It was supposed to be a dream Stanley Cup final; one for the purists, contested by teams that love their hockey wide open. Here, on the one side, was the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL's offensive leaders, with the dynamic Triplets line plus Steven Stamkos, one of the game's purest goal scorers. On the other side, you had the Chicago Blackhawks – the team of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith. Offence personified, with their quick-strike attack, keyed by its mobile group of defencemen.
This wasn't the mugging and hugging New Jersey Devils playing for the championship – or even the defence-first Los Angeles Kings, grinding an opponent into submission. If there was a hope for a wide-open final, this was it.
But in six games, these two offensive juggernauts managed to score 23 goals in total, for an average of just under four per game. Unhappily, the NHL has been trending in this direction for years now.
After a brief surge in scoring following the 2004-05 lockout, triggered mostly by special teams' play that followed the crackdown on obstruction, NHL goal scoring remains limited to just above five per game – or on average, about two goals per game down from the scoring heyday of the 1980s. This year, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, regular season games, excluding shootout deciders, averaged 5.324 goals per game – down slightly from the 5.344 averaged the year before.
The NHL is supposed to be an entertainment entity and while this year's Stanley Cup final may have been the closest in half a century, close games do not necessarily translate into entertaining hockey.
When games are close, teams tend to play a tight conservative style and hope for a break. By contrast, if one team can stretch out a lead, it forces an opponent to counter more aggressively and opens the game up. Once that happens, scoring opportunities arise on the counter attack. Trading rush chances is the best part of hockey, and demonstrates everything these players are capable of doing – making plays one-on-one, shooting bombs. Everything isn't just a game of pinball any more, where you shoot the puck into a crowd of legs and hope it caroms your way.
And the problem isn't going to go away on its own.
You can tweak the rules to come up with an NHL equivalent to the NBA's three-seconds-in-the-key rule so the traffic in front of the net becomes less of a gridlock, or you can finally decide to look at bigger nets.
The first myth of bigger nets is that they are going to be soccer-sized and change the game so dramatically it won't be recognizable. That's a false assumption. When the NHL first experimented with new prototype nets during a research and development camp a few years back, visually, you could hardly tell the difference. Moreover, there may be ways of inwardly angling the goal posts on the net so shots that now hit the post squarely deflect into the goal instead of caroming out. Think of it this way: If one extra shot per game that hits the post and stays out now suddenly goes in, that's 1,230 extra goals per season. Problem solved. Also, with more scoring comes more separation in a game and with more separation, there would be a greater tendency to see plays made off rush chances.
The high point for goals per game in the NHL's expansion era came in 1981-82, with an average of 8.025 goals per game. The league averaged above seven goals per game every season from 1979-80 to 1989-90.
But even as recently as the 1992-93 season, there were 21 100-point scorers in the league and 34 players who scored 88 points or more.
This year, the Dallas Stars' Jamie Benn won the NHL scoring title with 87 points in 82 games. Only two other players scored more than 82 points this season – the Islanders' John Tavares at 86 and the Penguins' Sidney Crosby at 84.
Benn would have finished in a tie for 35th 22 years ago. Crosby said it himself at one juncture this year, when questions were asked about his relatively modest totals. After a long preface about systems, conditioning and improvements in goaltending technique and gear, Crosby concluded: "It is hard to score goals these days."
Too hard, actually.
Players have never been fitter, faster or more skilled than in today's NHL, and yet, with all that training and coaching, too often the outcome of a game is determined by a lucky bounce.
It shouldn't be that way. It doesn't have to be that way.
But the initiative has to come from some brave soul, willing to stand up at the next NHL general manager's meeting – which happens to be taking place Tuesday in Las Vegas – and say 'enough.' The GMs will meet to review the season and the final. They will ponder tweaking overtime. On Wednesday, the board of governors may develop an expansion plan – all important business relating to the growth of the league. But they can't overlook the product.
Something has to change – and it isn't going to happen organically. It's time to start the process by asking the American Hockey League to test slightly larger nets in the same way the AHL agreed to test proposed changes to overtime last season. The AHL is a great incubator for the NHL and willingly assists in these experiments. It's time to take the next step soon – or instead of the 3-2 league the NHL is now, eventually it will be a 2-1 league. And that is a direction they'll need to reverse before it's too late.