Monday, November 16, 2015

Clutch-and-grab is dead, and the NHL killed it

As the debate over bigger nets rages on, one suggestion for increasing scoring seems to be gaining traction with a good percentage of hockey fans: Why can’t the NHL just bring back the crackdown against clutch-and-grab hockey that worked so well in the aftermath of the 2005 lockout?

It’s easy to see the appeal. Ordering the referees to simply call the game more strictly avoids the sort of significant rule changes that so many fans are apparently desperate to avoid. And when it was last tried in 2005-06, a crackdown really did seem to work: scoring jumped by a full goal-per-game over the previous season, and that year remains the only one since 1995-96 in which league scoring averaged better than six goals-per-game.

Those numbers point to what seems like an obvious conclusion: When the refs cracked down on obstruction, the game opened up and scoring soared. But as officials loosened up, the clutch-and-grab style crept back into the game, and scoring eventually plummeted back to Dead Puck Era levels. So if you want more goals, there’s your answer: Just tell the refs to get strict again. Simple, right?

It would be nice if it were that easy. But there are two problems with going back to the 2005-06 approach. The first is that the post-lockout crackdown didn’t actually open up the game as much as you’d think – despite the nice boost overall, even-strength scoring didn’t increase significantly. The jump in goals-per-game was due almost entirely to a massive increase in powerplays. At even strength, the great obstruction crackdown hardly moved the needle at all.

It’s true that a powerplay goal is still a goal, and an offensive boost built almost entirely on special teams is still a boost. But the NHL needs to increase scoring across all situations, or risk training fans to simply wait for powerplays while tuning out during the vast majority of the game that’s played at even strength. (For the same reason, changes like banning icing on powerplays or making penalties last the full two minutes even if a goal is scored just end up being bandaids on the bigger problem.)

So that’s strike one against the “just call the rulebook” movement. But there’s a bigger flaw with the argument: It relies on the assumption that the faster, more open style of play in 2005 was only temporary, and that players went right back to clutching and grabbing with impunity once the referees lost their nerve. And that’s simply not true.

In fact, it’s hard to overstate this: The clutch-and-grab style that had become common in the NHL over recent decades bears almost no resemblance to the game we know today. This seems to be news to some hockey fans, presumably the ones who are relatively new to the game, or at least have bad memories. So maybe a quick refresher is in order. Go back and watch footage from virtually any game played from 1995 through 2005 and count the flagrant hooks, holds and outright open-field tackles that go uncalled. And not just uncalled, but all but completely unnoticed, no more noteworthy than a dump-in or drop pass.

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