The National Hockey League is offensive.
As in, there are a lot of goals being scored.
Why, what did you think we meant?
Through the quarter mark of the 2019-20 season, about 317 games, scoring has continued to surge. There have been 529 different skaters with at least one goal, 72% of all skaters. That’s the highest percentage of skaters since the 1992-93 season, when Teemu Selanne had 76 goals and Mario Lemieux scored 160 points.
Around 44% of all games have featured a team coming back to win. There have been 66 third-period comeback wins, the most ever at this stage of the season. There have been 45 multi-goal comeback wins, second-most ever, behind only last season’s pace.
The 1,956 goals scored and the 6.2 goals per game on average are the second-highest in 23 years, ranking only behind the anomalous 2005-06 post-lockout season, which gave us a Carolina Hurricanes vs. Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup Final about 14 years before it was plausible.
That cancelled season remains a point of frustration, and more than a little embarrassment, for the league. They cringe when you bring it up. But the “NHL 2.0” rule changes that were born from it laid the groundwork for what we’re seeing today.
“We took an extended holiday,” said vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell, with a slight sigh. “It’s never worth it, but we tried to make something out of it at the time. We came out of … what did they call it? The dead-puck era.”
Yes, that’s what they called it. The offensive nadir of the sport. As of Thursday, NHL teams are averaging 3.08 goals per game. Twenty years ago, in the middle of that dead-puck era? The goals per game stood at 2.64.
“Two things I heard at the time scared me. First, was the players saying they weren’t having any fun playing the game. And that the fans would shut it down after a one-goal lead. Now, teams are overcoming four-goal leads in the third period,” said Campbell. “The adjustments that we keep making every year, without making major rule changes, that’s been our theme since 2004 or 2005. To reward as much offense as you can.”
So why can’t they reward it even more?
Why can’t the NHL get really offensive?
That the NHL sends out a press release touting goal totals is indicative of two things: Decades of guilt over the dead-puck era framing hockey as a tedious, trap-happy sport; and an acknowledgement that offense is a narcotic for mainstream North American sports fans. We like having our ticket expenditures rewarded with the cathartic thrill of a score. We like betting the over. We like the thrill of a record-breaking chase. Offense saved baseball after 1994. Offense rescued football from a quagmire of attacks on its morality.
But go back to that Campbell quote: Scoring has increased “without making major rule changes.” Which is very much in keeping with the NHL’s track under Gary Bettman: Incremental increases rather than dramatic gains, because the league is imprisoned by its devotion to tradition.
I believe it was the great philosopher Kylo Ren who said: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.”
The NHL was meant to be an offensive league. Here are a few radical ways to get it there:
Get rid of offside
Enough already. The annual debates over what constitutes it are tedious. We’ve even gone back to “breaking the plane” of the blue line with a skate that’s not on the ice. Here’s something much tidier: Get rid of offside altogether.
I wasn’t always in favor of this. There was a time when I felt it was too radical. But in discussing it through the years, I’m attracted to its reinvention of the game. Would you defend with four players and position one down the ice? Would the stretch pass become more beautiful than it already is? Could a player like Connor McDavid become even more wizardly without the confines of the blue line? I’d like to see it.
Go 4-on-4 all the time
This is an obvious one. The ice is too crowded. Taking one player off of each side opens it up and ratchets up the pace. It would also present a heck of a challenge for coaches insofar as figuring out line combinations and who goes over the boards and when. Scoring would increase. Speed would increase. Maybe the NHLPA would go for it if the rosters expanded to additional players to aid in the track meet.
Two-minute majors go the full length
I’m with Lou Lamoriello on this one. Every minor penalty goes for the full two minutes, even if the attacking team scores. Maybe you throw in a little caveat that the only way to kill it is with a short-handed goal, for extra offensive incentive. Go ahead, we dare you to take a penalty. Please note this might be born of our desire to see Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring record by next February.
The NHL should be happy with its offensive upswing. The on-ice product is better than it’s been in decades. But this should just be a precursor to an offensive era that could transform the game.
Just don’t cancel another season to do it.
When I heard Washington Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway was getting an NHL hearing for spitting on Anaheim Ducks defenseman Erik Gudbranson, I figured he might get suspended for a game. They usually don’t schedule hearings for fines, after all.
(Here’s the incident, for those who missed it):
Garnet Hathaway gets a match penalty for spitting in Erik Gudbranson’s face pic.twitter.com/KfjjkBMtVC
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) November 19, 2019
And then he got three games.
What an absolute joke on the part of the NHL.
