Tuesday, January 29, 2008

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.

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.
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.

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:

Prelockout (99-04)

Penalties Percent Rank
Roughing 2048 14.47% 1
Hooking 1552 10.96% 2
Hi stick 1405 9.93% 3
Fighting (maj) 1393 9.84% 4
Tripping 1274 9.00% 5
Holding 1246 8.80% 6
Interference 1171 8.27% 7
Slashing 976 6.90% 8
Cross check 647 4.57% 9
Holding stick 449 3.17% 10

New NHL (05-07)

Penalties Percent Rank
Hooking 4140 26.35% 1
Holding 1765 11.23% 2
Tripping 1723 10.97% 3
Interference 1356 8.63% 4
Roughing 1302 8.29% 5
Hi stick 1044 6.64% 6
Fighting (maj) 953 6.06% 7
Slashing 659 4.19% 8
Cross check 419 2.67% 9
Puck over glass 358 2.28% 10

This season (07-08) **

Penalties Percent Rank
Hooking 2784 21.14% 1
Tripping 1482 11.25% 2
Holding 1424 10.81% 3
Fighting (maj) 1250 9.49% 4
Roughing 1242 9.43% 5
Interference 1076 8.17% 6
Slashing 816 6.20% 7
Hi stick 788 5.98% 8
Cross check 399 3.03% 9
Puck over glass 334 2.54% 10
** prorated

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?

Part 2 is on "the young stars," and I'll do my best to have it up early on tomorrow.



At 2:56 a.m., January 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One doesn't have to refer to a chart to see that wherever the game of NHL Rodeo was played pre-lockout, My New Human Pinball NHL is played mostly along the boards, from the mid-circle to behind the net.
The crowning achievement came last Saturday on HNIC when Pinhead had Lindy Ruff draw it up on the "chalkboard" so the minor hockey players could practice it.
It might be different. And maybe different penalties are being called. But it's just as unwatchable as ever.

At 4:16 a.m., January 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One aspect of the changes is that players have room to manoeuvre, so that come-backs are more prevalent than before the lockout. Unfortunately I don't have data on the subject. However, I remember getting bored out of my skull frequently during pre-lockout games as teams were unable to generate anything due to all the uncalled tackling.

Holding of a certain variety is legal in football (between the shoulders, etc.). No such exemption exists in hockey, but refs were ignoring holds that would have been called in football. It was ridiculous. Refs didn't want to "decide" games (never mind that ignoring a penalty decides things in itself...). Add in their pre-lockout aversion to call anything late in games, and come-backs were rare.

As your charts show, the game doesn't have as many penalties anymore, even compared to pre-lockout. Players and refs have adjusted. The difference is that players now have some room out there, so come-from-behind wins are more likely.

In my book, that alone makes post-lockout hockey better than the frequent snooze-fests in pre-lockout "hockey". There was almost no point in playing the full 60 minutes. "First goal wins" was generally sufficient. Not anymore. Thankfully.

At 7:38 a.m., January 29, 2008, Blogger Earl Sleek said...

Good post, James. Nice to see the breakdown of penalties, even though it just confirms some eyeball trends.

And of course with the decline in power plays comes the decline in scoring, to the point where on paper the game results don't appear to be that different than pre-lockout.

Self-promotion is the bomb.

At 10:57 a.m., January 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I would be interested in seeing is how the calls break down by period, or by "phases" of the game - ie: in the last ten minutes of the third vs. the first ten minutes of the second. As much as we like to argue the players have more room, I've noticed that the ole second rulebook for the last half of the third seems to have returned.

It'd also be interesting to see how many come-from-behind third period wins have occurred this year as opposed to last year or 2005-06. I'm willing to bet it has gone down for the same reason.

I can't really look at this data and say that the game is better off for it. While there might be more room out there to move, the new standard has also given rise to the new breed of divers. It's sickening to see how many guys are just flopping because they know the officials are too scared to make the right call. Instead, they will make the safe call, and nail the other player for the "hook". Worst case scenario, both players go. There really is nothing to lose by taking a dive.

