Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A brief history of the NHL pretending it's going to do something about scoring

The 1992-93 NHL season is often seen as among the best ever. Mario Lemieux beat cancer and had 160 points in 60 games. Teemu Selanne obliterated the rookie scoring record with 76 goals. A new wave of Russian stars like Sergei Federov, Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure were dazzling fans. And the league saw 14 players hit the 50-goal mark, and 20 reach 100 points.

The season also featured 7.26 goals per game. That was well down from the high-flying 80s, which at their peak had topped the 8.00 mark, but it was the highest offensive output in four years. And, although we didn’t know it at the time, it was the highest mark we’d see for another 22 years and counting.

The following year, which happened to be the first full season under the watchful eye of a new commissioner named Gary Bettman, scoring dropped to its lowest level in two decades. While some were confident that the plunge was a temporary blip, there was general agreement that something should be done. The only question was: What? And so the debate began.

If that sounds a lot like the sort of conversation we’re having right now, well, that’s because it is. This has been kind of a thing for the NHL ever since Bettman arrived. Scoring drops, the league scratches its head, and then someone announces that they’ve come up with a solution.

The whole thing can start to feel repetitive. So I went back over the last 22 years of NHL history, and found articles from each and every season in which somebody is expressing concern about plunging scoring rates, and the league is assuring us that it has it all figured out. Just for fun, we’ll also look at what (if any) rules actually did change that year, and keep track of the overall league-wide scoring rate.

So yes, today’s NHL may feature scoring levels that are headed towards historical lows, and have been for decades. But don’t worry, everyone: the NHL is on this. They’ve got it all figured out. And they’ve got a plan to get scoring back to where it needs to be…

The season: 1993-94
The headline: Scoring is down but fights are flourishing (January 12, 1994)
The proposed changes: Among a long list of complaints and grievances, the referees are singled out for allowing too much obstruction.
What actually happened: Not much. The league made one minor change, slightly loosening the rules around goals scored with a high stick.
Money quote: “Last season at this point, each game averaged 7.30 goals. So far this year, the average is 6.06.” Don’t worry, I’m sure it won’t last.
Average goals/game: The final goals-per-game average settled in at 6.48, making 93-94 the lowest scoring season since 1973-74. Or, as we call it now: “the good old days”.

The season: 1994-95
The headline: Neutral-zone trap to champagne pop (June 26, 1995)
The proposed changes: A crackdown on obstruction “so that skilled players aren't nullified”. Also mentioned is a “more radical suggestion”: eliminating the two-line offside.
What actually happened: Neither of those changes would actually be made for a decade.
Money quote: “Claude Lemieux of the Devils, who won the Conn Smythe trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs, seemed insulted when asked about critics of the team's efficient neutral-zone trap. ‘Well, too bad,’ he said. ‘Go watch a show somewhere else.’” Which they did, according to weeping TV executives.
Average goals/game: 5.98. This was the first time the league had been below the 6-goal mark since 1970.

The season: 1995-96
The headline: League hopes anti-trap rules lead to more excitement (Sept 30, 1995)
The proposed changes: This article covers the NHL’s attempt to crackdown on obstruction, especially in the neutral zone. Nobody seems to really like it, with Mike Milbury complaining that “Hockey as we know it has ceased to exist”.
What actually happened: The crackdown resulted in a temporary boost to powerplays and overall scoring. Then the season ended with a triple overtime 1-0 game.
Money quote: “Labour troubles will be a thing of the past – and the controversial neutral zone trap may be doomed too…” Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and call that an 0-for-2.
Average goals/game: 6.28, which remains the highest mark of the last two decades and counting.

The season: 1996-97
The headline: Nice spin, but quality is answer (January 21, 1997)
The proposed changes: Bettman shrugs off plunging scoring rates by pointing to better goaltending, although director of officiation Bryan Lewis admits that referees need to do a better job of calling the rulebook.
What actually happened: No major changes.
Money quote: “In his annual state-of-the-league address during last weekend's All-Star festivities, Commissioner Gary Bettman sounded like Mr. Rogers.” Seriously, this whole article is just the legendary Helene Elliott going full B.S. detector on Bettman. By this point, the media was officially turning on the new commissioner.
Average goals/game: 5.84.

>> Read the full post on ESPN.com

Monday, November 23, 2015

Things just got interesting in Winnipeg

In a league where the best of the best monopolize most of the attention, there aren’t many sixth-place teams that could be described as “fascinating.” The Winnipeg Jets are becoming the exception that proves the rule.

