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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Scoring, Rule Changes, and Incentives: Sleek says a lot

So the league isn't scoring enough, says the Buffalo News. Teams are adjusting to the new rules and the resulting style of play is as stifling as ever. Goal-scoring has continued its decrease (mostly because of declining power plays), and a lot of hockey gets played rather eventlessly. And as the article notes, it's not just the raw goal count that's troubling; it's the general style of play that has resulted. I participated in a blogger roundtable discussion on this at Fanhouse, but I thought I'd talk through some ideas a little more in this post.

Bigger nets (as has been suggested several times) might be an answer that generates more raw goals, sure, but it's important to think about what the aftereffects might be. Are coaches going to pull back even more tightly because now there's more shot areas that need closer coverage? Will the preferred scoring play be a shot from the point with more bodies to bounce off in front, and a phase-out of odd-man rushes? Will the end result be any more entertaining, more creative, or more watchable?

It's like the two-line pass. Sure the concept seems sexy—every once in a while you do get to see a cool long-bomb pass that leads to a great scoring chance. But what you might not notice as glaringly is the inherent cost of these occasional moments. For sixty minutes now both teams are defending against the long-bomb pass; a defender can't support his team's rush for fear of the cherry-picker. It's a steady cost to weigh against an infrequent benefit. It would have been nice to have observed this rule change's effect on scoring on its own, but unfortunately we have been stuck with a slew of simultaneous untested changes so it's impossible to isolate what effect the two-line pass has on scoring.

If there's one common theme to all these rule changes, it's that they seem designed to make it more difficult to defend. The thinking being that if it is more difficult to hold a one-goal lead, teams should change their behavior. What has not been addressed, though, is the motivation of an NHL coach. A coach gets fired if he does not win, pure and simple; there is no incentive to score more than is necessary to secure a winning record. It's not that goals are valueless, but when given a one-goal lead, the more pressing urgency is to prevent a tying goal. If rules are created that hamper defending a lead, then a coach will find an even more conservative approach to adapt to that. More skaters will hang back, more pucks will be chipped, more bluelines will be held, more minutes will tick off the clock.

The league needs to stop trying to "trick" teams into more offense and instead work on its motivations. Here's a crazy idea. What would happen if postseason seeding was determined by goals-scored? Or better yet, what would happen if the playoffs were reserved for the top-16 scoring* teams in the league?

* Must have more goals for than goals allowed. Gotta keep goalies in the net.

Then you wouldn’t need bigger nets. You wouldn’t need phantom calls to generate more power plays. You wouldn’t need goalie restrictions or 4-on-4 or perfect ice or slimmer jerseys or breakable sticks. You needn’t trick teams into scoring more—instead you’d provide the incentive to gamble more.

What might be the result? End-to-end hockey? Odd man rushes? Gambling pinches and desperation play? Creativity? Consecutive passes? Jaw-dropping goals? Eye-popping saves?

The solution’s probably too radical for sure—there’s dozens of drawbacks I’m not really bringing up, but the game theorist in me says the best way to increase scoring and to increase scoring chances isn’t about handcuffing teams’ ability to defend—they will always find a way to adapt, usually by behaving even more defensively. Instead it’s to actually reward scoring. The league needs more gamble, not more net. The ice is plenty big enough, the players are plenty skilled enough, and the internet is YouTube-prepared enough. Make it in the coach’s interest to generate goals as well as wins, and I think you’d see some exciting results.

And with exciting results, the sky’s really the limit, isn’t it? Hockey could be on ESPN. The Preds could stay in Nashville, and Las Vegas and Hamilton could get teams as well. The owners and players could become bazillionnaire friends, and a dumbass guy like me could quit my day job and get paid to sit around and draw hockey cartoons.

It’s just crazy talk. Right?

24 comments:

HockeyTownTodd said...

"Instead it’s to actually reward scoring"
?
Eliminate the 3 point game, nothing for a tie, and no shootouts. Maybe the fans will see teams trying to win for the entire game and OT, instead of just the first 2 periods.


I have watched 6 games in 3 days, and here is what I find disturbing....

"All of a sudden, it is like the Officials have a new task*....
...create more 5 on 3's" HockeyTownTodd

Earl Sleek said...