And speaking of Nash's goal, I think that is a horrible example of the "new NHL", myself. Two idiots standing around trying to stick check aren't going to be very effective. If either one just takes the body, that goal doesn't happen. New NHL, old NHL, doesn't matter. When you are stationary, you get burned.

At 11:24 a.m., January 29, 2008, Blogger Doogie2K said...

I'm a little bit curious if my gut instinct -- that stuff like elbowing, charging, and boarding aren't being called as often as before -- is true.

At 11:34 a.m., January 29, 2008, Blogger Zach said...

I think that the fighting major situation could be correlated to the number of instigators that are called this season. I wonder what that data would look like

At 12:14 p.m., January 29, 2008, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Post some stats, and people just want the ones that aren't there. :)

Boarding, elbowing and charging aren't called very often, but yes, those calls are down, from about five per cent of calls to a little less than three.

Instigator penalties are pretty rare. There have only been about 500 total since 1999-00, but those numbers, too, are down slightly from the past few seasons.

At 12:15 p.m., January 29, 2008, Blogger James Mirtle said...

I can't really look at this data and say that the game is better off for it.

No, I'm not sure that you can just from this. But the changing standards have changed other aspects of the game, something I'll get into in other posts.

At 1:17 p.m., January 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Canucks have come from behind while trailing after two periods exactly zero times this year.
Yup, My New Re-Branded Table Hockey NHL sure is exciting.

At 2:37 p.m., January 29, 2008, Blogger Hawerchuk said...

I think everybody would have wanted to know that Face Shield Instigators were at their highest in 2006-07, but we haven't had a Removing Sweater penalty since the lockout ended!

Something interesting did actually come to mind - have even-strength scoring rates gone up? It seems like they should have if the game is more open. Time to hit the database...

At 2:59 p.m., January 29, 2008, Blogger Earl Sleek said...

Yeah, I'd like to see your take on that, Gabe.

I suspect what you'll find that there was an increase in even-strength scoring rates at the start of the new rules, and a steady decline ever since.

As power plays have decreased, there hasn't been an appreciable gain in even-strength goals, at least by my eye.

At 3:15 p.m., January 29, 2008, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Well, Earl, on a basic level, there have to be more even-strength goals: There are fewer penalties being called this season and goal-scoring is up about 0.4 per game over 2003-04.

I can't see an increase in power-play scoring rates explaining that.

The question is how dramatic has that shift been.

At 3:20 p.m., January 29, 2008, Blogger Earl Sleek said...

I just wasn't very clear--I meant that when the new rules were introduced, there was an increase in even-strength rates.

Since then, however, I think the rates have been on the decline (compared to 05-06, not 03-04). Looking at 3 years ago vs. this year, I think the number of even-strength goals is roughly the same, but with less power plays (more even-strength time), it suggests a lower rate.

Hell, I'll never be clear on this. But my statement about the decline was in reference to the first post-lockout year, not the last pre-lockout one.

At 9:22 p.m., January 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would also like to see a graph of penalties per period. I think that one of the best changes made was that the referees began calling penalties based on whether an infraction occured, rather than who's turn it was next, what the score was and how much time was left in the game.
When ref's manage the penalties you can get away with tons of junk at those times when penalties are not called. Also, as more and more people use their sticks for waterskiing, the ref's wouldn't nab them all because they rationed their penalties.
When they call the game consistently it's a lot better for the game.


At 2:44 p.m., January 30, 2008, Blogger Gretz98 said...

The statistics showing the decline in penalty calls this season show that the NHL's initial assumption that the players would learn and adapt to the post-lockout rule standards was correct. And I would like to say...finally. Finally the NHL made a change and gained the desired outcome. And credit the players for making the necessary changes in their game because watching a sixty minute game with forty minutes worth of power plays got old pretty quickly.

At 5:41 p.m., February 04, 2008, Blogger Doogie2K said...

Canucks have come from behind while trailing after two periods exactly zero times this year.
Yup, My New Re-Branded Table Hockey NHL sure is exciting.

The Canucks are a one-line team with a dozen injured defencemen. Your point?

we haven't had a Removing Sweater penalty since the lockout ended!

Incorrect. Marty Reasoner of the Oilers got one last year in a game against Columbus.


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