Saturday, November 17, 2007

When is less more?

In case you weren't aware, scoring is down in the NHL for a second straight season.

Both the blogosphere and MSM outlets alike are abuzz with apocalyptic predictions in response to a recent press release from the league citing a decline in goal-scoring. Suggestions to rectify this ostensibly grave threat to hockey as we know it have ranged from a reversion to wooden sticks to the advent of larger nets to a seeding system rewarding offensive teams.

But precious few have espoused the idea that lower-scoring games aren't necessarily a bad thing. Sure, nobody wants to see a league littered with impersonations of the New Jersey Devils circa 1995 but, at the same time, a grind-it-out chess match can sometimes be as thrilling, if not more so, than a 6-5 shootout.

Of course, this viewpoint is largely based on rudimentary analysis combined with my own conjecture -- there is no statistical way to gauge the decidedly subjective "excitement level" of a particular hockey game. But take, for example, Game 2 of last year's Stanley Cup Finals between Ottawa and Anaheim. Easily one of the more exciting games I've seen, yet the contest's final score was 1-0. This once again brings us back to the argument that scoring chances and the overall flow to a particular game are more integral facets of a game's excitement than the amount of pucks that cross the goal line.

So while Gary Bettman may be convinced that the only way for the league to make an impact in the American television market is to increase scoring, a sentiment apparently shared by many in the hockey world in light of the myriad complaints and suggestions stemming from the aforementioned press release, it's really the level of fluidity present in the product that establishes a hockey game as exciting. For the most part, and once again this is just my observation, games continue to maintain some semblance of flow.

However, I'm far from optimistic as the growing predominance of zone defense in the league is, as Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff put it, "killing the game." Many individuals in the hockey media are beginning to describe the play this season as similar to the pre-lockout days, and that's at least somewhat true. But aggregate goals scored is not that accurate of a measuring stick to determine the decline in excitement of the game, as evident in the fact that lower-scoring contests can sometimes be as enthralling as their scoreboard-friendly counterparts.

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