NHL expansion: Bad for the game

Las Vegas and Quebec City sent expansion applications to the NHL earlier this week, and now the NHL will decide when the league will expand. It isn’t a question of if, but when and how many teams.

Expansion will be great for the owners. They will split the expansion fee, reportedly $500 million per team, and not have to share the money with the players. Expansion will create 45-50 more pro contracts per organization, and create 23 more NHL jobs (per team) for players, meaning the players will see some benefit.

The owners and players will like it, but from my seat it will lower the entertainment value of the NHL.

The NHL will welcome one, and most likely two, new franchises in the near future, and both of them will need to rely on boring, defensive hockey to compete. It will water down the league even more by creating jobs for AHL-talented players.

(On a side note, how happy are Jets fans? They got their NHL team back four years ago, and it only cost their owner $170 million and the team was competitive within a few years. Quebec fans will likely have NHL hockey very soon, but it will be a crappy expansion team that costs $500 million. They will pay premium pricing for a brutal team. Ouch.)

This past season Jamie Benn led the league with 87 points, the lowest total for the Art Ross trophy winner since Stan Makita had 87 points in 1968, when they only played 76 games.

Offence is on the decline because there is more of an onus on defensive play than on offence, and the goalies still have over sized equipment, especially their gloves. The NHL could easily shrink the size of their gloves without risking the safety of the goalies. Many former goalies have admitted this on my show in the past few seasons.

Since 2006 we’ve seen a steady decline in scoring, and that season was an anamoly due to the lockout and new rules.

In 2005/2006 the NHL combined for 7,443 goals and this past season we saw 6,549 after witnessing the league combine for 6,573 in 2014.

           5on5     5on4    5on3     4on4   4on3    3on4    4on5   EN   PS    Total
2006
  4155   
2078
    351
      261
    100
       4
        277
  178  
35  
7443

2015  
4518
   1278    
72        
192
     35        
0        
147  
292  
14   
6549

The most glaring difference is PP scoring. In 2006, we saw 2,529 PP goals compared to 1,385. But we have to consider teams were shorthanded 14,390 times in 2006 compared to 7,521 this past season. Teams were adjusting to the new obstruction rules, and today players have conformed to the rules, but I also believe the NHL has relaxed their standards on penalties.

The PP average in 2006 was 17.57% compared to 18.4% this past season. Penalty killers aren’t any better, they just don’t have to kill off as many penalties.

We can also see that 5×5 scoring is lower, but that is due to less 5×5 TOI.

The sad reality is NHL scoring is returning to the low levels we saw prior to the 2005 lockout season. In 2003/2004 we had 6,378 goals. In 2002/2003 there was 6,530 goals and the game was not exciting. Offence has declined the past decade and when the NHL adds more teams, with less offensively skilled players and more defensive minded systems, I don’t see how it will improve.

Adding more average players to the league will not help, but the owners can only see $ from expansion fees. Expansion will fill their pockets, but it will not be good for the game.

The NHL does not encourage offence. Coaches prefer defence, and it seems too many media, bloggers and fans applaud solid defensive play over offence.

Players like Phil Kessel, Alexander Ovechkin, Taylor Hall and others are criticized because they aren’t “solid” defensively, even though they produce more points than 95% of the players in the league. If a skilled player makes a defensive miscue he is ripped, but when an reliable defensive player misses a great scoring chance, it is overlooked or we hear “It is not his role to score.”

I’m not in the group that wants to see low scoring, “solid” defence. I love hockey and it is my job to watch games, which is an awesome gig, but I find myself watching fewer games not involving the Oilers than ever.

I channel surf during games now. If Patrick Kane is on the ice I will watch his shift, but switch and return in a few minutes for his next one. Too much focus in hockey is on how to defend, rather than how to score, because it is easier to teach defensive hockey.

Most players won’t take risks. They will dump the puck in at the blueline rather than risk a turnover, and many of them don’t have the skills to handle the puck in traffic.

The game is faster than ever, but that doesn’t mean it is better. Players can get to a spot quicker, but outside of the elite players, most don’t have the hockey sense or skills to make plays in confined areas. If you skate well and work hard you can defend, but you need elite offensive ability to score and NHL coaches and systems are more focused on how to stymie offence, rather than create it.

