I spent the early afternoon yesterday watching my Penguins take on the perennial powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks. The game was a thriller, though my Pens would ultimately fall short in a shootout 2-1. Despite a wealth of elite talent on both sides, the red sirens rang merely twice in 65 minutes (the third goal being an arbitrary goal given to the Hawks for winning the shootout). This got me thinking that the Sunday matinee might be a microcosm of a league-wide issue on a much larger scale. It is no secret that hockey is the lowest scoring of our four major sports. However, the rapid decline in goals over the years could be cause for concern.
Throw it back to 1981. The Great One Wayne Gretzky scored a ridiculous 92 goals, which averages to over a goal per game. The young superstar couldn’t even have his first legal drink until midway through the season. To put things into perspective, only two players, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, have scored 60 goals in the past eighteen seasons. The argument could be made that Gretzky’s production was a byproduct of skating alongside several hall of fame teammates, including Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Mark Messier, and Paul Coffey. This is certainly true to an extent; it is a consequence of an era with no salary cap. However, per quanthockey.com, the average team scored 4.01 goals a game that year, meaning that it was not just Gretzky’s dream team Oilers who were lighting up the score sheet. By comparison, the average team scored merely 2.67 goals a game this past season.
Why is this a problem, you ask? It becomes a dilemma of attracting new fans for the league, which is more readily accomplished via gaudy stats. The NFL has become stringent (at times to a fault) in recent seasons in its calls on defensive backs. Though the hardcore fan pines for lenience in this regard, the league just keeps chugging along, aided by its newfound penchant for big numbers and blatantly average quarterbacks throwing for 4,000 yards a year. The MLB has had a similar quandary as well. As the steroid era came to a close, runs became a premium for ball clubs. New commissioner Rob Manfred even went as far as to publically ponder eliminating defensive shifts, which have become a brilliant analytical development over the past five years. Though drastic and most likely implausible, the statement in it of itself shows the league’s commitment to shifting the balance of power towards its hitters. (more…)