The Relationship Between Goal-Scoring and League Talent Level
Copyright Iain Fyffe, 2002
In this era of an increasingly watered-down NHL and concurrent low levels of scoring, one often wonders about the relationship between the level of scoring and the level of talent in the NHL. This subject was addressed in some detail by Klein and Reif (KR), in "The Klein and Reif Hockey Compendium". However, seeing as KR wrote their piece in 1987, it would be appropriate to re-examine their arguments using the data that we now have available, specifically the 1987-88 to 2000-01 NHL seasons.
KR's argument is this:
"Throughout the history of the game, in those periods when the talent level in a league has risen through the consolidation of franchises or the addition of a large number of skilled players, the level of goal-scoring has consistently fallen. And when the concentration of talent has been diluted by expansion or wartime service, goal-scoring has consistently risen. When rule changes are not a factor and you see the rate of goal-scoring climb, you know something bad is happening, because more goals means bad hockey." (p.15)
KR argue that unless there is a rule change to blame, if scoring has increased, then the quality of play has decreased. If scoring dropped, this means the league talent level has improved. They demonstrate this quite convincingly with their discussion of the ECHA, NHA, and NHL to 1986-87. To recap this discussion, I will examine the 56-year period from 1931-32 to 1986-87. The starting point is selected as it follows the last major rule change, the introduction of forward passing.
During this 56-year period, the change in scoring from one year to the next varied from -15% to +19%. However, for 45 of those years (80% of the years examined), the change fell between -7% and +7% inclusive. So it seems the normal variance for scoring from one year to the next is about 7%. We will thus consider any change of less than 8% from year to year to be normal variation. Therefore any change of greater than 7% is to be considered unusual and needing explanation. These are the interesting years. Let us now examine these years that do not fall within the range of normal variation, to seek possible explanations for the changes.
1932-33: -8% change from prior year
There is no apparent reason for this change. There are no major rule changes, just minor tweaks. However, since it is just slightly greater than the normal change, we can safely assume it is a fluke.
1935-36: -15% change from prior year
1936-37: +14% change from prior year
This is really only one change: the significant drop in 1935-36, which was reversed the following year by a significant increase in scoring. The drop has no easy explanation; there were no rule changes, and the makeup of the league did not change. We may have to write this one off as unexplainable.
1941-42: +18% change from prior year
1942-43: +19% change from prior year
1943-44: +13% change from prior year
1944-45: -10% change from prior year
1945-46: - 9% change from prior year
Here KR's thesis proves very true. The loss of players to wartime commitments wreaked havoc on the level of play in the NHL, and scoring skyrocketed. As players returned from war, scoring began to drop again.
1952-53: -8% change from prior year
Again, there is no apparent explanation for this change. However, the change is only 8%, so it is very close to normal.
1980-81: +9% change from prior year
Once again there is no real explanation here. The WHA had folded two seasons previous; perhaps there was some sort of delayed effect on the NHL? But again, the change is only 9%, so it may be a fluke.
It is also interesting to note anything we might expect would cause a significant change, but did not. For instance, the Great Expansion had no significant effect. This can be explained by the stagnation of the Original Six teams. There had been only six NHL teams for so long that the level of talent in the minor leagues had been building up for a long time. Therefore, the NHL could bear the addition of six new teams without diluting the overall talent level of the league.
The collapse of the WHA also had no apparent effect. This is also explainable; the NHL absorbed only four WHA teams, while all talent from the rival league was now available. Therefore, the effect washed out to some degree.
Now I will examine KR's thesis using the data from the NHL 1987-88 to 2000-01 seasons. Here is said data.
There are four significant changes in this 14-year period: 1992-93, 1993-94, 1994-95, and 1997-98. I will examine each in turn.
1992-93: +8% change from prior year
This year two franchises were added (Ottawa and Florida), only one year after San Jose joined the NHL. KR's thesis predicts that scoring will increase in such a situation, and so it did.
1993-94: -11% change from prior year
The addition of Anaheim and Tampa this year made five expansion franchises in three years. By KR's thesis, this should have driven scoring upward. But instead it decreased significantly. Why is this? It is likely in part due to the increased number of European players in the NHL, necessitated by the expansion. From 1990-91 to 1993-94, the number of European players in the NHL grew from about 60 to over 130. However, this increase is not even enough to stock the new teams, so at best it would hold scoring steady, not decrease it. It seems KR's thesis is disproved here. However, with one addition that I will detail later, the thesis stands.
1994-95: -8% change from prior year
While my explanation for this is not literally in line with KR, it has the same spirit. This decrease in scoring is likely the result of the strike-shortened schedule. With a shorter schedule, each game was more significant, and therefore (in theory) players pushed themselves more during the season. They also did not need to worry about tiring out during an 80-plus game schedule. Therefore, the drop in scoring is produced by better hockey, and is not surprising.
1997-98: -9% change from prior year
This decrease, coupled with the previous year's 7% decrease, is likely the result of the talent level starting to catch up after the runaway expansion of the early 1990's.
Again, we should also note the things we would expect to have caused a change, but did not. Specifically, I am speaking of the four expansion teams added over three years from 1998-99 to 2000-01. Again, by KR's thesis, this should have caused a noticeable increase in league scoring. It did not; the changes over these three years are 0%, +4%, and 0%. Again, this is contrary to KR, but with the addition I propose (detailed below), it is explainable.
Adding to the thesis
KR's argument is that as the league talent level is diluted, the league scoring level will increase. This is true to a point. It seems, however, there is a limit to this rule. So long as there is an amount of appropriate talent available, dilution will cause scoring to increase. But as the two expansions of the 1990's (nine teams added in 10 years) has demonstrated, there is a breaking point.
The runaway expansion of recent years has led to the extreme dilution of the talent in the NHL. Some players in the NHL today would not have even been above-average players in the AHL in the past. There is a limit to how thin you can spread talent, before you start scraping the bottom of the major-league barrel. When you pass this limit, it begins to drive scoring down, rather than up. The reason for this is twofold.
Offence is more a function of natural skill than is defence. The players NHL teams have to resort to now have so little offensive talent that they lower the amount of offence in the league. The extension of this is a natural change in strategy. If you have a limited amount of offence on your team, it is natural to emphasize defence (think Minnesota Wild) in order to maximize your chances of winning. More teams have to rely on this sort of defensive play now than ever before, and this also results in less scoring.
Diluting the talent level only drives up scoring to a certain extent. Extreme dilution of talent, such as what we have seen over the past decade, actually drives down scoring. So we can add to KR's original thesis. If dilution occurs and scoring does not increase, and there are no rule changes to explain it, then you know that the well of legitimate, major-league talent has run dry.
We can only hope that the NHL realizes this, and that we do not see any further expansion for a long time.
Klein, J. and K.-E. Reif. The Klein and Reif Hockey Compendium. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.