Eliminate the 3 point game, nothing for a tie, and no shootouts. Maybe the fans will see teams trying to win for the entire game and OT, instead of just the first 2 periods.

I've got nothing against fixing the OT process--there's lots of things that can be done better there, but I'm not sure this solution fixes scoring.

Sure I could see teams really wanting to score in a tied game, but they certainly would not want to fall behind (more defense) and if they had a lead they certainly would not want to lose it (more defense).

As you say, though, it is important to think about what kind of scoring we'd want to accomplish. Just like you, more 5-on-3s as a method to increase scoring doesn't do it for me. That's neither exciting, end-to-end, or even particularly creative. Plus it further devalues the need for 5-on-5 scoring, not a healthy trend.

Basically, I'm sticking with this point: as long as coaches are only motivated by winning, scoring will stay at low levels. Without motivating them differently, we may find "tricks" to increase goal totals, but I haven't found any of them to be more exciting or more compelling, and eventually their scoring boost goes away anyway.

HockeyTownTodd said...

"Sure I could see teams really wanting to score in a tied game, but they certainly would not want to fall behind (more defense) and if they had a lead they certainly would not want to lose it (more defense)."

Seems logical, except:

Nothing for a tie, and nothing for an OT loss and it becomes a risk/reward issue. No scoring effort, increased defense means the team gets probably nothing for the game. I think in the end you would see more kamikazi hockey.

RudyKelly said...

I think you've said this earlier, Earl, but I don't really care if there's a lot of scoring as long as there are scoring oppurtunities. If teams like Minnesota are going to be good because they preach team defense, I have no problem with that. People love tough defensive teams in football and baseball, why not hockey?

I like the way the game is played right now. Everyone wants the good ol' days, but what fun is it seeing a guy like Gretzky skate through the slot and half-heartedly score a goal past a bumbling goaltender? Give me today's game anytime.

spade-in-victorhell said...

yea i agree..the game is fine....i would only take out the instigator rule and make the sharks change those stupid unis...thats the only change the game needs really

Earl Sleek said...

Yeah, I have said this before, and I totally should have prefaced this with the statement that by and large, I too think the game is pretty good right now (maybe too much focus on drawing calls at even strength, but that's not outrageous).

I am dead-set against the notion of bigger nets as a good solution for hockey, though. I think it's a way to generate goals, but I think they will be the wrong "kind" of goals. More pinball stuff in front of the net, and probably less puck-carrying and stick-handling wizardry.

I guess what this piece is about is that if the NHL is going to take measures to increase scoring, I don't think it's a good notion that making defense harder is the solution. Really what happens then is that teams work harder on defense.

I would rather see some incentives based on goal-scoring; that I think would be more effective and more lasting. For sure there would be drawbacks (the elimination of really tough goals?), but if the league insists on changing rules until goal totals are high enough, I'd rather they looked at a solution that made coaches want to score goals.

Earl Sleek said...

Oh, I should add, though, that even though I and many people are for the most part fine with the current play in the NHL, I don't think this game sells itself on television. Way too much time between events, and even goals that go in these days aren't impressive to the non-fan. Just guys crowding into a goalie until bouncy point shots go in.

The league will almost certainly change again because of this; they are notorious for giving more consideration for the non-fan than the paying fan.

RudyKelly said...

Yeah, bigger nets are ridiculous. Why don't they just make them play with a ball instead of a puck, that'd increase scoring? Or better yet, make goalies play without cups! You can't stop a ball if you're worried about getting hit in yours!

Like I said before, seeing guys skate down the side and score on a slap shot isn't exciting. Bigger nets would only really allow those kinds of goals. Plus, how can you expect a goalie who has played his entire life in front of one net to get used to another? Those guys know exactly where the net is behind them at all times, that's why they can play so well; take that away and they're doomed.

Earl Sleek said...

I'm not 100% against getting goalies drunk before games to increase scoring, though. That's still one idea I could get talked into.

Side note: is it too late for me to start my career as an NHL goalie?

MetroGnome said...

