How the game has changed
Part 1: Picking Penalties
This is the the first main entry in a series of posts on how the NHL's on-ice product has evolved from before the lockout to 2007-08. The intro (about the increasing number of small defencemen in the league) can be found here.
Coming out of the lockout, the NHL undertook a comprehensive product review to improve the overall entertainment package, introducing some rule changes and then strictly enforcing others that had been previously left to slide. It was naive to think the officials and players could adapt overnight — and they didn't. But slowly, the officiating pendulum, which swung from one extreme to the other, is gradually settling into a comfortable middle ground.Early last week, my boss came to me with a bit of a puzzler: Eric was working on a Saturday feature for all-star weekend on how the hockey being played in the NHL was better than it had been in a long, long time and we needed some stats or graphics to complement the story.
The players suggest they are getting more latitude to battle without seeing a return to the rodeo-style defensive tactics that characterized the prelockout NHL.
Could I come up with any?
Now, what exactly constitutes "better hockey" is a tough thing to quantify — especially numerically. One fan's great defensive battle might be considered a dud to another, and there are plenty of people within the game who even now debate the quality of hockey being played.
But if we were going to quantify how the game had improved postlockout, I thought, we'd have to first really get a handle on how officiating had changed. The new standards, after all, are the real defining alteration the league made coming out of a lost season, a change that has affected everything from the size of the players to the skills needed to be a successful team in the NHL.
What calls have characterized the "new" NHL? How has officiating changed? And have other violations gone by the wayside after an increased attention to hooking and obstruction?
Let's just say I owe a big debt of gratitude to Gabe Desjardins from Behind The Net, who was able to cull a lot of the raw data on penalty figures when I pestered him for it last week.
Here's a look at the penalty chart that I put together for Saturday's paper (click on it for a larger view):
It's probably no surprise to any hockey fan that hooking is the call of the day, but that's a pretty dramatic way of showing it.
The season right after the lockout, 2005-06, was all about the hooking call, as penalties — and by extension power plays — went through the roof as referees whistled down any minor tug or infraction with the stick. A few other calls were certainly on the upswing as well, but hooking went from 11 per cent of all calls on average (in the five years prelockout) to an incredible 27 per cent of all calls that first season.
That didn't make for good hockey.
As you can see from the chart above, however, hooking calls have been on a steady decline — and so have other obstruction-based calls such as tripping and holding. The six penalties on the above chart are actually the most pertinent when it comes to discussion how the calls have changed, as we can see dramatic swings in all of them.
Hooking, tripping and holding went up, way up, and roughing (which was previously the most called infraction), highsticking and slashing went way down. Highsticking was actually the third-most called penalty prelockout, behind roughing and hooking, and its all the way down to eighth this season — with little more than twice the number of highsticking penalties as puck over the glass calls.
The vigilant whistling of some minor infractions has limited the major ones called.
The sharp decline in hooking calls from 2005-06 until now has also resulted in another major change: This season, for the first time, there are actually fewer penalty calls per game than in the five prelockout years:
That first minor bump there, in 2000-01, was the NHL's first crackdown on stick fouls, one that resulted in a jump in the number of slashing calls. That was the year of Mario Lemieux's comeback, and there were plenty of articles then, too, that trumpeted the brief return of free-flowing hockey.
Goal scoring took a big jump of its own in 2005-06, but that's no surprise given how often teams were on the power play. It's been underpublicized this season just how dramatic the dropoff in penalty calls has been, but the numbers certainly back it up — and that's with the increased number of fighting majors counting in the column.
Speaking of which, I also discovered that there's a bit of an inverse relationship between the number of hooking calls and the number of fighting majors in an NHL season:
My guess would be that, with fewer power plays and penalty kills, the league's various enforcers have more time on the ice to rendezvous — although I think this one's certainly open to interpretation.
The raw figures tell a similar story to the charts above. Here is a look at the top 10 penalty calls from prelockout, postlockout and this season so far:
|New NHL (05-07)|
|Puck over glass||358||2.28%||10|
|This season (07-08) ** |
|Puck over glass||334||2.54%||10|
Please note that about 12 to 13 per cent of the calls aren't included here, a group of penalties that includes things like misconducts, diving, unsportsmanlike conduct, charging, boarding and elbowing.
What do these Top 10 figures tell us? Well, fighting's back to almost normal, for one. Crosschecking, meanwhile, is another of those stick foul calls that's well down.
In his piece, Duhatschek talks about Rick Nash's highlight reel goal from a week ago, a series of events at the end of a tie game that likely wouldn't have been possible four years ago. After all, if a referee's twice as likely to call a hooking call in a game, what chance is there a player will take to waterskiing behind an attacker?
What's interesting to contemplate is, with hooking calls falling so precipitously, just how much further can penalties decline? And at what point does the decrease in the number of power plays really begin to pull down the number of goals scored (more so than it has already, that is)?
When do the calls level off and what then does the game look like?
Labels: how the game has changed