While researching long-term NHL trends for another project, I stumbled upon some pretty startling numbers regarding power plays.
I hadn’t realized this, but 2013-14 will almost certainly be the fifth straight season in which NHL teams average fewer than four power-play opportunities per game. You have to go back to 1965-75 to find a similar run of stinginess from the referees, after which the penalty pendulum swung in the opposite direction.
Starting with 1980-81, the average number of power-play chances per team was over four per game in 27 of 28 seasons. That span included a streak of 25 in a row before ending in 2009-10.
Those numbers don’t necessarily indicate anything meaningful on their own, but they help summarize the direction the league has been heading. Since the NHL revamped its rules enforcement in 2005-06, leading to an all-time high of 5.85 power plays per team, the course correction has been swift.
That number immediately dropped to 4.85 in 2006-07, then steadily on down to a low of 3.31 in 2011-12. This season’s rate is 3.33, so there’s still an opportunity to inch closer to the expansion-era nadir of 3.18 set in 1977-78.
It would be one thing if players have cleaned up their games and aren’t fouling the opposition as often as they used to. I’ve often tried to convince myself of that, but while it may be a factor, a survey of recent NHL action would tell you that it’s more a case of officials refusing to issue penalties.
Monday’s game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators epitomized the league’s increasingly severe power play allergy. The two teams combined for five advantages, although one could easily identify several more fouls that were ignored. Uncalled interference was especially egregious in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 overtime win, with players holding up and generally obstructing the path of opponents all over the ice.
The Penguins were outspoken about the lax officiating both during and after the game, and they should continue to lobby for more penalties. Not only does Pittsburgh boast the league’s top power-play conversion rate at 24.9 percent, but high-end talents like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal thrive on the space that deterring obstruction would create.
With a 17-point lead in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins (39-15-2, 80 points) aren’t in urgent need of victories right now. But they will be come playoff time, where the officiating traditionally becomes more tolerant of infractions, not less.
While the Chicago Blackhawks have shown that speed and skill can still win in a more restricted era, the current trend in NHL game-calling gives luck a greater influence in dictating outcomes. Objectively speaking, that’s a bad sign for a league that needs to continue putting its best talent on display.
Through its actions over the past several years, from eliminating the two-line pass to making the nets shallower, the NHL has shown it wants to increase offense. I maintain the easiest way to do that isn’t via big changes, but by simply calling the rules as written.