And just like that, the book was all but closed yesterday on the 82-game season.
From a philosophical perspective, a season-long shut down is good for the game of hockey. As a fan who enjoys the occasional bout of chaos, it would be fun to see which despicable NHL executives or agents see their heads roll after this. The fact the season has yet to start is showing that both players and owners are getting terrible, terrible advice from somebody.
Unfortunately, as with during the game, chaos never truly reigns supreme. Bad teams get eliminated from the playoffs if they don’t belong, and good teams usually make it through to the deep rounds. It’s as if the hockey Gods like to test our faith with a series of weird tests, such as “hey, do you think these Washington Capitals ought to be in the second round of the playoffs?” Only when we’ve come around to the idea of the worst incarnate of the Capitals since 2007 winning a Game Seven in the second round of the playoffs, do the hockey Gods feel it necessary to let structure prevail.
So there will be a season. And with it, they won’t only prevent an exodus of fans, but they may even prevent interruption from the Canadian legislature. The response to the NHL for a second season-long work stoppage in eight seasons would be tremendous, and I think a lot of fans would realize they have better things to do. I’ve always been a big hockey fan, but, I dunno, I’ve soured on the NHL in recent years, probably during the lockout of 2004-05. There’d be all these talks about “growing the game” to the non-traditional markets and lots of ideas for increasing scoring and all that, but never “just get rid of those teams and stop the talent dilution. I know that hockey’s the greatest sport to watch, why do I care what somebody in Atlanta thinks about it?”
Hell, the more money the NHL makes in those markets, the bigger the game grows, and the more expensive it is to consume the product at its highest level. I’d like to chop the last 22 years of NHL growth completely, going back to December 4, 1990. On December 5 of that year, NHL executives met in Florida with potential owners representing potential expansion markets from around North America. Hamilton and Seattle were turned down, for the sole reason that their ownership didn’t want to pay the ridiculous $50M expansion fee on the table, that only two representatives were eager to buy: A group from Tampa Bay and a group from Ottawa.
Gary Bettman wasn’t involved, but that was the moment when the thirst for greed outweighed the idea that hockey was just a cool sport, and isn’t it cool that a lot of people will pay money to see it. The expansion fee money was slowly eaten up by players, leading to excessive salaries through the 1990s, and now we get to the point where players make an absurd amount of money for playing a game, and only absurdly-rich guys can own teams.
But there will be a shortened season, at some point it will begin, and I’ll probably ignore it to some degree for two reasons. One is that I’m not sure I’ll care enough, but two is that the result of a short season will be a huge statistical mess to clean up next summer (some comment threads are going to be fairly enjoyable. I hope Mikko Koivu shoots upwards of 25%).
That’s more what this is about. On Monday I wrote about the style of the Canadian university game, how teams in the first two periods were less likely to make mistakes. I was listening to an interview with Philadelphia’s Matt Read on the NHL Numbers podcast, and he made a conflicting point as to why the college game (although he was talking about the American game) was more conservative than the NHL:
I found the biggest change for me was how smart everyone was. In college hockey it’s more run-and-gun, you know, get the pucks deep and limit your mistakes because every shift and every game counts that much more because you only play 36 games a year.
NHL players are not only better than players in other leagues, but they also have the benefit of a long 82-game season, which makes each individual mistake, even if it costs their team a game, not all that important in the long run.
Football analysts can talk for months about how most NFL coaches would rather go for a perceived less-risky play than the right play. All the numbers point to the benefit of going for it on fourth down instead of punting in many, many more situations:
“Coaches tend to be risk averse,” said Dr. Ben Alamar, a professor of sports management at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., who has studied N.F.L. statistics. “People are typically uncomfortable moving away from the norms.”
A point made at Blogs with Balls during the analytics panel was that coaches and players don’t act in the best interests of their team. They act in the best interests of themselves, and if a play call fails, even if it’s the right one, fans and more importantly ownership, tend to see those calls as too risky. In the end, you get many sports franchises who have the overwhelmingly stated philosophy not of “playing to win” but “playing not to lose”.
A shorter NHL season could lead to a similar philosophy. We’re talking fewer zone entries, more dump-ins and more playoff-style coaching. When a team thoroughly believes it has a shot at the playoffs, it’s going to be a lot more risk-averse, and a short season guarantees that more teams will be in the playoff race.
I guess there theory there would be that if you’re down six points in the standings with 30 games to go, what does it matter if you’re a month into the season (in a shortened campaign) or over halfway through (in a normally 82-game year). The odds look the same, but they really, really aren’t. In a normal year with 30 games to go, there are about 11 teams in reasonable playoff contention per conference. Put it this way: at the end of October last year, only the Columbus Blue Jackets weren’t within six points of the 8th-place team. At the end of December, it was five teams, and at the end of January, it was eight teams who were effectively out of contention.
So the short season will be a leaping board for bad teams to vault to a higher place in the standings early on, and probably, knowing the risk-averse nature of sports teams, not even trying to win anything. If a season isn’t longer than 60 games, I’m not sure if I’d trust any player statistic I found over at Behind the Net next offseason to be predictive of much.
Stupid lockout, interfering with us getting a decent sample size.