should be called. There is no way to escape it if you increase the number of penalties called you will increase the number of false positives. You could not watch a game without seeing at least one instance of the play being along the boards and somebody falls down so the other guy gets a penalty even though he did nothing. That is unfair. That is something the NHL needs to avoid if they want to maintain the concept of just punishment for penalties. There are less penalties now. I think it come down to two factors. Players have adapted and officials have found a balance where they will have less false positive penalties.

The reason for discussing the obstruction crackdown at all is that calling more penalties has been found to be the best way to increase scoring in the past few years. it has worked better than anything else they have tried. If you call more penalties you get more false psotive penalties - and those should definitely be avoided if possible. If we are willing to ignore the problem of false positive penalties and allow for more penalties to be called (and use this as our knob to increase scoring) wouldn't it be more honest to say that for the first 2 minutes the homes team will play 5 on 4, then for the second 2 minutes the road team will and just alternate power plays throughout the game. Scoring would be up. Hockey quality would be down. The loss of even strength play is a major loss in hockey quality. Even if we don't go to that extreme, when you increase penalties you decrease even strength play. You have a situation where you have to trade off the good of the game for increased scoring. Its far to easy to get into these situations when your primary goal is to increase scoring.

Especially when, as we have seen, attendance in hockey games does not track well with scoring in hockey games. Its a badly conceived idea to change the game to increase scoring based on the unproven but widely believed (despite evidence to the contrary) that hockey needs more scoring to increase its marketshare.
I agree with every example you gave. I wish there was a way to increase 5 on 5 scoring via increasing the flow of the game. I still feel that the game would be more exciting with 25-40% more scoring but I don't know how to accomplish that. The new goaltender equipment restrictions are a good start. Also increasing the width of the net by 6 inches may be a nice idea too.

Your attitude is an attitude that scares me. I think it is held by< Gary Bettman and many others in the NHL front office.

Hockey's scoring right now is around its historical averages. The 1980's and early 90's were an aberration. Scoring was unusually high. It will be very hard to force the league back to those scoring rates.

You have decided that what the league needs is more goals and you are willing to change whatever it takes to get them without worrying about the changes to the game that go along with the changes. You are willing to increase the size of the goal for no reason other than to increase scoring. Rule changes with no purpose but to try to increase scoring are a bad move. Even if they accomplish their goal, they may make the overall game worse.
I don't think anything is sacred. Changes may make the game worse or better. You can always change it back if it makes it worse. It most definitely won't make it so different as to be unrecognizable. Anyway I maintain that it is too damn difficult to score goals and a change to add more scoring would be beneficial.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?