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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Leaguewide scoring trends raise a few questions

Well, last August and last January I put together a graph showing post-lockout scoring trends, and seeing as we’ve got another full season under our belts I figured it was due for an update. This graph separates each regular season into 27 weeks, each representing something like 45 games played. For each week, I’ve captured the average number of goals, power play goals, and power play opportunities (multiplied by a 1/6 conversion factor, which approximates PP efficiency).

(click image to enlarge)

Really, there’s nothing new to report: goal-scoring continues to decline on a fairly linear path as power play goals decline, following the steady decline in power play opportunities (I'm not going to explain the decline in whistles in this post -- call it "player adjustment" or "relaxed refereeing" -- it doesn't matter to me).

For reference, in 2003-04, the year before the lockout, the NHL averaged 5.14 goals per game, 1.40 power play goals per game, and 8.48 power play opportunities per game. In March and April 2008 (the most recent 253 regular season games), the NHL averaged 5.27 goals per game, 1.44 power play goals per game, and 8.46 power play opportunities per game.

So with that in mind, here's a couple of questions I've been mulling:

1. Why hasn't even-strength scoring noticeably increased as power play opportunities have noticeably decreased over the three-year stretch?

If you look at the graph, the distance between the blue and red lines stays remarkably consistent over the 3-year period. One thing that hasn't been changing a great deal has been non-PP goals scored per game. Still, context matters here. From one end of the timeline to the other represents a difference of about six power play opportunities per game. That's some nine minutes (or so?) of extra even-strength time per game, with hardly any extra even-strength scoring to show for it.

Two explanations to point to for the declining rate: a) Coaching mechanics. Obviously with the new rules, there was an adjustment in 5-on-5 defense, and though it took some trial and error, generally teams know how to play a consistent even-strength game these days. For the most part, it involves keeping plenty of people back. b) Coaching focus. This is probably slight, but with more games being decided on the power play, the importance of 5-on-5 production lessened. Goal prevention was certainly still important, but a system that produced goals wasn't so critical.

2. How far can this trend continue? Could the "New NHL" with its hyped-up offense-friendly rules end up lower-scoring than before the lockout?

This question is interesting to me on a lot of levels. I had been considering the '03-'04 season as the lowpoint benchmark in scoring rates, and was curious how improved the "new rules" scoring would be once coaches and players had adjusted. It hadn't really occurred to me until today that the lowpoint may still lie ahead.

But why not, really? I mean, I don't really expect referee whistles to slow down any more, but can coaches tighten up even more 5-on-5? They've been improving on that for three years now, who's to say it comes to a stop now?

3. Is the NHL product more (watchable / exciting / dramatic) than it was two years ago? Five years ago?

Here's really where my questions have been leading, and I think it's an important question to answer honestly. Stats and numbers are nice for setting a framework, but really they can't capture why we watch hockey. And they really have no business telling us how "exciting" hockey is or isn't -- that judgment is up to our eyeballs and heart.

I'm not entirely sure where I stand on answering this question, but I think it provides a good lesson in the tradeoff aspect of new rules. Create a rule that is designed to make defending more difficult and there may be a short-term boost in scoring, but unless goal-prevention is made less important coaches will find a way to adjust. In this case, I think the new rules have taken a gamble aspect away from hockey -- in defending against a possible two-line pass and concentrating on defensive body position, teams have held back probably more safely than I'd prefer. Take caution, NHL, in widening the nets as the next scoring solution -- we may see teams pull further back to try to block even more shots, and the result might not be that exciting at all.

Anyway, I don't have a ton of hard answers or solutions, but I did want to show the updated graph and slap a bunch of scrambled thoughts together. Reaction is welcome in the comments, even if it's advice to stop worrying about scoring rates in the summer.


Alexander Dubcek said...

But, Earl, you forgot to control for the effect on overall average scoring in the NHL caused by the play (and then lack of playing time) of Dan Cloutier. Surely the big drop over the past few seasons can be explained by the fact Cloutier's only played a couple of NHL games since December 2006.

Just My Type said...

It's the pads!

Mike in OC said...

Very interesting, I think it would be curious to see the same graph for two seperate teams over the same period, team A - a known trap/tight defensive team, and team B a run & gun team that tries to take advantage of the new rules.

Great work Earl.

Earl Sleek said...

Surely the big drop over the past few seasons can be explained by the fact Cloutier's only played a couple of NHL games since December 2006.

I think making Cloutier appearances mandatory for 30 teams would be sweet revenge for Kings fans, wouldn't it?

I think it would be curious to see the same graph for two separate teams over the same period, team A - a known trap/tight defensive team, and team B a run & gun team that tries to take advantage of the new rules.

Name the teams and I'll take a shot at it; it would just be filtering down a spreadsheet I've got.

It might be better to think of a couple teams for each category, also, just so we have more than 3-4 games a week to average. I actually was going to run this for each conference to show east/west splits, if that's interesting, but that's a bit later this summer.

Mike in OC said...

East cost, maybe - NJ vs. NYR or PITS

West Cost, something like: DAL or MIN vs. EDM or SJ

From the games I viewed EDM CHI COL and SJ were all willing to open it up and trade chances. DAL and MIN were a trapping team for sure if only at times.

I left DET off for obvious reasons. The shear talent and soft div. would skew numbers for sure.

Earl Sleek said...

I could cut it that way, but it's worth saying that last season, the Stars had more GF and GA than the Sharks did.

I'd guess something like MIN, NJD, SJS, and ANA might be the tightened teams and probably the southeast conference and TOR as the "opened up" teams, but I'll take a look and see what makes sense.

RudyKelly said...

It's always funny when I read things like this because I think, "Are you sure scoring's down, because I remember the Kings scoring 9 goals a few times and they let in like 5 goals a game."

But yeah, making shoulder and leg pads smaller would help. I have Giguere's shoulder pads and I honestly think I could take a bullet with it on. Don't touch the padding on the outside of the blocker and glove, though.

Ken said...

So many numbers, my head hurts! This is exactly why i hate math! ugh!

Nice work Earl, Should i chalk this up to too much free much?

cynical joe said...

Earl; over the 3 years is save percentage about the same? In other words are there fewer goals, or fewer shots on goal? If shots/gm are staying constant, then maybe the goalie-centric equipment changes might be useful; but if shots/gm are falling than coaching/team defense/trapping systems are squeezing scoring.

Earl Sleek said...

Cynical Joe: I'd have to look, but I'd suspect save percentage is rising (or that shots per game are relatively stable).

Still, I'm not a guy who likes to put too much stock into raw shot counts -- they do indicate something, but they also leave out quite a bit of data. High-quality shots (especially on the PP) are likely being replaced with lower-quality shots, but the shot tally doesn't really think about those factors.

I'd think this could be done on a bit of an eyeball-level, though:

1. Are there more or fewer odd-man rushes than there used to be?
2. Are there more shots from in tight than there used to be? More shots from the point?
3. Did there used to be more acrobatic saves made by a goaltender in years past?

Actually, the third question is kind of a barometer I use in thinking about scoring chances. It seems to me that goalies used to have to move a lot more -- and regardless of shot counts, I think that indicates that team defenses are choking this game maybe even to a greater extent than they used to pre-lockout.