The NHL Must Reinvent Itself to Address the Rapid Decline in Scoring
Four-on-four hockey is the ideal format for a sport played by giants on a relatively narrow surface.
Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
If 3-on-3 hockey has produced anything new about the game, it's that players have an indefatigable capacity for carrying the puck in great circles about the offensive zone, rather like miscreants spiriting stolen goods protected under one arm while waving a pimp cane with the other. In high school days, we called this hog, taking the whole puck possession business to self-absorbed extremes. If league architects expected the new post-60 minute wrinkle to produce glorious hockey at lightning speeds, man-to-man coverage on 3-on-3 has instead created a kind of accelerated keepaway, and reaction among fans is similar to what happens when you see someone else having fun on a rollercoaster. There has been some occasional thrilling moments, but a novelty is a novelty is a novelty.
In the end, one less on-ice body in overtime hasn't resulted in the kind of sporting hallelujah many of us had hoped for, and if fewer shootouts have decided close games, well then, small blessings I suppose.
Another thing that 3-on-3 overtime has done is illuminate the chancelessness of 5-on-5 hockey: a shin pad pong in which bodies repel rather than attack. If 3-on-3, then, is too open, and 5-on-5 is too closed, we're left with nostalgia for 2012 and the perfect compromise—the game played at 4-on-4. I'm not sure if eschewing 4-on-4 overtime for 3-on-3 was a sop to those who wanted to rid the league of the shootout, but the NHL broke something that wasn't actually broken. Four-on-four had some checking, some freewheeling, some chances. It was the ideal format for a sport played by giants on a relatively narrow surface.
If 3-on-3 seems gaudy against the stilted rhythms of 5-on-5—the impatient dancer or toreador who tears off their bustier or vest coat to reveal too much too soon—it would work better after teams played 4-on-4 for 60 minutes, removing one chess piece, rather than two. But this is something the NHL is loathe to consider. And there's the rub.
I've advocated for 4-on-4 hockey for a while. Many people have responded by stating—with good reason, it turns out—that the NHLPA would never endorse a reduction in rosters, but you don't have to be Frosty Forristall to see that the player body is already thinning, the result of a limiting salary cap in which working-class players are squeezed out by long-term superstar contracts; the single-egg-basket theory. In our hockeyverse, there are scads of players from David Booth to Curtis Glencross to Devin Setoguchi to Joey MacDonald still looking for work. They're part of a body of players who won't ever play again in the NHL.
On first blush, further removing a handful of forwards and defencemen and adding to this group would seem like a terrible thing. But there are more professional hockey jobs worldwide than ever before, with markets opening in new, cash-rich territories (hello, China). Art Berglund once told me: "You've got to be a pretty shit player not to be playing somewhere." Smaller rosters would potentially mean stronger leagues elsewhere, helping the game grow in places where the NHL needs it to grow.
Reducing the size of goalie equipment is to band-aid a machete cut, and bigger nets mean that you need even bigger goalies to fill them, and it's the size of netminders that has largely created the problem of low goal-scoring totals.
According to Stephen Burtch, the numbers poet and hockey analytics writer for Sportsnet and Hockey Prospectus, "Goaltending has become an insanely hyper-competitive area of improvement over the past 30-plus years. No other area of hockey has changed as dramatically or had as profound an effect on the game in that time span." Burtch says that, "the increase in goaltender save percentage explains 94.4 percent of the decline in goal scoring," and, further to that, goals against average has sunk by more than a goal, from 3.80 is 1982 to 2.52 in 2015. The writer adds: "Personally, I think the other major culprit is the combination of the lack of expansion for the past 15 years and the salary cap. Basically you've had more countries and people playing hockey and seen more players enter the NHL from a wider variety of markets, yet the talent is growing more concentrated at the NHL level because the league isn't expanding in size. The league hasn't gone this long without expansion since the Original Six era."
A once vogue notion had the league widening its rink standards, but wider rinks are prone to creating even tighter checking systems—most Euro play happens in the corners, where there's more room—and it's unlikely owners will retrofit buildings so that fewer seats are available rather than more. What if two things happened: what if the rinks were made smaller while the number of players on the ice were reduced?
It's this kind of thinking that has to happen for the NHL to reinvent itself at a time when peaked ratings and more fans watching and a sparkling new broadcast deal calls for the game at its fastest and finest. The introduction of the shootout and the subsequent change to 3-on-3 in overtime has proven that radical changes in structure are not beyond the NHL's bailiwick.
It's from a radical point of view that the league must address its choked play, which has been regressing every year for two decades. Dams are not broken from poking holes in the facade. Instead, you've gotta blow the motherfucker up. Someone grab the dynamite. Let's drop the puck.