It has been a while! After taking some much needed time to focus on life, I am pleased to return to writing on hockey again. Since my last article, I have changed careers (again), witnessed the birth of my daughter, and have regained work-life harmony for the first time in seven years.
Changes in life, however, were not the only reason.
Hockey, for as long as I can remember, was enjoyable to watch, play, and discuss with friends and family. My first ever NHL game was the Buffalo Sabres vs the Vancouver Canucks in 1998 and I was falling in love with the game even more. I remember the post-lockout excitement in 2005-06. Goal scoring had a long needed spike. For many years after that, I was becoming a more universal observer of the game. As the 2019-20 season approached, however, that all changed.
For the first time (since the New Jersey Devils destroyed hockey), I could not care less if I missed a hockey game. It did not help that as a fan of the Buffalo Sabres…do I even need to explain? In essence, I found the NHL product once again stale. Uneventful. Boring.
Maybe it was just me, but little was intriguing about what the league offered. And I did not miss playoff games, including the many years the Sabres were left out. Watching the Montreal Canadiens, a team that had no business being in the Stanley Cup Finals, ride a hot goaltender above much better clubs was not an event I could get into. Years of low scoring drained me, even as the league was starting to get more seasons with over 3 goals per game (GPG). The current playoff format killed this momentum despite the slight uptick in goals. For me, it was rock bottom.
Enter October 2021: expectations for the NHL season were low. My interest was slim to none, especially as other life circumstances were changing around me. But as I started to pay attention, I had to ask: is hockey fun?
The Sabres, for once, could score more than one goal and play an up-tempo style (even when they could not stop them). And the rest of the league was trending in this direction as well. From there, I was following the game much more closely than I had in 2 years.
The lingering question, however, is whether the scoring progress will continue or if the league would be its own worst enemy again. And although there was a lot of good, there remain obvious improvements to be made to excite further.
Scoring is back
For years, fans watched butt goals and mediocre teams ride hot goaltenders deeper into the playoffs than they should have. This season, skaters changed this mentality.
After years of low scoring affairs, the NHL experienced a 3.14 goal-per-game (GPG) average, the highest since the 1995-96 season. Whether it is the quality of goaltending, which has dropped for the last five years, or more powerplay success, I say keep it coming!
But will it keep up? My concern is that powerplay success was at its best (20.59%) for the first time since 1990 with just as few opportunities. In fact, 1983 was the last year powerplay opportunities (PPO) had been even remotely this low, which was still almost 1 PPO more than this season. That is a significant difference, showing the league, showing the league is not concerned about enforcing a rulebook, hence why I question whether this high scoring will continue. Since Gary Bettman has taken over as commissioner, PPO has dropped steadily to historically low numbers and it has nothing to do with players being better at avoiding them. I, therefore, expect this trend to continue unless the NHL decides it will place importance on player safety and getting calls right. But, I guess we needed to worry about offsides being called correctly.
Eight players with 100 points
Before this season, if I was asked how many players would reach over 100 points in a regular NHL schedule, I would have said no more than 4. Well…it was doubled. In addition, 16 players had over 40 goals, 4 with over 50. In seasons not so long ago, it was a treat for one to find the net 50 times.
As the people want to see scoring, this is encouraging. In the last full season, 6 players ended with 100 or more points, with GPG hovering around 3 that season and after. So, at least that trend was going in the right direction. NHL coaches appear to be trying to make the game fun. As long as the old boys club does not kill that, it will be great to see growth here.
There was a day when everyone wanted defenders to hit, block shots, and be hard to play against. Today…well, the hard to play against mantra exists but in a different way: terrorizing opposing goaltenders.
The modern day blueliner is setting a new bar in offensive production, evidenced by Roman Josi’s 96 points. Additionally, 2 others had more than 80, 5 total were over 70, 8 were over 60, and a grand total of 20 with 50 or more. In the last decade, the only season to be close in this regard was ‘17-18’, when 19 defenseman eclipsed 50. The difference, however, was that none surpassed 68 points (John Carlson). This past season, more than any in some time, defenders are key to offensive strategy.
Ideally, this trend climbs further and we see a defenseman reach 100 points for the first time in over 20 years. If I have not beat the drum enough; fans want goals as do I. Adding an extra player to the rush makes hockey exciting and opens it up to plays in the other direction as well. Basically, a typical NHL coaches’ nightmare but a fan’s dream.
Not knowing what a penalty is:
This was mentioned early but it still amazes me that the NHL shows little sign of enforcing a rule book. As aforementioned, the players are not any better at avoiding it. Officiating does not make the call. At least one PPO would be afforded if referees were not asked to scale back each time they trend in that direction. If it is a penalty, call it.
The NHL shows little interest in encouraging infractions to be addressed, proven by the decline in PPO’s since Bettman arrived. And do not get me started on officiating in the playoffs. So far, they are making calls but it is only a matter of time before they “need to let the boys play.” With scoring and shooting trending up, the league could add intrigue if PPO averages improved by 0.5. This is just one area that could obstruct the increasing goals but it is also a safety concern and fun factor.
The Playoff Format
Imagine you are on the New York Rangers, working towards your team’s best regular season in 5 years. Your reward for the effort: playing the team right behind you in your division. In most professional sports, a higher ranked team would play a lower one but this division format laughs in its face.
But the rivalries, right? Ha! This makes for 1 round of great hockey early, and 2-3 pretty mediocre rounds after, when the stakes are higher. Maybe it is personal preference but I find the rivalries more interesting when there is more on the line. All I can think of is the Buffalo Sabres against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1999 Conference Finals, which had plenty of bad blood to go around.
Unless leadership changes, I do not expect the NHL to go back on this format as Gary Bettman is not usually one to admit when something in the league is subpar. We are likely to have more of the same for the postseason moving forward.
The Draft Lottery
Former Sabres’ GM Tim Murray is to blame. The current amateur draft lottery format is bad. All Murray did was speak more truthfully than every other franchise that needed a redo so the NHL freaked out. But the Penguins nor the Blackhawks never tanked, right? Ok…
I, personally, find draft lotteries almost as ridiculous as the two-line pass…well maybe not quite as bad but still dumb. Lottery for the first pick is bad enough. For the top three, even worse. The NFL just goes by rankings and they are still the most popular sport league in the United States. It does not hurt the game. Fans want great players! The Sabres were terrible and fans went to games even when the team was put together to be a last place finisher. There were far worse actions than tanking that hurt this franchise. All this “integrity of the game” narrative when Tom Wilson is still on an NHL roster.
What will this all mean?
The 2021-22 season has given hope that the NHL can have an entertaining product that shows off its scoring talent. Ideally, the trend continues up and skilled players can thrive. In the back of my head, all I can remember back to the 2006, post-lockout scoring spree that was followed up by a significant drop off in goals within the decade. The NHL needs build on this pattern or games will find themselves back on NBC, which would be a disaster. For now, I can at least observe and enjoy the excitement while it lasts.