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November 19, 2012
The Blue Line
While You're At It, Fix The Game

by Matthew Coller

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We have been crossing our fingers for weeks that the National Hockey League and its players will agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. It's safe to say that most fans couldn't care less about whether the owners or players "win," or what percentage of Hockey Related Revenue the players receive, or whether Entry Level Contracts are three or five years. They just want hockey.

While it's true that every fan, whether they know it or not, has some type of interest in how things shake out, it becomes harder and harder to care about signing bonuses as we approach December without the NHL. But after all the mind-numbing jargon we've heard in month after month of non-negotiations, it's worth noting that neither Gary Bettman nor Donald Fehr is aiming to fix any of hockey's on-ice problems. Players have taken to Twitter to call Bettman an idiot and accuse him of near criminal behavior, while owners have—for fear of massive fines—kept up to the commissioner's Omerta code. Neither side has suggested the slightest tweaks to make the game better for fans.

During the last lockout, at least there was hope for a better product when the league returned—a hope that eventually came to fruition with an increase in scoring and the introduction of the shootout. Maybe the league's efforts to increase scoring and reduce the famed "clutching and grabbing" were over the top in 2005-06 when games averaged 11.7 penalties per game and 6.16 goals as opposed to 8.48 penalties and 5.14 goals prior to the lockout. In fact, some of the results of an increase in penalties threw players' statistics for a loop. The league-average save percentage dropped from .911 to .901—the largest season-to-season change since the early 1980s—and there was an explosion of power-play specialists. Tomas Kaberle scored 51 power play points, and flash-in-the-pan Jonathan Cheechoo had 42. Conversely, back in 2003-04, the most in the league was Marian Hossa's 39.

In terms of scoring, the NHL has gotten to near the 2003-04 level again. Eliminating empty net goals, the difference between 2003-04 and last season was 0.18 goals per game. Before the last lockout, teams scored 4.92 non-empty net goals per game, while last season they scored 5.08. That's a huge fall from 5.86 goals per game in 2005-06 and even 5.46 per game in 2008-09. It has been slowly drifting back toward pre-lockout levels since 2008-09. In the ensuing years, it's gone from 5.32 in 2009-10 to 5.22 in 2010-11 to 5.08 last year.

Not so coincidentally, power plays and power play scoring have gone the same direction. From 11.7 power play opportunities and 2.06 power play goals to 6.62 opportunities and 1.14 goals in 2011-12. If you notice, power play opportunities per game are down nearly two opportunities per game since before the last lockout when we were ripping our hair out begging for penalties to be called and goals to be scored.

The subsequent effect on goalies is that the league set its highest average save percentage ever at .914. Or put differently, your run-of-the-mill netminder is as stopping pucks at the same rate as Patrick Roy did in 1991-92. As far as skaters, remember Hossa's 39 points on the power play in 2003-04? Last season's leader in points on the man advantage was Claude Giroux, who netted 38.

The point system sure as heck needs tweaking, too. Actually, the two-for-a-win, one-for-an-OT-loss format needs dynamite. Take for example the 2011-12 Florida Panthers, who won 32 games in regulation or overtime (39% of their games) and somehow won their division. If you watched every Panthers game, you saw them lose 50 times. You know who else won 32 games in overtime or regulation? The Carolina Hurricanes, who finished last in the Southeast. Eight NHL teams had more actual wins than the Panthers, yet, they were the third seed in the playoffs! But they lost 18 games in overtime or the shootout. That's 18 of their 94 points—or 19 percent—for losing.

If the system was changed to three for a win, two for an OT win, one for an OT loss, and zero for a regulation loss—as they do in many other leagues and tournaments—here's how last year's Southeast Division would have shaped up:

Washington: 142 points
Winnipeg: 129
Florida: 126
Tampa Bay: 128
Carolina: 117

Why not put an emphasis on winning the game? When asked about the point system, one NHL executive suggested that when some East-West match-ups are tied in the third period, the two teams will purposely stay away from each other's net in order to ensure that each gets at least a point. Of course, no one has ever admitted to this on the record, but it seems plausible—and pretty smart. It is also an indicator that the system is broken.

But there have been no conversations about changing the power play or the point system. Or the overtime format for that matter, which is pretty absurd in itself. It's much more debatable than the power plays or point system, but it might benefit the league to discuss 10 minutes of 4-on-4 and/or adopting the AHL's five-man shootout. At least a five-man shootout makes it feel a little bit more like a team event than something fit for the All-Star Game.

It's true that the owners and players should focus on the issues that will get players back on the ice as soon as possible. When it comes back, though, will it be better than before? Will special teams matter? Will the playoff format actually make sense? Probably not. As usual, while other sports are re-evaluating themselves and adapting—like the recent changes to the MLB playoff format—the NHL is a dollar short and a day late. Is it really too much to ask that in exchange for months lost—or maybe another whole season—for hockey fans to get back a more exciting game that actually rewards winners?

Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Matthew by clicking here or click here to see Matthew's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
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The Blue Line (10/26)
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The Blue Line (12/02)
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Zamboni Tracks (11/19)

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