Most coaches say, “Once they cross centre they are free to do what they want.” This is true, but with coaches teaching their players how to defend, but not spending as much time with the offensive players, of course offence will suffer. 

Adding two more teams will only make it worse, but even if the NHL doesn’t expand I don’t think we would see a direction to add more excitement in the game.

We see fewer goals, fewer hits, fewer fights and fewer mistakes, and for me that equals diminished excitement.

Can we fix it?

I don’t see a quick fix. The NHL is big business and owners, GMs and coaches want to win, and their chances of success increase by playing sound defence. Today’s strategy is more about defence than offence, and until that philosophy changes, I don’t see offence increasing.

I do believe making the nets bigger makes sense. Goalies are much bigger and better than ever before. There simply isn’t as many holes to shoot at. I believe the guys who score 35+ goals now are incredibly skilled, because it is so difficult to score on goalies today, so an added inch to the net would help a bit, but I believe a philosophical change to hockey is needed.

Expansion makes financial sense for the owners, and creates more jobs for the players, but it will hurt the overall entertainment value. 

Unless fans stop watching on TV or stop going to the games the NHL will not alter their defensive mindset.

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  • Reg Dunlop

    Just an observation; TO hiring Lou Lamoriello seems equivalent to the oil hiring Pat Quinn. A poorly thought out move to bring in a legendary relic who had success decades before. Is TO following the Oiler model? Their jealousy about our young draft picks makes it seem possible.

  • Jaxon

    MORE GOALS:

    1. I could care less if there is more goals in hockey. It’s a beautiful, tough game without the goals. I’ll take an exciting 1 goal game whether it’s 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, or 8-7. Team D is an art.

    2. If goals are a concern, I don’t think your argument stands, as expansion will create more goals, not less. Every time a Stamkos, Crosby or McDavid! gets out against the 4th line on an expansion team there will be an increased chance of a goal scored.

    3. I think worrying about watered down talent or a less exciting (by your definition less offensive) game because 1 or 2 players are taken from each team and your favourite teams will have a half dozen games against expansion teams is making mountains out of mole hills. Something like 6.25% of games will involve an expansion team. The game will be just fine, just as it was in 1967, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1998, 1999 & 2000.

    THE TRAP:

    1. The trap wasn’t a product of expansion, it was a system imposed that worked for coaches under the rules of the time. New Jersey was not a bottom tier team when they instituted it.

    2. The trap and its modern 1-3-1 form isn’t nearly as successful as it once was for a few reasons: the elimination of the 2-line pass, calling more obstruction penalties and the fact that the game/players are even faster making the trap harder to utilize.

    3. If the trap is the way for less talented teams to even the playing field, someone should have told the Oilers, Sabres, Coyotes & Leafs last season.

    EXPANSION:

    1. I like the idea of a 32 team league with 8 sub-divisions of 4 teams and 4 divisions of 8 teams, creating way more home-and-home rivalries and a simpler playoff format with exactly half the teams making the playoffs.

    2. After Quebec and Las Vegas, I wouldn’t mind seeing a franchise move to Seattle, like Florida or Columbus to put another team in the West.

    RULE CHANGES:

    1. If you really want to increase the speed and goals, I would suggest changing icing from the center line to the blueline. I provides more incentive to keep the puck in the opposition’s zone and allows the exiting team to dump the puck all the way down the ice. This would spread out the defending team from blueline to blueline making any kind of trap impossible, thereby opening up the neutral zone for more passing and carrying and actually less dumping and chasing unless they need to open up the neutral ice again to keep the opposition honest.

    2. Eliminate allowing icing for the penalty killing team. It’s always seemed like a strange advantage to me. At the very least eliminate it during the final 2 minutes of a game. Or, allow the penalty killing team to ice it once they cross their blueline if you don’t implement the blueline icing rule proposed in #1.

    UPDATED: “The Beaker” pointed out a valid distinction between offense and goals. I’ve updated my post to reflect that.