The suspension was handed down by the NHL hockey operations department, the crustiest of crusty old-school men in the league hierarchy. It was Colin Campbell specifically, who handles suspensions outside the realm of player safety issues. I figured Campbell might look at this incident as any rational person would, which is that Hathaway was sucker-punched in the face and then responded with an unfortunate loogie for which he was given a match penalty. He acknowledged it was unsportsmanlike conduct after the game. But Campbell took a different old-school tact, which is that spitting on another player is an ultimate sign of disrespect and warrants not one, not two, but three games banned from playing in the league.
If only Hathaway had utilized one of the alternatives instead:
Punching Gudbranson in the face. While he might have still gotten a misconduct penalty, he would have avoided a match penalty and there’s a reasonable chance that he might have only gotten two minutes for roughing. Because the NHL is a league where punching someone in the face after the whistle isn’t worse than spitting at them.
Spearing Gudbranson in the groin. Hathaway could have taken his stick, looked Gudbranson straight in the face and stuck it right in the how-do-you-do. It was only two years ago that there was an “epidemic” of sticks to the store in the NHL, and the punishments ranged from misconduct penalties to NHL fines to a two-game suspension for repeat offender Brad Marchand. Because the NHL is a league where spearing someone in the groin isn’t worse than spitting at them.
Licking Gudbranson on the cheek. Hathaway’s biggest failure was projecting his saliva at the Ducks defenseman, rather than delivering it via his tongue, and slathering it on an opposing player. He could actually do that, and then do that again, and the NHL would only say it’s somewhat concerned, but would not actually levy any punishment. Even if it’s a playoff game! Because the NHL is a league where licking someone — or multiple someones — on the face isn’t worse than spitting at them.
Fake sneezing on Gudbranson. Perhaps the best course of action for Hathaway. Campbell said he’s legislated incidents in which players have spit at referees, which set a quasi-precedence for players spitting on players, one imagines. But a well-masked fake sneeze could not only deliver the payload on Gudbranson, but avoid any comparable actions. Because the NHL is a league where … well, we assume it can be hood-winked by an expertly placed fake sneeze.
The people this suspension hurts most are the ones in the Department of Player Safety. First, because most fans believe they’re the ones who hand out these kinds of suspensions, which isn’t true, as it’s not their jurisdiction.
Second, because all suspensions — boarding, stickwork, hits to the head, drugs, attacking a ref, spitting — inevitably get compared to each other, fairly or unfairly. So, going forward, the department will have to hear things like, “Oh sure, two games for an elbow to the skull but spitting gets three games?!” And that stinks.
Spitting is gross. Spitting should be discouraged. A fine would have sufficed. A three-game suspension for it, within any context, doesn’t make a lick of sense.
— Adam Forsythe (@adamforsythe) November 20, 2019
We’re all for repping your favorite game system, and frankly this is a much better decision than, say, a “PS 3” jersey. But it remains a Foul, unless it was hand-delivered by the company as a promotional tie-in for an NHL title. Frankly, we’re sad for poor Matt Luff, a.k.a. the player who has worn No. 64 for the Los Angeles Kings for 37 games over the last two seasons.
— Jay Dugan (@jaydugan) November 14, 2019
Jay is correct here. Tucking one’s sweater into their jeans is like taking an original copy of the U.S. Constitution and folding it into a bookmark: Practical, but utterly blasphemous.
Winners and Losers of the Week: Mike Babcock firing edition
Loser: Mike Babcock
Obviously. He put his reputation on the line in doing the unthinkable, i.e. being an Ontario-born free agent who came to the Toronto Maple Leafs to break the championship drought that’s festered there since 1967. He was given the largest contract ever given to an NHL coach. He was given brilliant young talent in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, as well as a two-time Hart Trophy finalist in John Tavares, who signed as a free agent. He had five years to help mold and shape this roster into something to his liking, both from a systems standpoint and a personnel standpoint. And he won eight out of 20 playoffs games, never advancing past the first round. Any coach with these expectations and these results would justifiably have his bag packed. It’s just that not many of them have the reputation and brand awareness of a Mike Babcock.
Winner: Sheldon Keefe
There are precisely five coaches hired before Keefe took over the Marlies in June 2015 that are still in their NHL jobs. Which is to say that there have been opportunities for him to make the leap to a head coaching gig while Babcock was in the midst of an eight-year contract and clogging the pipeline to the Toronto bench. But he remained in the AHL, waiting, winning and learning. And now he’s exactly where he wanted to be: Behind the bench with the Leafs, not as an interim coach, but as The Man.
