On Parity

When the Devils and the Flyers ended regulation at a 3-3 tie on Sunday afternoon, it was the 18th game of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs to go to overtime. That’s a lot of OT: 35% of the games, including five elimination matches and two game sevens. The Chicago-Phoenix series went to overtime five of its six games, every single battle except the last. If it had not been for the Penguins and Flyers putting on their retro 80s tribute to the lost arts of pointless hate and shitty goaltending, the entire first round in the East would have played out in tightly-contested, evenly-matched hockey. It’s been a very close postseason.

It’s possible that this means nothing. It might just be a coincidence; hockey is full of those. Sometimes players shoot 35% for a week or two for no apparent reason. Sometimes a team goes on an inexplicable slump and wins only 35% of their games in a month. Maybe 35% of the playoffs going to OT is just another one of these weird runs of hockey luck. It might be so.

But, although coincidence is a possibility, overtimes and seven-game-series are also indicators of parity, and parity is an issue that desperately needs further consideration. Because parity, kittens, is the future, and we best figure out soon if it is the future we want.

First, remember this: hockey is naturally a parity-prone sport. It is a low-scoring game; goals are rare and their occurrence is highly influenced by non-repeating situational factors. The points don’t come too often and when they do, the proximate cause is often a rare opportunity that arose spontaneously from a blender-whirl of offensive effort, defensive lapses, and butterfly-effect bounces. So although there are definitely ways that skill and strategy can influence the likelihood of scoring, there is also a large percentage of randomness involved in the business of getting a puck past the goalie. Since often it is only one of these rare goals that makes the difference between a win and a loss, there is therefore a large percentage of randomness involved in winning a hockey game. The sport’s strong strategic tendency to evolve towards defensive systems, which both reduce scoring and improve the ability of less gifted players to restrain their star counterparts, also vastly increases the inherent parity of the game.

Moreover, several historical trajectories in the NHL specifically have pushed its brand of the game more and more towards parity. Early hockey involved relatively few players bound to relatively few franchises for long periods of time. The best player on a team could easily play 60 minutes a game, every game, for one team, for his whole career. Under such a regime, team-building consisted of finding seven good bodies and signing them to neverending contracts. Constructing and maintaining a dominant team, then, required some deviousness and perhaps a certain lack of moral scruple, but it was relatively easy and frequently done.  The League could easily be unbalanced, with a few elite franchises enjoying long runs of Cup victories and others never so much as touching the thing once.

But over time, rosters grew. The notion of lines and shifts emerged, and more and more lines were added until every team was twelve forwards deep. The best player now divides his icetime with three less-talented counterparts in the same position. He plays at the very utmost 1/3 of a game. The League grew as well, and as more teams were added, talent became further diluted. Diluted talent favors, again, the growth of defensive hockey, as more and more teams are forced to figure out how to compete effectively with less offensively gifted players. Again, defensive systems mean more parity of outcomes.

Then the modern entry draft was introduced, regulating the entry of players into the League. Rather than being able to get ahead by building their own minor and junior systems, hunting down talented 12-year-olds in the desolate northern mining towns, every team now gets access to players at the same time according to the same system- a system which is deliberately constructed to create parity by giving the best prospects to the least successful teams. And players, once drafted, now have the collective bargaining rights to move teams of their own free will at exactly the time they reach the apex of their skill.

The ways by which the early teams built their dynasties are all closed down now. The great managers of old countered the natural parity of the game by hoarding cheap talent that the modern manager must set free or else buy dearly. They controlled sophisticated talent-feeder systems that the modern manager is legally prohibited from using. And they could build what would be, by today’s standards, virtual All-Star teams, whereas now a GM must give money and ice time to players so weak they can only be trusted to play six minutes a night against equally terrible opposition.  And then, to top it all off, after the lockout the NHL initiates still more deliberate parity-inducing measures: the salary cap and floor, which force every team to spend approximately the same amount on rosters, limiting the influence of local economic capacity on team talent; and the three-point shootout game, which introduces a raft of extra bonus points into the season, bonus points which are given exclusively to losing teams.

Executive summary: the history of hockey is that of a naturally high-parity game evolving inexorably towards even more parity. It is a flat world that only grows flatter, the way Iowa segues into Nebraska. It is an endless evening-out.

Some of that is inevitable. Some of it is what we chose. The question is: do we want to keep choosing this? Do we want parity?

The amount of parity in the League affects far more than just one team’s chances of winning the Cup. It has consequences for the structure of the game, for the kinds of strategies and tactics we see played out on the ice. It has consequences for the way teams are built and managed. It has consequences for the life-cycles of franchises. Most of important of all, though, is this: the amount of parity in the NHL defines the causes of winning. And- here’s where it gets personal- if it defines the causes of winning, then it will define the kinds of stories. In choosing for or against parity, we are choosing the hockey narratives of the future.