    • Jason Gregor

      ” If goals are a concern, I don’t think your argument stands, as expansion will create more goals, not less. Every time a Stamkos, Crosby or McDavid! gets out against the 4th line on an expansion team there will be an increased chance of a goal scored.”

      There is no proof this theory exists.

      When league expanded from 28 teams to 30 teams in 2001 scoring did not increase significantly.

      In 2001 when they added Minnesota and Columbus. The league scored 6,782 goals in 1230 games (5.51/game).

      In 2000 with 28 teams the NHL scored 6,301 in 1148 games (5.48/game).

      The 4th line on expansion team will not be any weaker than 4th lines on regular teams. They draft players who played 3rd or 4th lines on current NHL teams. Expansion teams won’t have top-six quality fwds or D…they can play defensive, but they will lack the good offensive players.

      • Jaxon

        Wait, why do I have to show proof but you don’t. You’ve posited a theory about goal scoring and entertainment value during expansion years without proof.

        “Adding two more teams will only make it worse, but even if the NHL doesn’t expand I don’t think we would see a direction to add more excitement in the game.”

        Show me the proof that expansion years decreases overall goals scored or shots taken or entertainment value (which is highly subjective). Also, saying that the top scorer has less goals doesn’t equate to less goals being scored. It equates to it being harder for anyone to score goals and greater league-wide parity from top to bottom, meaning the goals are spread out throughout the roster.

        Difference in Team Average Shots / GP During Expansion Years from Year Before:
        1991-92: +.7 shots/gp
        1992-93: +.5 shots/gp
        1993-94: -.7 shots/gp
        1998-99: +.5 shots/gp
        2000-01: -.3 shots/gp
        Fairly inconclusive but leans more toward more scoring chances than less.

        Difference in Team Average ES Goals / GP During Expansion Years from Year Before:
        1967-68: -.14 ESG/GP
        1970-71: +.26 ESG/GP
        1974-75: +.06 ESG/GP
        1979-80: +.01 ESG/GP
        1991-92: -.06 ESG/GP
        1992-93: +.09 ESG/GP
        1993-94: -.26 ESG/GP
        1998-99: .00 ESG/GP
        2000-01: -.10 ESG/GP
        Again, fairly inconclusive, sometimes up, sometimes down during expansion seasons.

        Difference in Team Average Goals / GP During Expansion Years from Year Before:
        1967-68: -.19 G/GP
        1970-71: +.22 G/GP
        1974-75: +.23 G/GP
        1979-80: +.01 G/GP
        1991-92: +.02 G/GP
        1992-93: +.15 G/GP
        1993-94: -.39 G/GP
        1998-99: -.01 G/GP
        2000-01: +.01 G/GP
        Again, fairly inconclusive, sometimes up, sometimes down during expansion seasons.

        Also, shots / gp hasn’t changed much at all since 2005-06, which would suggest that it is not a product of the skaters game, but in the goaltending. The net change since the 2005-2006 season is about as small as possible at -.1 shots less per game.

        Even historically going back to the high flying eighties, the most shots per game peaked in 85-86 with 31 shots per game. In 2008-09 it was 30.3. Again this points to parity among skaters and better goaltending more than anything else to explain why the scoring leaders don’t have as many points in the new era.

        I get your point about 4th line players on expansion teams not being weaker than 4th line players on other teams. Although, these were the 4th line players left exposed and if the teams are made up of 3rd & 4th line players, they won’t be able to shelter anyone. But again, there is no evidence that scoring is down in expansion seasons and those games will only account for a measly 6% of all games. If you watch 41 games per season you will likely only see 2 or 3 expansion team games that year. Hardly concerning for overall entertainment value, especially as a fan I will find it quite interesting and entertaining to see how they do. As a former Nordique fan, I personally can’t wait to watch a few games.

        I would also suspect expansion teams may have an advantage in convincing top Europeans into coming over/back and being on the top lines and probably being paid more as the expansion teams shouldn’t have any trouble staying under cap as they will mostly be employing quite affordable bottom 12 contracts and ELCs of newly drafted players.

  • Jaxon

    It’s time for bigger nets. Six inches wider and three to six inches higher should be enough. That’s only three inches adjustment left and right for the goalies. I have heard requests for six inches higher, but I think starting with three is the way to go.

