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Exploring the NHL's goal-scoring woes, league parity, and internal competitiveness

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The trend over the last 35 years is one of a goal-scoring decline, but there aren't many outliers from the high standard deviation.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With regard to my previous article on the NHL's goal-scoring woes being exaggerated, there were a few complaints that the time interval used (from the post-lockout 2005-06 season to the current one) was too short. In order to address this, I decided to take a deeper look at the history of the NHL.

By increasing the interval to include all full seasons back to and including 1979-80, the gradual decline in the average goals per game over the last 35 years is readily apparent.

Average goals per game since the 1979-80 season

GPG35

The highest recorded year in the interval was 1981-82, in which 16 of the 21 teams scored at least 300 goals, with an average of 8.03 goals scored per game. It's interesting to see that the goals-per-game average in the league was a full goal less than that maximum value just two seasons prior. The only other time it was close to that lofty mark was 1985-86, at 7.94.

The average over the entire interval is 6.35, but with a standard deviation of 0.95, that measurement largely down to plateaus at opposite ends of the goal-scoring spectrum.

Trends

That first plateau can be called the Western Canadian domination, with the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames putting up staggering offensive numbers on their way to multiple Stanley Cup wins. It seems the 80s held the perfect storm, where dynasties dominated, records were broken, and Wayne Gretzky gave the NHL an international superstar.

The other plateau is just as obvious. Dubbed the Dead Puck Era, the leanest years of NHL offence took place from 1997-98 to 2003-04. During that time there was only one year that the average number of goals went over 5.5 (5.51 in 2001).

The trend over the last 35 years is one of decline, but there aren't many outliers from the high standard deviation, with most of those appearing in the Oilers' golden years, most of which register significantly above the confidence interval of the sample. For that reason, those seasons should not be used as a baseline when speaking about what is the normal amount of goals scored in an NHL game.

Since the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season — and excluding the 2005-06 season that followed, in which more than two power-play goals were scored on average per game as a result of the short-lived crackdown on obstruction — a stable value around 5.5 goals per game has emerged. While being close to the bottom of the standard deviation (5.39), the goals-per-game average has never actually gone under it, the lowest being 5.44 in the shortened 2012-13 season.

Summary of goals-per-game average

The number of goals scored is declining, but it seems to be declining in all major leagues (except in Sweden, though this SHL season may be an outlier). Still, to use the goal-scoring days of the 80s as a comparative value for goal-scoring is probably the wrong approach, as most of that data is significantly different than what the NHL has experience in over two decades since. People argue that this season's average is currently under the Dead Puck Era numbers, and while this is true, we also need to consider that the trade deadline is still on the horizon, and the movement of talent from the lower-positioned teams to those in Stanley Cup contention will lend to more disparity in the league's final quarter.

League parity and overall competitiveness as factors of goals-scoring

I entered into the analysis of league parity with the hypothesis that the more goals scored in a season, the the higher the difference between the top and bottom teams of the league would have been. In an even league, the bottom team would be closer to the talent level — both offensive and defensive — of the top team, and goal per game average would therefore be lower.

How can we accurate measure something like league competitiveness? There are a lot of factors for this to be measured with, with the stats available today. Corsi-for and -against for teams would give us a better index, but that data has only been tracked in recent years, so I choose to focus on the more readily available stats of points and goals.

To test this hypothesis, I used a top-to-bottom approach, taking the difference in both standings points and goals accumulated by the best and worst teams in each season and using that as an index for parity. The idea being that, with an uneven league, there would be a wider gap between the best team and the worst team in the standings, and therefore more likelihood of the the top team scoring more goals, and the worst team allowing more goals, espcially in games played against each other. Both of these indexes being high would point to an uneven league.

Top-to-Bottom Points

In regards to points, I took out the years with shortened seasons rather than extrapolate points into full-season totals, as that wouldn't have been statically sound. The chart below plots the difference in standings points for each full NHL season from 1979-80 to 2014-15.

TopBotPointsTRUE

The trend here is declining as well, but not as much as I had expected. It does make a case for a gradual transition to a more even league but the confidence of the trend is not strong. There are obvious wild swings in the seasonal values, but the trend shows there is a general decline of about 15 points over the 35 years sampled; a 70-point separation between the top and bottom teams at the end of the regular season in 1980 has dropped to a 55-point difference.

It's also important ot factor in that with less teams in the league prior to 1991, but about the same number of games, the best teams would play the worst teams more often. Also the draft might have something to do with this, as it rewards a team for being bad. Hypothetically it would be interesting to see if this would change if there was a relegation protocol in place.

The playoff bubble

Another way of looking at points to gauge an internal competitiveness would be to see if there are big drops in points between the last team making the playoffs and the first team missing out on them. That approach eliminates creating an index with an extremely strong team at the top or a team that had given up and played below its ability at the end of the season.

One problem with this approach is that, with the divisional nature of playoff seeding, the team missing out on the post-season won't necessarily have fewer points than the lowest qualifier. That scenario has happened in quite a few years, but looking through the data, the window for making the playoffs has always been a close affair, coming down to just a handful of points.

The average difference is 2.8 points over the whole interval, but again the 1981-82 to 1985-86 seasons have values (4-10 points) much higher than average (as do the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons at five and six points, respectively). Once again this points to a more uneven league in the 1980s.

The data also shows that from the start 1980 to 2000, fewer points were needed to make the playoffs, with a few outliers. Again this is something that points to a more uneven league during the Western Canadian domination years, with the good teams feasting on ones that were nowhere close to the top level.