Parity favors some elements of hockey over others. It does not, for example, favor the work of general management. The more all teams are inevitably equal, the less influence good management has on outcomes. Even now, the best GM in the NHL using all the most sophisticated technologies and advanced metrics available has only a small edge of the competition. The more parity increases, the less far behind the stupid franchises can fall, and an incompetent manager riding a lucky season has more and more of a chance of snatching the Cup away from the shrewd builder of a vastly superior team.

It does not favor dominant skill. Of course, barring the attrition of franchises, the number of good players in a high-parity league will be the same as in a low-parity one, but between the entry draft and the salary cap, the forces of parity make it difficult for talent to collect heavily in any one place. Talent thinly spread across thirty teams means thirty very equivalent teams, meaning the difference between one winning and another will be things other than skill level.

It does not favor the building of dynasties. No team will ever again put together a roster that will stay stable for a decade and win seven Cups in the span. Either the roster will destabilize due to free agency and perfectly reasonable contract demands or the victories simply won’t come at the expected rate. Either way, in a parity NHL, there is no great generation of a team. There are only great years interspersed with poor ones, with an ever-shifting cast of characters.

Parity favors randomness. It favors a wider range of teams winning by narrower margins on the basis of smaller causes. As parity expands and the talent distribution between teams gets narrower and narrower, fewer and fewer games become decisive victories. More games go to overtime; more series go to seven. As teams match more evenly against each other, short-term unsustainable forces have more influence on major outcomes- bouts of flu and unexpected injuries have more power to utterly derail a season, just as bursts of hot goaltending and shooting have more power to take a team to the top of the standings. Skill matters less, bounces matter more. This also, of course, goes for human choice. The more even opponents are, the closer games are, the greater the likelihood of one individual effort or failure having decisive impact.

It also favors extravagance, gambling, rapid change, and uncertainty. With the rewards for sensible, measured management being so slim and the chances of luck-driven outcomes being so high, parity encourages managers to take risks. It encourages short-term thinking without regard for long-term consequences. A GM whose work is subject to a lot of luck is in an eternally precarious position, his job might end rather suddenly mid-season regardless of the intelligence of his moves. The incentive for him, in Parityland, is often to do the popular thing rather than the right thing, for the difference in on-ice outcomes between the two is uncertain, whereas the difference in fan and media reaction is clear.

This isn’t necessarily all bad. Personally, I think I like the shape of a parity League, but then again, I like unpredictability.  I like broad talent distribution and the hopeful thought that absolutely any team could win the Cup in the next five years.  I like overtime, and underdog victories, and game 7s. I like stories about heroic individual efforts, buzzer-beating goals past momentarily upended goalies with everything on the line. For mine own part, I can live quite happily in a world without dynasties, where GMs are forced to fight bitter wars over the tiniest scraps of potential edge and often go mad in the process.

But a flat NHL requires adapting the way we think and talk about hockey. The more parity in the game, the more teams like Vancouver and San Jose will appear- teams who play the game well, insofar as it can be played, and are regular contenders because of it, but who simply never get to the Cup. An old-fashioned hockey mindset would hold that these teams must be somehow fatally flawed, and once upon a time, that might have been true. But parity means that plenty of good teams will go through that experience, of being able to make the postseason consistently only to find themselves often bounced out by, well, a bounce. In Parityland, the winner doesn’t necessarily have a magic formula and the loser didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. Winning doesn’t necessarily mean being inherently better at hockey anymore. Rather, it becomes a tautology: the winners won because they won, because somebody had to win, and they happened to be ahead when time ran out. Parity means more chances for everyone. It also means more chance in the game.

We are moving towards a singularity for which we are not prepared. If we continue pursuing parity as the ideal of the NHL, we will eventually come to a point when skill is distributed with such perfect balance and equity that there is nothing to determine outcomes but utter chance. That point hasn’t come yet, but it will, if we keep pushing parity of every level, parity of inputs and outputs alike. Hockey people are not prepared for this. We are still uncomfortable with talking about luck and randomness in the game. We still balk at acknowledging the extent to which the results in front of us are driven by chance, preferring to fall back on the more comfortable assumption that every team that wins does so for good reason. We think about parity hockey in dynasty terms, still. Which suggests that, when the singularity comes and all results are based on luck, we won’t even know it.

[What precedes is, obviously, more a speculative outline than a fully-developed argument.  The fully-developed argument would be tens of thousands of words long and probably require a binding.  There is a lot left unsaid which needs saying, and a lot that can and should be debated.  So, if you had the patience to make it to the end and you feel like arguing, please argue with me.  I want to talk about this one.]