The Jets are a deep team, one that’s stacked with young players at both the NHL level and beyond. They have an excellent blue line and an underrated cast of forwards. They have the talent to beat any team in the league on any given night, and they’ve already notched wins over the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. They’re a darn good team.

They’re also in the Central Division, where “darn good” isn’t good enough. At 10-9-2, they’ve banked 10 ROWs and 22 points, which would be good for third in the Pacific. In the Central, that leaves them sixth, looking up at five excellent teams, none of whom seem likely to have the sort of extended cold streak that would allow a team chasing them to gain big ground. A recent six-game losing streak appeared to have the Jets in danger of falling out of the hunt entirely, even before the calendar flipped to December.

>> Read the full post on ESPN.com

Friday, November 20, 2015

Grab bag: Hockey hipsters, saving the all-star game, and Mario Lemieux was awesome

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- The one change the NHL must make to save the new all-star format
- Debating the league's scoring woes with the worst fan of all: The Hockey Hipster
- An obscure Ralph
- The three comedy stars of the week
- And a YouTube breakdown of just how awesome Mario Lemieux really was.

>> Read the full post on ESPN.com

Thursday, November 19, 2015

How to save the NHL's trade market

Last week, the Tampa Bay Lightning traded goaltender Kevin Poulin to the Flames for future considerations. It was an almost completely unremarkable trade, one that went all but unnoticed by anyone who wasn’t directly related to Poulin himself. But it was noteworthy in one way: It was the first (and so far only) trade of this regular season.

That’s become the new normal in this league. This is the third time since 2010 that we’ve made it well into November before the first deal of a new season. History tells us that the market will start to pick up soon, but not all that much, with a smattering of deals between now and the trade deadline. If we’re lucky, fans will get a handful of moves that feature players they’ve actually heard of.

Trading used to be a big part of both the typical GM’s toolbox and the NHL’s overall entertainment package, but it’s been dying a slow death in the cap era. And we all know why: It’s the dollars. The salary cap complicated everything, we’re told. It’s just too hard to make a deal these days.

But while all of that is probably true, we don’t have to let the trade market die a slow death. I have an idea that could help revive the lost art of the deal. The NHL has the power to deliver an adrenaline boost to the market, ushering in a new era of wheeling and dealing and reigniting hot stove debates across the league. And all it will take is one relatively straightforward new rule.

Fair warning: you’re going to hate it… at first.

I mean, you’re a hockey fan. You hate change. You complain about the state of the game constantly, but the mere suggestion of even the smallest tweak puts you on the defensive. You miss ties, you’re still not over the trapezoid, and the last time one of your friends suggested making the nets slightly bigger you stabbed them with a plastic fork. It’s a hockey fan thing. I get it.

So yes, you’re going to think this idea sounds ridiculous and unworkable and you’ll immediately go into defensive hockey fan mode, coming up with a dozen reasons why it could never work. All I’m asking is that you give it a chance. Let it percolate. Wait a few hours before you track me down on Twitter and call me an idiot. And during that time, think about how much fun it would be to have trading back in the NHL.

Promise? Then let’s get started.

>> Read the full post on ESPN.com

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

James Reimer: More than just OK

The Maple Leafs picked up a 5-1 win over the Avalanche last night behind 34 saves by James Reimer. That continues a November hot streak by the goalie, one that has him firmly within the top ten in league-wide save percentage and earned him a selection as the league’s third star last week.

Reimer’s revival has been a welcome site for Maple Leaf fans. It’s also a confusing one, at least for those who’d spent the last two years convincing themselves that he was a bum. Things change fast in Toronto, especially for the guys in the crease.

Let’s remember that backstory here. Reimer was an unheralded quasi-prospect when he arrived in Toronto midway through the 2010-11 season, all smiles and “aw shucks” demeanor. It was supposed to be a cup of coffee, but he played well, and had earned the starter’s job by the end of the following season. He looked great during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, even earning a Hart vote. At long last, the Leafs had found their goalie.

And then came That Game, and everything changed. The Leafs’ third period collapse against the Bruins sent the entire franchise into panic mode and quashed the reputations of more than a few of its players, Reimer included. Suddenly, he was the guy who couldn’t win the big one, a deer-in-the-headlights with shaky rebound control. It wasn’t remotely fair – the only reason the Leafs were in a position to collapse in game seven was that Reimer had single-handedly dragged them there. But it didn’t matter. In the eyes of Toronto, Reimer was damaged goods.

>> Read the full post on ESPN.com