Expansion: the NHL’s obesity problem

So here we are again, time for the NHL to expand. Purpose: easy money as always. Oh wait, the politcally correct answer is ‘to grow the game’ and treat the world to the great sport of hockey. Sorry I let reality seep in there for a moment. To go along with the fantasy world, Mr. Gary Bettman also let us know that Carolina is not going anywhere. So again we have multiple unsuccessful franchises already in the league and the solution is to add more teams.

So the brave NHL and corporate team executives rode the wave and now the bubble of the Canadian dollar has burst, so it is time to find cold hard cash in . . . wait for it . . . Las Vegas!

Honestly, while I am interested in all these business issues, they pale in comparison to the ongoing problem of the entertainment value of the way the game is played.

Adding a team while making no other roster adjustments to the league as a whole will only result in more of the same – meaning coaching this sport to death because there is already a dearth of talent and now there are 20 more players to press into service. Let’s not get confused, in talking about talent we are talking about the extraordinary level that certain humans possess, we are not talking about well trained athletes. I agree that there are more well trained athletes on the planet than ever before. However, there are not more Mario Lemieux’s than there were before, nor Bobby Orr’s, nor Alex Ovechkin’s. The truly extraordinary players are no more common than before. What that means is that the well trained athletes outnumber the highly talented players more than ever before. These well trained athletes can then be deployed to neutralize the highly talented players and even out the level of play to a resoundingly pedestrian level.

It has been 20+ years since the higher scoring era before the onslaught of coaching every aspect of every position came to hockey and the life was sucked out of the game. This means that there is now a large segment of fans who don’t know, from their own spectator experience, how the game can be played. These are the people who say, “a 1-0 game can be just as exciting as a 7-6 game” with a straight face. More on that below, but the fact is that goal scoring dropped dramatically after goalie coaches became commonplace, and as all defensemen, even the big ones, learned to skate well, and after coaching ‘systems’ to the highest degree ever enveloped the game – but at no time did a real hard look at the rules take place or even how the existing rules were called, until the lost season a decade ago. With the chance to redefine the game coming out of that painful situation some actual effort was made to review the game and still only a modest bump in goals came. Instead of nurturing that spirit and continuing to improve the rules and level of play the NHL took the post-lost-season success to the bank, then saw the Canadian dollar improve its fortunes and continued cashing checks.

Now we sit with the Canadian dollar again flagging, scoring dropping, and ‘analytics’ rising to the fore. With even more numbers to play with and plenty of people who would rather watch stats than hockey plays, the league still sits idle on making the game entertaining. All of these advancements in how the game is played, and coached, and trained for require monitoring and then adjusting to keep the sport exciting. The Stanley Cup Final was fast this year, but was it really that exciting? A one goal differential is only exciting when you feel that there is a back and forth. In only one game did either team manage to score 4 goals and no game was decided by more than 2 goals. The outcome of most contests did not really feel in doubt. At least for a time in the ‘dead puck era’ you could feel the goalie was a star of many games, but now it feels like who is in net is not that big of a difference.

So the league will add 20 more warm bodies.

Apparently no thought was given to cutting a game night roster from 20 to 19 or any other idea that would not add 20 more players that currently cannot cut it. If rosters will not be adjusted then surely the rules will receive a thorough review? Well no one wants to talk about continuous improvement when you have a fancy press conference in Las Vegas, so more likely no discussion of the rules was had. That will leave us with less talent in the league, using the existing rules that have already seen scoring drop, to usher in the next era of the NHL.

That dim horizon gets us back to the entertainment value of low scoring hockey. While I agree that one specific, particular 1-0 game can be more exciting than one specific, particular 7-6 game, in general high scoring games are more entertaining. As proof of that from my perspective is that I can really only remember ONE 1-0 hockey game that goes down in the annals for me, while I can remember many high scoring games that are classics and I would relive and rewatch. That 1-0 game I mention also happened to involve two of the greatest goalies of all time: Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur. Plus I was there and it was a playoff game. So add up all the factors of that game to see how it was memorable and compare it to the other hundreds of games I have seen in person and the thousands I have seen on TV – yet no other 1-0 games stand out. Another piece of anecdotal evidence is that I have played fantasy hockey (rotisserie hockey or hockey pools, whatever your regional preference) for more than 2 decades. In this time I have seen the scoring total you look for when drafting a player plummet and the homogenization of most players into a huge cohort of players that are all the same guy. Some may note that the NFL has this same problem, but by changing their rules and making it a quarterback league with promotable stars and a load of offense they have remained out in front in popularity. A lesson the NHL would be wise to repeat, but they rely on the ‘good Canadian  boy’ culture to keep the game stuck in the mud. I guess the brilliant move of the NHL is to let all these ‘fancy stats’ of the analytics era take over, so we can all look at possession numbers and forget that only a couple goals were scored. Possession is not actually exciting, but if we can quantify it, then we can cheer for the supremacy of the numbers!

Well on that optimistic note I will get back to my NHL draft prep with a view:

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