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Saturday 28 May 2016

The NHL is half as good as it should be.

The soul of the National Hockey League feels like it's gone.

1. Every 8 years or so, at least half, sometimes a whole season is simply lost because of labor dispute. The backbone of sport is ritual and tradition, and a ritual adhered to only sometimes is just a habit.

2. Teams are playing to tie instead of to win, as demonstrated by fivethirtyeight, and later in greater detail in a paper I'm writing with Paramjit Gill. Half a win is awarded to any team that loses in overtime, and this incentivizes some very risk-averse behaviour late in games. Despite other changes to overtime including
- the introduction of a shootout,
- 4-on-4 overtime play, and later
- 3-on-3 overtime play, the overtime bonus point has persisted.

3. Some teams are hopeless year-after-year failures. In the past, expansion teams have had one or two terrible seasons while they get established, but no team has that excuse now.  There are several 'rubber band' mechanics in play to pull the level of competitiveness of teams closer together over time.
- There is an upper limit on the total salaries that can be paid to players, and many teams are at this limit.
- Top-earning teams subsidize other teams.
- Teams that rank at the bottom in one season are given first pick of players in next year's draft.

The overtime bonus is itself a form of rubber-banding because a team can still earn season points by losing, and if the game goes to a shoot-out, then the game is effectively a coin toss regardless of team strength.

In spite of all these mechanics to prop up teams after a bad season, there are some have been hopeless for a decade. Looking at you, Oilers.

My guess is that isn't enough talent coming from second-tier 'feeder' leagues (WHL, OHL, QMJHL, AHL, and the European leagues) to properly fill 30 NHL teams anymore. In turn, these feeder leagues are working from a diminished talent pool because of demographic changes; compared to 15 years ago, there are fewer children being born in hockey-playing countries, and their parents are poorer and less able to enroll these children in organized hockey.

Here are my suggestions to improve the state of professional hockey.

1. Remove (at least) two teams from the league.

As a Canadian, my inclination would be to remove the Arizona Coyotes and the Columbus Blue Jackets because of their tiny home fanbases and financial troubles. Realistically, the Edmonton Oilers should go, simply for being the worst.

With 28 teams, all four divisions could have 7 teams, and the talent would be spread 7% less thinly. Cutting out a couple teams might be enough deterrent to 'diving', an alleged practice where bottom-tier teams intentionally lose games to improve their draft prospects for the next season.

2. Optimize the talent pool.

The first chapter of the book Outliers points out the phenomenon where boys born in the first 3 months of the year are overwhelmingly more likely to make a career out of hockey. The explanation given for this was that, as a fluke of the age cutoff system for children's leagues, these children of January are the oldest of their 4-6 year old peers on the ice. Since they are the best players in their leagues, they get filtered into more competitive leagues with better support. To my knowledge, Hockey Canada still uses this cutoff system.

Players that were both late in the year that may have been NHL material instead never reach their potential because they were outclassed and looked over when they were very young. Fairness aside, if early age cutoffs were done at 6-month intervals instead of 1-year intervals, we could see more players at their potential.

We wouldn't notice the difference for a generation, but it would offset future demographic changes.

3. Increase support for women's hockey.

At the moment there are only a handful of competitive teams in women's hockey in Canada, so the developed talent pool can't be exceedingly large. Even then, the Canadian and US teams were so much better than teams from other countries that the IOC was considering removing women's hokcey from the olympics because it wasn't competitive enough. Things are improving, as Finland has been showing strength in recent competitions. If we want more high quality hockey, maybe it's time to look elsewhere.


  1. I really liked that you added women's hockey at the end, but how will this improve the NHL? Are you suggesting females play in that league? That would be a considerably difficult sell, considering the physical differences between men and women.

    1. No, I was unclear with that last point. My thoughts were more about improving the state of televised hockey in general by developing women's hockey more. I don't think co-ed pro hockey teams are a good idea for the reasons you mentioned.