Referees review a goal. Image by: Len Redkoles/Getty Images
NHL players are better than they've ever been but the on-ice product is less entertaining than ever. The league needs to start thinking outside the box for solutions.
Love the fact that GMs adopted a ‘Blue Sky’ approach to the first day of their meetings. Now that the trade deadline has passed, GMs essentially have little to do when it comes to improving their rosters, so it’s always a good idea to have them thinking about improving the NHL.
And it is a game that is in need of improvement. Not from a pure quality standpoint because the players are bigger, stronger, faster, more skilled, better prepared and more mentally equipped to play the game than they have been before. Ever. And the proficiency in those areas is only going to get better as players and the game evolve.
But the sad irony is that as players and coaches get better, the entertainment value of the game gets worse. The problem is not that players are not good enough. Quite to the contrary. It’s that they’re too good. Which is why those who want to see more scoring and more excitement in the game should be cheering for everyone from Las Vegas to Quebec City to Seattle to Toronto to Schenectady, N.Y., get an NHL expansion team. More teams equals more players, which equals more sub-par players (and goalies), which means more scoring chances, which means more goals.
But the GMs are dealing in reality here. It took 16 years for the NHL to add to its Original 30 and chances are better some teams move from the tire-fire markets they’re currently in before we see much in the way of expansion. Unless Seattle gets its act together on an arena.
So we’re left with what we have, a 31-team league where this year’s leading scorer is on pace to score 93 points. To put that into perspective, there were 11 seasons in which Wayne Gretzky would have exceeded that point total without scoring a single goal. Eighteen times in NHL history, players have had more assists in a season than Connor McDavid is projected to have points.
Now that, in and of itself, doesn’t mean NHL scoring is down from where it was last year when Patrick Kane won the scoring title with 106 points or two years ago when Sidney Crosby won it with 104. Actually, when you remove the 78 bogus goals teams have been awarded for winning shootouts this season, the league is scoring at a pace of 5.45 goals per game, which is just marginally higher than it has been for the past couple of seasons. With more good players, perhaps the scoring is just getting spread around a little more.
Then again, we still have a month left of the season and lots of teams trying to grind out ugly wins to secure a playoff spot. Take Sunday night for example. Seven games, a total of 30 goals scored – only 24 of them non-empty netters at even strength – and only two of those games were sellouts. The NHL takes every opportunity to sell its fans a bill of goods by talking about how close games are and how exciting that all is. Of course the games are close. When nobody scores, nobody takes big leads. Therefore, everybody is in every game to the end and the faux parity that is created by misleading standings means everybody in the National House League is happy.
No wonder there are no dynasties now. Dynasties rely on an overabundance of talent and the empty canvas to display it. In an effort to make sure that as many fan bases are engaged and consuming the product for as long into the season as possible, the NHL allows neither of these things to exist.
Which is why the ‘Blue Sky’ concept is a welcomed one. Do we expect any of these notions to actually become reality, though? Aye, there’s the rub (into the boards). The NHL, far more than any other professional league, is dominated at all levels by former players. And former players are, by nature, traditionalists who think the game is perfectly fine exactly the way it is. It’s one thing to suggest that the NHL penalize players who go down on one knee to block a shot, something Bob Gainey did almost a decade ago. It’s quite another to have the courage of your convictions to make it happen.
Look at how long it has taken to get anything even close to a consensus on reducing goaltending equipment. All we have right now is smaller pants on goalies and, if you can believe it, scoring has actually gone down with the streamlined pants. The league was scoring at a 5.46 goals-per-game clip prior to all NHL goalies having to adopt the smaller pants on Feb. 4 and have scored 5.40 since.
There is one GM I’ve spoken to who thinks the NHL should ban zone defenses inside the bluelines. But he doesn’t want to make a big deal of it because he doesn’t want to be publicly ridiculed. This GM also thinks that on shootouts, the team being shot upon should be able to have a player begin chasing the shooter once he crosses the blueline, which would force shooters to come into the net with some speed.
That’s the kind of thinking the NHL needs, but probably won’t get. As I argued in THN’s Roundtable today, why does the NHL insist on allowing teams killing a penalty to ice the puck with impunity? It’s a penalty. You broke the rules. You shouldn’t be allowed to break them again to get yourself out of trouble.
When the GMs reconvene Tuesday, they’ll get to the more mundane minutia of talking about the plane of a guy’s skate over the blueline and whether or not that is offside. Not sure about you, but I’d rather see them spend more time discussing bolder steps that will really improve the product we’re seeing.