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


  1. Sean -- Reading your terrific columns, as I always do, I notice you commenting frequently on "hockey traditionalists" versus, perhaps, the rest of us. Plus you are interested in trends over time.
    I have thought for a long time that hockey is shaped by the fact that hockey players are harder to identify on the field of play than in any other sport -- they wear full cover-up uniforms, helmets with visors which they never take off, readable numbers only on the back, change ever 45 seconds, are constantly changing position, and so on. I think this means that being a fan of hockey requires real dedication, since fandom is based on identifying with players. Hence, hockey is more of an "fan insiders" game than others. This may be good or bad, and could easily be changed if desired, so it occurs to me you might agree that its an interesting question.
    I wrote a long memo about this around the time a friend of mine was being interviewed to be Commissioner -- he lost out to Bettman, sadly -- and would love to send it to you. Drop me an email at cda[at]cdavidanderson.com and I will attach the old memo to the reply.

    Dave Anderson

  2. Awesome article Sean.
    Or should I say, terrible article. I guess I was one of the clapping seals that believed the NHL when it said it was going to provide 'noticeable' differences with the goalie equipment for next season.

    I keep getting sucked in to believing that we may get back to an era where a goal can be scored from more than 4-feet outside the crease without a screen or deflection occurring.