Top-to-Bottom goals for

TopBotGOALSFOR1

Once more using the top-to-bottom approach, this time by plotting the difference in goals between the most- and least-offensive team in the league, the results are quite clear. While the average of the differences is 120 goals over the interval, it has only been topped twice in the last 20 years: 1995-96 and 2005-06. The high of 215 goals occurred in 1983-84, with the lowest, 64 goals, coming in 1997-98.

It can be argued that I should have compared the goals between the top and bottom teams in the league by points rather than goals for this scoring index, but the last-place team in the league was always bottom three in goals, while the top team was in the top five in scoring within the league each season.

Summary of parity indexes

The difference between the number of point accumulated by the top team and the worst team is declining, but not to the same degree as the goal-per-game average, nor the top-to-bottom goals scored. With 55 points still separating first from worst, the league still seems to have an uneven talent balance. While the trend is weak, the evidence that the NHL is slowly achieving parity does exist.

With 80 games per season, fewer teams, and a wider margin in quality between the top and bottom teams in quality, it's understandable why the 80s offered up more offence. Blowout scores as elite teams trounced those that didn't belong in the world's top league contributed to an exceptionally high goals-per-game average.

The difference in goal-scoring is not as wide now as it was in that period of NHL history, and it seems to be due to the fact that the worst team has been become better defensively, as the best teams don't score as much as before on the weaker teams.

Goal-scoring expectations

Since there were so many outlying factors that contributed to the goal explosion of the 1980s, I would advise against using that time as a base line for goal-scoring in the NHL. The evidence points to an uneven league with a few teams putting up incredible numbers on offence.

Likewise, the Dead Puck Era should probably not be used as a base line as the numbers are quite a bit off the mean, though still within the confidence interval of the 35-year span analysed. With goals coming down after the lockout in 2004-05 to those levels once again, the question is: is this the normal amount of goals scored in this current state of ice hockey?

The most important takeaway is probably how the NHL has become, and continues to become, more even from top to bottom. This was something that the league actively tried to achieve with the introduction of the salary cap. The question is if they considered what effects an even league would have on offence.

Even with a cap in place, a discrepancy exists with some teams pushing (even exceeding) the upper limit of the cap and others just staying a bit above the mandated cap floor. With the introduction of the cap, stars can no longer be accumulated by just one team, and talent is therefore spread out to more or less all teams in the league. You don't really see a Gretzky-Messier-Kurri line anymore; a club can't afford it. This dispersal of talent itself would bring down goal-scoring as the best lines are not as dominant.

With the southern expansion into non-traditional hockey regions and the globalization of the sport, the league has not only grown its fanbase, but also its talent base, with an influx of players who grew up watching thee sport in previously untapped markets as well as an influx of players from Europe. Having the best players from foreign leagues come into the teams would further increase the talent level of the average player and spread more talent throughout the league.

More talent doesn't necessarily mean more goals. The broadening of the pool from which to draw that talent means the standards for making a roster have increased, and players with a more diverse, complete game have populated the league in relatively recent times, their two-way talents also contributing to lower goal expectancy.  This jump in standards has probably been most obvious at the goaltender position, with the Swedish and Finnish goaltending schools providing the NHL with some high-quality goaltenders the last decade.

Anther thing that has probably affected the average offensive outpu is the size of the players, and they ever-increasing equipment that's been upgraded over the years. Not only has a goalkeeper's equipment become much more substantial over the last few decades, that worn by the skaters has also expanded from basic leather protection to reinforced armour. With the size of the rink remaining constant, bigger players with bigger gear occupy more of the available space, limiting passing and shooting lanes, thereby also bringing down goal-scoring.

What should the NHL do?

I don't believe anyone really wants to go back to the uneven league of the 80s where a team can score at will and blowouts become a regular occurrence. You would essentially be losing fans who grew tired of watching the visiting side crush their team, and replacing them with fairweather fans who cheered their new club's decisive victories. That would not be what NHL want to achieve.

It's important to consider that football (soccer) is a global sport and it attracts huge crowds from all sides of society, with lower goal expectancy per game over a similar playing time, (about 55 minutes actual playing time [reference]) compared to the 5.3 goals this season  for an NHL game.

If the NHL didn't think about what effect the salary cap would mean in regard to goal-scoring, I have no reason to believe they have thoroughly investigated the idea that more goals is good for the game. That should be the first step before changing the game with something as drastic as bigger nets.

Instead of luring new fans with more goals, the league should focus on tapping into the non-traditional markets like women and minorities in order to fully branch out and get new revenue.

The talk about adding goals to increase attendance as an easy fix would be a path that owners would probably push for; changing the size of two nets is a one-time investment, and a cheap one compared to dropping ticket prices and broadcast subscriptions.

I would once again point out that those empty seats are there for a reason: we are in a global economy that's stumbling, and there are much more important things to put one's money on than an ice hockey game or an expensive cable subscription. Personally, I would also like to see the evidence that points to more people attending games with more goals scored, and not just home games but for a visiting team blowing out the home side.

Another thing to increase the attendance is to market your stars better. Most of the stars in today's NHL are cast from the same mould: white young men spouting the same handful of banal comments. It is no coincidence that one of the biggest superstars of the NHL today is an intelligent, outspoken individual. I am of course pointing at P.K. Subban. He has become easily identifiable, both on and off the ice, and should be at the forefront of the NHL's advertising campaigns in unexplored markets.

The league and its partners seem to be on a wayward path in this department, proposing such ideas at banning players from growing out their beards during the playoffs. Playoff attendance is not the problem, it's the 82 games' worth of poor marketing before the playoffs begin that could do with an upgrade.

If the players were interesting characters to follow, and the NHL managed to show that, then it would not matter if they looked like Chewbacca for one month of the year. It could actually provide a marketing opportunity to show a Stanley Cup-winner shaving off his beard after achieving his ultimate goal. Gillette would probably spend a few dollars to show that live.