At the midpoint of this season, space on this web site detailed a statistically significant drop in college hockey scoring over the last dozen years. The decline lessened somewhat in the second half of the season, but not by much — certainly not enough to stop asking the question, “What’s happening and why?”
The decline is nearly two goals per game from when scorers were the most potent. In one conference, the CCHA, the drop is nearly three goals a game — a 32 percent decline.
A discussion of the issue with coaches on hand for the NCAA championships in Boston this week leaves one with this clear impression: there is no single reason for the lower number of goals scored. Opinions range from improved coaching to an increase of unpenalized interference.
The U.S. College Hockey Online analysis covers results of over nine thousand Division I games starting in 1986-87. In that season, an average of 8.34 goals were scored per game. Three seasons later, college teams hit the high-water mark for the period under study — 8.55 goals per game. Heading into championship week, the average for the 1997-98 season hit a low of 6.67 goals per game, 1.88 goals less than the high of 1989-90.
Each of the four major conferences have experienced declines. The CCHA has seen the biggest drop, 2.96 per game, while the Hockey East Association has been affected the least, 1.64. The table below shows average number of goals scored in regular-season conference games. (Exhibitions and games against non-Division I teams are excluded.) Conferences are listed according the to the size of the decline.
High Goals This
Conference Season Per Game Season Decline
---------- -------- -------- ------ -------
CCHA 1986-87 9.18 6.22 2.96
WCHA 1989-90 9.16 6.75 2.14
ECAC 1990-91 8.22 6.27 1.95
HEA 1987-88 8.81 7.17 1.64
The results aren’t taking coaches by surprise. Earlier this season, Northern Michigan’s Rick Comley told USCHO, “The scorers aren’t out there.”
And he wasn’t referring only to college hockey. “Wherever we recruit, we aren’t finding scorers like we used to.”
Wisconsin’s Jeff Sauer, who began coaching at Colorado College in 1971, agrees. “At the college level the pure goal scorer may not be available to us like they were a few years ago,” he said. “I don’t see a Tony Granato, I don’t see a Tony Hrkac, I don’t see that level of player in the WCHA.”
Improved coaching and defensive strategies are also seen as significant factors. Notre Dame assistant coach Andy Slaggert didn’t hesitate when asked for a reason.
Although his response was not unlike Mr. Robinson’s famous “Plastics” declaration to Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ben Braddock, in The Graduate, Slaggert’s rationale is more substantial.
“A lot of time is spent analyzing other teams’ video. Penalty killing is much better.”
The notion that defensive strategies are in vogue is supported by a number of coaches.
According to Sauer, “The lack of scoring ability has a lot to do with individual skills but also with the defensive systems. More coaches have gone to the defensive strategy of the game, the trap system, trying to limit the number of offensive opportunities of the opposing teams.
“It seems to be an easier way to coach, easier way when you’re not maybe not quite as talented a team, to close down a more talented team by playing a more stringent and strict defensive system.”
Easier, perhaps, but tight defense may also have become an art form.
“In the last ten years teams have been better defensively,” says Western Michigan’s Bill Wilkinson, a member of the NCAA Ice Hockey Committee. “Coaches emphasize defense and goaltending.”
Don Lucia told Colorado College fans at a recent pregame luncheon that part of the answer lies with improved goaltending and goaltending equipment. He guesses an additional 30 percent of the goal is covered by bigger gloves, wider and longer pads and taller goalies.
The most-used defensive strategy is the 1-2-2 checking system, in which a team will send one forward into the offensive zone to bottle up an opponent and force a turnover. Meanwhile, the other two forwards and two defensemen remain back. When the system works, says Wilkinson, “it doesn’t let teams in.”
Wilkinson recalled an old but durable hockey adage: “You coach defense and recruit offense.” And he should know. His Broncos had three 40-goal scorers in the mid-80s (Rob Bryden, 46, 1986-87; Stuart Burnie, 43, and Dan Dorion, 42, both in 1985-86).
The issue is one that has not escaped Boston University’s Jack Parker. His conclusion, perhaps, can be summarized in a familiar hockey phrase — clutch-and-grab.
“From the National Hockey League down to high schools, skill is being taken out of the games,” said Parker, whose 16 NCAA tournament appearances place him second on the all-time list.
It’s a topic he has addressed often for several years. In fact, he has spoken out many times.
There are two major factors, he says. “They’re allowing interference to take place more often and skilled players are being negated very easily.” Part and parcel to that, “we’re developing less skilled players.”
“How good would (Michael) Jordan be if every time he shot, somebody did this?” and he clutched the arm of a reporter and applied downward pressure.
He described the situation as “absurd.”
About whether coaches are talking up the issue with rulemakers and referees in an effort to change it, Parker says, “It’s always a point of emphasis.”