I brought a hockey-ignorant friend (he didn’t know which team was which) to Tuesday night’s 2-1 game between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, and I saw the same bored look that most hockey fans are all too used to. This disinterested expression is usually followed by one of the most popular complaints about the NHL — there needs to be more scoring.Much like pitching duels in baseball, defensive struggles in hockey can be very entertaining for die hard hockey fans, but dry as dirt for casual observers.
The “new NHL” that was born in the wake of the 2004-2005 lockout was designed to increase scoring, among other things, but after an initial boost in 2005-2006, scoring is once again on a steady decline.
It’s down again in 2010-11, albeit only slightly, and NHL games now only feature a half goal more than the 2003-04 season before the lockout.
Data from Dropyourgloves.com
Does it matter?
If the NHL really wants to expand its fan base, the answer is yes.
The NHL has always been a niche sport, and though the league risked alienating hardcore fans by changing the rules following the 2004-05 lockout, most of them are back, and the league has picked up some new ones, too. The result has been a steady growth in attendance and a healthier economic climate than there’s been in years.
But that growth may not continue without more scoring. Casual sports fans want to see points, goals, touchdowns, etc. Scoring plays are what excite them, because they’re the easiest parts of a game to understand and they deliver tangible evidence about which team is playing “better.”
The NFL averaged 44.07 points per game in 2010 — its highest mark in recent memory —and enjoyed arguably its most successful season ever. If the NHL wants to captivate casual sports fans, it needs to amp up the offence.
So should the NHL make more changes?
That depends. The league is desperate to continue its growth, but it will be difficult to do that without opening the game up again. The NHL could try increasing the size of nets or decreasing the size of goalie equipment again, but it’s likely that coaches would learn to adapt to these changes just as they did to the post-lockout alterations.
It’s also hard to predict whether more changes would anger fans that have grown used to the new rules that were designed to do the very same thing just five years ago.
The NHL could obviously boost scoring by making drastic changes, but at some point it must consider whether getting away from its roots is really the best plan. The real question when it comes to revamping the NHL is: how much change is too much?
I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision.
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