    You can’t make goalies smaller. Goalie equipment is tough to shrink becuase of the safety question.

    Bigger nets increase the number of places you can score from. That changes everything.

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/hockey/are-bigger-nets-the-answer-to-combat-giant-nhl-goalies/article10584465/?service=mobile

  • Bandwagon jumper

    I’d like to see the ice surface a bit bigger. It doesn’t need to go to European size but an extra couple of feet will create a bit more space. The players today are so much bigger and faster than they were 20-30 years ago, they need more space.

    Come on owners, give up one row on one side and end of the ice.

    • Johnnydapunk

      They use a hybrid sized surface in Finland which is 200 x 92 ish as its a metric measurement but halfway between international and NHL ice, could be a compromise.

  • Serious Gord

    Good article by the way. Kind of nailed it. Goalie pads should be as small as they can be while still being safe I think. Also maybe make it so the goalies can’t leave the net at all. It would make a solid ring around the boards dump in a useable offensive play more of the time. Defensive hockey wins games but its sucks when your team gets down by 2 early and it seems highly unlikely they will get back in it. I want to see some good old fashioned barn burners!!

  • Reg Dunlop

    Waaah! My nhl doesn’t have individuals who are scoring 150 points a season anymore! I know lets blame it on the talent being watered down from the expansion teams even though scoring has been trending down since the early 2000’s. It obviously a bad thing if goaltenders are expected to be highly athletic and have mastered fundamentals and play use proper angles/head movement. Its also bad for the game if the other 9 forwards on the team are able to skate often faster then the top 3 or how they know how to play defense! Dont they know that we want to see our favorite players dangle and toedrag through them? Im going to say this right now it is not the players fault that scoring is going down it is decided by outside factors how big nets are, how large ice surface they play on and how big of protective equipment they wear. There are players in the chl that are undrafted that are extremely high goal scorers ie michael joly, guy is multi 50 goal range guy but nhl gm’s dont want pint sized players. In my opinion expansion will force more non traditional scoring forwards into the league because scoring forwards are starting to be found outside the first round whereas in the first round gm’s are focused on complete/safe players

  • filthymotherpucker

    Making the nets bigger isn’t a real option. The only reasonable thing is to come up with a way to limit the size of goalie equipment. When is the last time you heard of a goalie getting hurt by stopping a puck, besides getting one of the bean? The trappers and blockers are especially oversized compared to 20 years ago. If the nhl could come up with a standard limiting the size of the equipment without compromising safety, that would be the easiest way to start.

  • camdog

    @gregor;

    I’m old enough to remember Iafrate set the record for a slap shot, and he did it using a wooden stick. “Wow! Over 100 mph!” Now how many players are able to break 100 using composite sticks? Goalie equipment has gotten bigger, but how much of that is needed for harder shots versus just bigger for the sake of being bigger?

  • A-Mc

    The top end talent of a team is not the determining factor towards total goals scored. The hockey META at the time, is (IE: Defense first hockey). That’s why scoring didn’t change much from 2000 and 2001.

    Any major change in scoring has come at the cost of systems changes, rule changes and the vast improvement of goalies over the last 20-30 years. All of these rank much higher on the list of reasons for delta scoring results than league expansion.

    I don’t agree that talent dilution is a major concern and therefore i don’t agree with the sentiment of the original article.

    Expansion to 32 teams, 16 per conference, is clean and fair; i support it.

  • Jaxon

    Have you seeen the goalies of today compared to yesterday………..as a player in the past you could see some net. Nowadays all you see is puffed up goalies that are 7 feet tall!

    Go back to smaller goalie equipment and this should help get scoring back into the game!

    • Johnnydapunk

      I think the one issue I have with smaller equipment is that the shots are a lot harder now with the way sticks are made.

      It’s also that the average size of goalies has increased dramatically. In the 80s you had a few goalies over 6′ , a lot were 5ft something so a reduction in gear size wouldn’t really solve the problem.