The solution’s probably too radical for sure—there’s dozens of drawbacks I’m not really bringing up, but the game theorist in me says the best way to increase scoring and to increase scoring chances isn’t about handcuffing teams’ ability to defend—they will always find a way to adapt, usually by behaving even more defensively. Instead it’s to actually reward scoring.

You've hit upon a basic tenet of behavior modification here, Earl: positive reinforcement is the best method of effecting behavior change. Punishments and deterrents never work as well as incentives.

Megalodon said...

spade said: "make the sharks change those stupid unis...thats the only change the game needs really"

*Meg swings in on a rope in response to the Shark Signal*

Hey, watch it you.

Great points all around for everyone except that guy. I really think one reason scoring is down so much is just that goalies are WAY better than they used to be. You've all seen clips of those stand-up goalies in 80s games who barely move when goals are scored - bigger pads and better helmets have allowed goalies to develop much more reliable strategies for stopping the puck. I really don't think that is a bad thing.

Goalies getting better was a natural change that lead to a drop in scoring. Trying something drastic to artificially alter it isn't the solution.

Anyways, weren't these Reebok uniforms from space supposed to make guys super fast so they would score more? I guess it must be tough to shoot the puck when your hands are soaking wet.

Patty (in Dallas) said...

...aren't impressive to the non-fan

Nothing in hockey is impressive to somebody who doesn't like hockey. My dad is totally uninterested in it and there is nothing the league can do to talk him into it. He's not checking the box scores for all the sports and saying, "Sure, I'd love to give hockey a try, but 3-2? 2-1? Sounds stupid."

Patty (in Dallas) said...

And I completely agree that incentives are the only way to go. No coach is going to let the rules force him to lose. Bigger nets is the stupidest idea there is. It might increase scoring for the first half of one year, but that's how long it will take goalies to get used to the extra inch all the way around. Then you're right back where you were, except that you fucked up all the record books.

Earl Sleek said...

bigger pads and better helmets have allowed goalies to develop much more reliable strategies for stopping the puck. I really don't think that is a bad thing.

No, it's not really a bad thing. I'm comfortable with where goaltenders are at skill-wise. Still, I'd like to see them face more 2-on-1s per game, or have to make more acrobatic saves sometimes. Positional play is a talent, sure, but it's not the best way to show off their skills.

"Sure, I'd love to give hockey a try, but 3-2? 2-1? Sounds stupid."

Right. It's not really about the final score for most, but it's really what happens when they sit down to watch and nothing really happens. If there were more room created gambling, I think hockey would catch more eyes, at least. If players could show some moves or make some pretty passes with greater frequency, those things are compelling yet seem to have been squeezed out of the game, and I think it turns off audiences (not just non-fans).

Then you're right back where you were, except that you fucked up all the record books.

I'm pretty sure my "solutions" would also fuck up the record books. I'm not really that concerned about that, though. We should celebrate the past but it shouldn't rule today's game.

Patty (in Dallas) said...

I only bring it up because that would be the only result. If it's one of several results and the others are worth it, I don't have a problem, either.

Patty (in Dallas) said...

And speaking of the red line, Sergei Zubov correctly predicted that the defense would just move back a line. He wasn't for it, because he felt he'd be left out of the play, without the chance to join the offense as much.

Earl Sleek said...

Yeah, it feels a bit insincere to say, but the only rule change in the last three years that I fully support is tag-up onsides. The rest of them range from indifference to distaste.

The Forechecker said...

For me one of the great benefits of removing the two-line offsides is simply the elimination of stoppages. I'd have to go back and look at data pre-lockout, but I imagine it's taken out 5-10 whistles a game, which helps the overall game flow.

Anyways, my priorities to tweak the game (not fix, as I too think it's pretty good right now);

1. Lose the single point in the standings for OT/SO losses. I would amend Sleek's position that coaches are only motivated to win by saying that they're motivated to make the playoffs, and by playing a close-to-the-vest style you can often ensure at least one point earned in a given game. Take two teams that score and give up the same amount of goals, for example. The first scores and gives up 260 goals, the second scores and gives up 200. Just due to the numbers, the second team is likely to play more OT/SO games, and earn more points in the standings as a result.

2. Trim the size of goalie equipment somewhat further. Let them rely on their athletic ability more than the girth of their gear.

