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On Rule Changes, Attitudes, and Offence

Only a week and some before the opening of NHL training camps, the NHL made a multitude of rule changes. Some, like restricting tripping, easing up on puck-out-of-bounds stoppages, and changing the size of the trapezoid are clearly designed with the idea that they will open up the game and increase scoring rates. Based on what I've observed, this won't be the case this year any more than last year, and that's a shame.

Bruce Bennett

Full disclosure: I'm pro-offence. The more goals and points, the better, and if we can get 80s-style scoring rates and totals back, I'd be happy as a clam. Secondly, this isn't a dissection of the latest round of rule changes, it's merely a recurring thought I get whenever rule changes come up. It's purely an opinion piece, and I'm accounting for nobody but myself. With that out of the way, let's get to it.


A long time ago, the NHL used to be all about scoring. In the 1980s especially, the vast majority of games were blowouts, seasons between 1970 and 1994 ended with a scoring rate between 6 and 8 goals-per-game, and even the players who forsook gaudy point totals for the good of the team still posted gaudy point totals. The high-points were 1970, 1971, 1982, 1986, and 1993, when the current single-season records for both goals and points, overall, by a defenceman, and rookie skater, were set. Expansion-induced dilution of talent, European newcomers, and garbage-quality defence and goaltending are the most-cited reasons for this. Circa-1995, the assimilation of Europeans into the rugged North American style, the butterfly-induced goaltending boom, and the evolution of systems such as the neutral zone trap came together to anchor the scoring rate between 5 and 6 goals-per-game. The scoring rate has only eclipsed 6 GPG twice since the lockout that preceded the trap-pioneering New Jersey Devils' Cup win, in 1996 before things really took effect, and 2006, following the full-length lockout.

Stalling the Slide

The "Dead Puck Era" hit its nadir in 2003/04 when the rate dropped to 5.1 GPG, the lowest since the 1950s, with the season's three goal-scoring co-leaders topping out at an underwhelming 41 goals. Rule changes, such as restrictions to the goalie's ability to play the puck, the shortening of the neutral zone, stricter obstruction policing, and the elimination of the two-line pass restriction shot up scoring above the 6 GPG mark for the second time since the 1994 lockout. The rates dropped again and didn't come back, and looking back, it's clear that the boost in scoring was due to a major uptick in power plays, something that obviously tapered off as players smartened up/referees tired of the stricter duties. Last season was a 5.49 GPG season, a 0.05 uptick from the season before.

Why Rule Changes Don't Work

Last fall, further restrictions were made to the maximum size of goaltender equipment, and much ado was made about how it would make Henrik Lundqvist's play suffer. One Stanley Cup Final appearance later and I barely remember it. The net was made shallower to make wrap-arounds easier, and people said it would increase scoring. The above-mentioned 0.05 GPG uptick technically constitutes an increase, but it's negligible. It was when those rule changes were made that I thought "this isn't going to work". It's a recurring thought in my head whenever I think about hockey: rule changes don't work, at least not long-term. The biggest issue, in my opinion, isn't that goaltenders have better equipment, and it isn't that there's too many teams for the spread of talent. It's an unspoken anti-offence sentiment in the NHL and among its fanbase. True, every few years we see rule changes to open up the game, but is not calling a defensive zone faceoff if the puck deflects into the crowd really going to amount to significant change? No. We're not going to see an effectual change like we did in 2005 without re-instating the red line and other things. And how do NHL teams react to rule changes like the post-lockout overhaul? Not very enthusiastically by the looks of it. Hockey may be speedier, with use of the trap toned down, but this is an NHL where defence wins the day, not only on the ice, but in the locker room and in fan circles. Consider: a high-scoring forward can lead the team in scoring, or a high-scoring defenceman roves and takes control of the game. Are these players looked at as making an impact for their scoring? Or are they viewed as "one-dimensional" because they don't do non-scoring things regularly? And what about the inverse, crash-and-bangers with little offensive talent? The players who grind it up seem to be more valued than the guys who light it up, and each team tweaks its systems to display the former, rather than the latter. Any time a rule change is made to tip the scales back towards the scorers, it seems systems are developed around mitigating them. Even in more analytics-based circles like this very site, high-scoring isn't important so much as higher-scoring than the other guys.

What Would it Take To Boost Scoring More Permanently?

I do think an inflation of the goalie net's size would help. Nothing major, I'm not trying to turn Henrik Lundqvist into Ondrej Pavelec, but I think the ratio of the net to the average goaltender should be more in line with what it was in those higher-scoring halcyon days. That's small potatoes compared to what I believe the biggest step needs to be. It'll be hard for it to happen, but it can in theory. Think back, what's the pivotal event in the switch from offence-first to defence-first? The New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup while expertly using the neutral zone trap, which other teams flocked towards using, with varied degrees of success. That's the key. A major change in the way coaches think. People need to start thinking like they did in the 1980s, when scoring was king. Ways to go about this include reducing systems. A player isn't going to score a lot when the first priority is never leaving position. Not necessarily wipe them away completely, but shift the emphasis a little more towards allowing players do what makes them effective. Another way is to instill a skill style in players at a young age. Offence may not be anywhere as teachable as defence, but that doesn't mean youth players can't be pushed to try to be more than linebackers-on-skates. You don't need analytics to tell you that players like Brooks Orpik and Willie Mitchell don't exactly ooze puck skill. Another thing is that fans change their attitudes too. Flashy high-scorers will more often be derided as overpaid one-dimensional me-first players while the defence-first grinders are praised for being responsible and having heart.

Fan perception, coaching styles, and even GM spending habits reduce the incentive for players to aim for 60 goals and 100 points. When a rule is changed, the thought goes into mitigating it to reduce goals against, rather than exploiting it to raise goals for, nets are too small for the goalies filling them, and officials seemingly can't be trusted to stay the course with consistent penalization. Rather than trying to force the game open, change these things and convince hockey minds from the highest to the lowest level that opening it and getting higher scoring rates is a good thing, and things will change.