The NHL Has A Fatal Flaw

The 2004-05 NHL lockout produced a comprehensive set of rule changes, many of which were predominantly concerned with decreasing obstruction. The inevitable short-term result was a meteoric rise in total power plays, as players were forced to adapt on the fly to the newfound illegality of their previous defensive crutches such as holding, hooking, and interference. In the long term, however, the desired effect of the changed rules shined through: a sluggish, obstruction-laden game became much faster and more skill-oriented. Gone were the days of “waterskiing” behind opponents to slow them down, the glaringly obvious interference, and the sovereignty of the behemoth defensemen over the smaller, more agile forward.

But this “new NHL” proved to be transient. For reasons unknown, referees have once again embraced a mindset of leniency regarding obstruction calls, especially interference – perhaps the most “damaging” type, as I will discuss.

The consequence of this atavism with respect to what constitutes a penalty is (as you might expect) a steady return to the stagnant, mundane hockey that characterized the NHL prior to 2004… or, to use that period’s colloquial name, a steady return to the dead puck era.

 

Considerable Decline in Powerplays Per Game

 

Season Average Team Powerplays Per Game
2005-06 5.85
2006-07 4.85
2007-08 4.28
2008-09 4.16
2009-10 3.71
2010-11 3.54
2011-12 3.31
2012-13 3.32
2013-14 3.33

 

The 5.85 average in 2005-06 is certainly inflated in comparison to the number of “true” penalties (defined as any illegal procedure according to the NHL rulebook) that occur today, given that some players struggled to adapt to the new rules. Nonetheless, the decidedly downward trend is telling.

There are two methods by which penalty numbers can decrease: Player adjustment and penalty standard adjustment. If we can determine that the former has already occurred, then the latter is responsible for any remaining statistical change.

If we grant that it took the NHL players one full year to acclimate to the new, restrictive rules (depicted by the sizable drop-off between ’05-06 and ’06-07), that still implicates a 31% decline in powerplays per game between 2007 and 2011 that is *attributable solely to lability in penalty standards.

Since 2011-12, the average seems to have hit a trough, remaining at approximately 3.30. Unfortunately, however, delving one level deeper reveals that the end of the powerplay opportunity decline is not the end of the NHL’s problems.

 

Referees Are Allowing More Obstruction

 

Season Average Interference Minors By Team Per 82 Games
2011-12 29.76
2012-13 40.60
2013-14 30.98

 

I’ve included 2011-12 for a reason, even though it appears to buck the trend. The explanation for the numbers jump in 2012-13 is simple: coming out of the 2012 lockout, the NHL instructed its refs – literally – to call more interference penalties.

NHL Referee Obstruction Penalty
NHL referees are calling interference 25% less often this season compared to last (Ross Bonander/THW)

Evidently, the vigilance with regard to calling interference underwent the same process of rapid decline as did the sweeping rule changes following the 2004 lockout. That is to say, interference was called more strictly for a short period (the 2012-13 season) which was quickly succeeded by a regression back to leniency (the 2013-14 season and beyond).

Interference is the single greatest impediment to free-flowing hockey, as it can occur at nearly all times and – if allowed – renders useless even the most aggressive of forechecks. The ultimate ramification of not calling interference by the rulebook is the effective shrinking of the ice surface. Less offensive space begets less scoring chances, and the result is a less exciting sport.

Therein is manifested the NHL’s fatal flaw. Despite rule changes in 2004 and a 2012 “executive order” for referees to refocus their punitive gazes, obstruction is a bigger part of today’s game than it has been in the past decade. Hockey, a sport ideally predicated on skill, speed, and physicality, is once again skewed lopsidedly towards the third of the three.

 

Why is Obstruction A Problem?

This is where we enter the realm of subjectivity. Before detailing why I find a faster NHL preferable to a slower one, let me first present a caveat.

While increased obstruction is inextricably intertwined with decreased offense, I am not making the claim that the NHL needs more scoring. A given game can be adequately entertaining whether the final score is 1-0 or 6-5.

No, my chief contention concerns the detrimental impact of obstruction on total scoring chances. The amount of goals is irrelevant, but the number of times a team threatens to score is not. A game in which neither team consistently generates any semblance of offensive pressure is not a game that (I imagine) the masses will want to tune in for. As interference and other forms of obstruction continue to plague NHL game, this slow, tedious brand of hockey will become commonplace. For that matter, I would propose that it already has.

At a fundamental level, a faster NHL is a more interesting NHL. Is the average person not far more drawn to a game involving plenty of scoring chances (regardless of goal totals) as opposed to a game dominated by obstruction, neutral zone play, and stifling defense?

Of course, this is not to suggest that defense is “bad,” “undesirable,” or any other such label. But it is possible to have too much of it, and I hardly find it unreasonable to assert that the present reality fits that description. Truly eliminating obstruction from the game – and actually following through with it this time – would do wonders for the entertainment value of the NHL’s product.

 

Final Thoughts On Obstruction and the NHL

Ottawa’s Eugene Melnyk recently lobbed the following insult at the New Jersey Devils in the process of lauding his Senators: “We’re not New Jersey. We don’t play a boring brand of hockey.”

Melnyk is mistaken. Until the NHL levels the playing field and instructs its referees to call obstruction (most notably interference) as the league’s rulebook dictates, every team will be playing a boring brand of hockey. This is an inescapability as long as defense is allowed to maintain its current competitive advantage.

 

Gammons is wrong as well. The Calgary/Vancouver mess likely created a substantial net gain of (new) hockey fans. More importantly, though, he fails to articulate one of the actual primary reasons for the NHL taking a backseat to the NFL, MLB, and NBA.

That reason being, of course, that people simply do not find NHL hockey to be as exciting as other professional sports.

Ridding hockey of obstruction eliminates that problem, and consequently offers the paying public the most enjoyable product possible.

Let’s get the speed and skill back into our game again.

Follow Sean Sarcu on Twitter: @seansarcu