3. Allow rinks to be built anywhere between the NHL and Olympic size specs, leaving room for some difference across the league's, like there used to be. More space would be a good thing for most teams. Granted, this would only be phased in with new arenas, as nobody would remove seats to expand their sheet.

4. In the interest of encouraging scoring, make the GF/GA differential a higher-priority tiebreaker in determining who makes the playoffs between teams tied in the standings. Currently it's the last criterion listed.

5. Reward the top-scoring team in the league with two extra visiting games against the new Las Vegas expansion team the next season...

Patty (in Dallas) said...

I actually don't mind the red line rule. Turco uses it a lot.

When he's not sucking, that is. Like now.

Earl Sleek said...

1. Lose the single point in the standings for OT/SO losses.

Ooh, I have a lot of trouble with this one. What's the rationale of favoring shootout-strong teams in the postseason? Or 4-on-4-strong teams, for that matter? Wouldn't it make more sense to reward those that play well 5-on-5?

2. Trim the size of goalie equipment somewhat further.

I could go with this. I don't really know the sensation of being a goaltender, though, so I'll defer to those in the know.

3. Allow rinks to be built anywhere between the NHL and Olympic size specs, leaving room for some difference across the league's, like there used to be.

Sure. I'm not sure I mind standardization, but I'm not married to it.

4. In the interest of encouraging scoring, make the GF/GA differential a higher-priority tiebreaker in determining who makes the playoffs between teams tied in the standings.

Yeah, that speaks to this post's point. I'm a little wary on differential (as that's kind of what we are rewarding with the current system, and it makes a big focus on killing GA). If the aim is a higher-scoring NHL, I'd probably want GF to be a priority for coaches.

5. Reward the top-scoring team in the league with two extra visiting games against the new Las Vegas expansion team the next season...

Or home ice through the playoffs. That would be plenty incentive, I'd think.

I actually don't mind the red line rule. Turco uses it a lot.

I'm not sure I mind it myself on its own. I definitely mind it as an untested change to increase scoring.

Patty (in Dallas) said...

The league still hasn't learned its lesson about testing.

Of course, with the red line thing, they could have just asked anybody that played in Europe. But I bet they didn't.

Gambler said...

What are you doing reading the Buffalo News, Sleek? Did all our glowing reviews of it over on IPB convince you to check it out?

I can't say I'm really taken with the never-ending quest for more scoring (I think the game's plenty exciting as is), but this is a much better strategy than, say, increasing the goal size, which I think is really dumb. If it has to be done, positive reenforcement is totally the way to go.

JimH said...

1. Make the ice bigger. Olympic sized. Everyone immediately dismisses this without debate because they figure it's impossible to get owners to remove seats. But, for one thing, you're effectively removing the back rows not the front rows. Secondly, if the game sucks, the back rows are gonna be empty anyway. So give more room for the talented skaters to maneuver and you'll make the game more exciting even if not higher scoring. (Hey, if the ice is already big enough, then why did they reduce overtime play to 4-on-4?)

2. I don't like shootouts, but if you must keep them, I think all games should be worth the same amount of points. How about:
- Three points for a regulation or overtime win. No points for a loss in overtime. (Go back to 5-on-5 for overtime)
- Two points for a shootout win. One point for a shootout loss.

So if a game went to a shootout, you'd be guaranteed to get a point, but also guaranteed to lose a point.

Motivating coaches and teams to score more goals is not going to take away the motivation to play good defense. Good defense is a part of all sports. There are problems with seeding teams only according to the number of goals scored. You would see the Sharks trying to score lots of goals to catch the idle Red Wings while they are actually playing the Coyotes. The “winner” of the Sharks-Coyotes game you're watching would be meaningless.

RudyKelly said...

Speaking as a (kinda) goaltender, I can't say that I have too much of a problem with reducing the size of pads. It would kind of lead to the same problems as with making nets bigger (goalies wouldn't feel comfortable), but I think they could get used to a change in pad size over the summer.

One thing that's important to remember with goalies: they're specific as hell. They don't like anything different, ever. Have you ever heard a goalie talk about changing a piece of equipment? Hell, by the time I feel used to a set of pads or a new glove I have to get a new one.