Loser: Brendan Shanahan
“Seeing as I had been the one that hired Mike, I thought it was important to get on a plane and fly out here and face Mike and tell him that we made a decision together that we thought was in the best interests of our club,” said Shanahan. Babcock was Shanahan’s signature move as Leafs president, made even before he hired a general manager. That he made the announcement, and spoke on behalf of the team, made it clear: ‘I bought him into this world, and I’m taking him out.’
Winner: Kyle Dubas
The 33-year-old Maple Leafs GM has now survived two dragon battles in this Ontarian Game of Thrones. He out-maneuvered respected hockey man (and media source) Mark Hunter to become general manager of the Leafs. Now, he’s not only outlasted the Stanley Cup-winning coach with whom he reportedly clashed behind the scenes, but replaced him with a coach he’s hired twice — in the OHL with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and then while with the Leafs to run the Marlies. Kyle Dubas runs the Leafs and has his hand-picked guy behind the bench. Hail to the king, baby.
Loser: Also Kyle Dubas
Alas, heavy hangs the head that wears the crown. One undeniable aspect of Babcock’s firing is that it removes a lightning rod that collected the heat for the Leafs. If this team still can’t defend, still can’t score at a clip to overcome that defense and still looks like a group of freelancers rather than a cohesive unit under a new coach, that’s not going to fall on Sheldon Keefe. That’s going to be a verdict of “construction, not coaching” passed on Dubas, who already has a curmudgeonly contingent of the hockey media with their knives out.
Mike Babcock’s contract runs through 2023 and he is owed $23.25 million, according to TSN. The NHL’s expansion franchise in Seattle begins play in the 2021-22 season, with the expansion draft scheduled for June 2021. Perhaps after his experiences in Detroit and Toronto, Babcock would like the chance to lower the bar and take on a team with no baggage. If so, he’s got some pretty solid petty cash coming his way to bridge the next two years, if he’s willing to wait and Seattle is eager to have him.
Loser: Coaches on Nov. 20
Mike Yeo was fired on Nov. 20, 2018, by the St. Louis Blues. It helped turn their season around and they captured the Stanley Cup. Mike Babcock was fired on Nov. 20, 2019, by the Toronto Maple Leafs. If it turns their season around and they win the Stanley Cup, you might as well just start carving the date on future headstones. Here we thought the NHL being a copycat league meant teams trying to size up to the Blues; turns out it’s actually when to fire your coach.
Winner: Toronto media
The Raptors were really bringing way too much positive energy to the city. Gladly, the Leafs have decided to balance the equation, and we imagine that’s going to be really good for business.
Is anyone else a little surprised that Babcock got turfed at the start of a long road trip and without having the benefit of a healthy Marner to play with Tavares and Matthews? You know, just to see how that looked?
Winner: Mike Commodore
The former NHL defenseman has been the most vocal Babcock critic for years, after having played for him in Detroit. “I have been dreaming about this moment for years,” he said. And his reaction underscored that.
Listen To ESPN On Ice
Well, we talked a lot about the Toronto Maple Leafs and Mike Babcock … and then he got fired. So there’s that. But we also talked about blood, spitting and silly hockey media controversies, and checked in with former Ranger and Lightning defenseman — and current podcaster — Dan Girardi about a great many things. Listen to it here.
Alex Ovechkin, watch model.
The Icehogs react to the sudden departure of captain Kris Versteeg. “For him to leave like that… I mean he’s got to do what he’s got to do. It’s just part of the game. It sucks that it happened, but that’s the way it goes.”
Michigan is challenging Minnesota’s high school hockey hair supremacy.
No more Canadian hockey midgets, going forward.
Steve Dangle on the firing of Mike Babcock. He’s not dancing on his grave. Just sort of shuffling optimistically.
Zach Kassian on being, like, a hockey player. “I’ve done the fighting, I’ve done the whole (tough guy) aspect,” Kassian explained. “Now, I’m playing hockey. If something happens on the ice, I don’t mind (fighting). But I’m not just fighting for no reason now.”
Looking back at the nightmare free-agent class of 2016. “It’s a lesson that the league should remember for a long time, if only because it’s going to take years more for the clock to finally run out on these nightmare contracts.”
Another women’s player says the quiet part loudly about the NWHL. “What’s happening right now can’t go on forever,” said former player and PWPHA consultant Chelsea Purcell. “The NWHL doesn’t look like it’s going to fold and that’s the worrisome part. If the NHL never steps up then we need to find a different route and what that is and who is leading that I don’t even know”
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
Inside the NHL officials combine. “The best golfer in the world is the one that recovers the quickest from the bad shot. … In hockey, you make mistakes, and you recover quickly. You need that mindset as a ref.”
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Mike Babcock has been fired. What comes next?