  • Johnnydapunk

    Know what I am a ducks fan and will be for life but will say a couple more teams might be good but we all ready have a kings in the league they need to find a different team name that’s for dam sure

  • Johnnydapunk

    Maybe a way off idea but what about making goalie equipment subject to more standardised tests.

    An example of a test would be a deflection test, where a puck would have to rebound off the pads like (just a random number for an example) 1m when the puck is shot downwards at 50km an hour from a distance of 2m. The numbers can me messed with a bit, but it would still allow for goalies to wear their gear at the size they wish to, gives them protection but gives more rebounds and theoretically more goals.

    The hardest part (well one ) is the lack of worldwide standards for the ice size and equipment. There aren’t too many sports out there where the game is the same except that one region plays with nets and equipment at different sizes than other places. The only two and a half I can think of is American Football and Canadian football, baseball (aluminum bats) and Rugby Union and league. But two of those are a bit of a different game since the rules are quite different CFL and NFL, and Rugby League and Union)

    One more point to make, many are suggesting that owners wouldn’t like international ice as that eliminates “prime seating” and therefore revenue, but you wouldn’t lose too much as you will gain seats width wise and also as most arenas are bowl shaped, you have far more seats in the upper rows than lower so you might lose say 20-40 prime seats but gain a couple hundred higher up so you would most likely increase revenue or at least break even there.

    I think standardising the game with the ice size would be the first step, as there would be more goals with the new angles and more room for the larger players to skate, then look into things like net size and goalie equipment standards on weight, deflection and size. Can also even allow for larger curves on sticks maybe?

    I’m actually not too fussed about scoring and the “lack” of it, but I think if the NHL wants to increase their fan base in certain markets, they need to find ways to do it.

  • srelio

    Its easy to reduce glove and blocker sizes, just reduce the maximum surface area allowed (a rule thats already in place). They can also easily limit pad width. Im a fan of slightly bigger ice to give the skill players a bit more space, definitely not olympic size though. If bigger ice surfaces are being considered i hope that the owners do whats right for the game instead of whats right for their wallets (unlikely i know).

  • GVS

    The goalie equipment size being a safety issue is a non starter. What about the shot being blocked endlessly by forwards and defenceman in today’s games? They have a lot less equipment than the goalie, and yes they get injured sometimes but usually play on. It’s just a cover to stay big and give players nothing to shoot at. I say dig out the 80s size goalie equipment and “game on”. I don’t think goalies are being wusses about this they are just lying about the real reason.

  • Stupendous Man

    Regarding whether the game is truly less exciting with goal scoring down . . . . there must be studies out there by the advanced stats crowd that have looked at whether defined scoring chances (like what war-on-ice.com uses) are in fact trending downwards.

    I would be behind any move to increase scoring chances — and I agree with the rest who say the best bet is to renew the crackdown on obstruction. Sure, there will be a parade to the penalty box in the early going. But the point is not increasing the number of power plays — it’s about ensuring the game is played the way it was intended to be played. Refs need to be reminded they are primarily guardians of the game, not managers.

    I know people might hate it given what we’ve seen in the CFL this year, but I wouldn’t mind a coach’s challenge introduced on non-calls in the NHL (settled by the ‘war room’ in Toronto or some other outside eyes). Start with maybe one per game as long as a team still has its timeout. I could live with even one challenge per team per period. Maybe it would embarrass refs enough to start calling infractions they clearly see.

    As for expansion, I could see it slow the death of fighting and perhaps reverse the tide a bit. I have no problem with that.

  • Jason Gregor

    How about after the third icing in a row by a team the red calls a delay of game penalty. I truly believe this should be done. Also, when a team goes short handed, why can they ice a puck with no icing call? It’s a PENALTY!

  • Jason Gregor

    Make the ice surface bigger this will give the skilled players never more time and space and expose weaker players even more. Look at the World Championships even Jagr was carrying the puck lots and he’s > 40.

    You may not get more goals as I agree goalie equipment is ridiculous but you will get more scoring chances.

  • Joy S. Lee

    Make the rinks bigger = more seats, more revenues and more room to move as the players are bigger and faster. As new arena’s are built, the dimensions increase. Don’t have to rehab the old ones – up to the owners.