Calling more penalties won't fix NHL's scoring issue

More whistles won't fix the real problem with scoring in the NHL. Len Redkoles/NHLI/Getty Images

As the debate over bigger nets rages on, one suggestion for increasing scoring seems to be gaining traction with a good percentage of hockey fans: Why can't the NHL just bring back the crackdown against clutch-and-grab hockey that worked so well in the aftermath of the 2005 lockout?

It's easy to see the appeal. Ordering the referees to simply call the game more strictly avoids the significant rule changes that so many fans are apparently desperate to avoid. And when it was last tried in 2005-06, it really did seem to work: scoring jumped by a full goal per game over the previous season, and that season remains the only one since 1995-96 in which league scoring averaged better than six goals per game.

Those numbers point to what seems like an obvious conclusion: When the refs cracked down on obstruction, the game opened up and scoring soared. As officials loosened up, however, the clutch-and-grab style crept back into the game and scoring eventually plummeted back to dead puck era levels. So if you want more goals, there's your answer: Tell the refs to get strict again. Simple, right?

It would be nice if it were that easy, but there are two problems with going back to the 2005-06 approach. The first is that the post-lockout crackdown didn't actually open up the game as much as you'd think -- despite the nice boost overall, even-strength scoring didn't increase significantly. The jump in goals per game was due almost entirely to a massive increase in power plays. At even strength, the great obstruction crackdown hardly moved the needle at all.

It's true that a power-play goal is still a goal and an offensive boost built almost entirely on special teams is still a boost. But the NHL needs to increase scoring across all situations or risk training fans to simply wait for power plays while tuning out during the vast majority of the game played at even strength. (For the same reason, changes such as banning icing on power plays or making penalties last the full two minutes even if a goal is scored just end up being Band-Aids on the bigger problem.)

So that's strike one against the "just call the rulebook" movement, but there's a bigger flaw with the argument. It relies on the assumption that the faster, more open style of play in 2005 was only temporary and that players went right back to clutching and grabbing with impunity once the referees lost their nerve. That's simply not true.

In fact, it's hard to overstate this: The clutch-and-grab style that had become common in the NHL over recent decades bears almost no resemblance to the game we know today. This seems to be news to some hockey fans, presumably the ones who are relatively new to the game, or at least have bad memories. So maybe a quick refresher is in order. Go back and watch footage from virtually any game played from 1995 through 2005 and count the flagrant hooks, holds and outright open-field tackles that go uncalled -- and not just uncalled, but all but completely unnoticed, no more noteworthy than a dump-in or drop pass.

For example, let's travel back to 1998. Here's the first goal of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final between the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings.

Steve Yzerman breaks into the Washington zone and bears down on Olaf Kolzig, at which point Esa Tikkanen just wraps both arms around him and tackles him. There's no call, the puck comes loose and Tomas Holmstrom is able to bang it home just before Todd Krygier arrives to tackle him. When the puck goes in, Tikkanen is still sitting on top of Yzerman. Hey, finish your check right?

That's the clip's most blatant example, but feel free to stick around for more carnage. Watch all the hooking Darren McCarthy has to fight through to get to the net at 1:15. Watch a Capital get pitchforked before he can shoot at 1:50. Watch Dale Hunter come back and help out on an odd-man rush with an obvious hook at 3:05. And this is a highlights package! Imagine what the boring plays looked like.

Here's another example, one pointed out by a reader during a Twitter discussion last week. It's from a 2000 playoff game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators.

Skip ahead to about the 0:45 mark, and let's start counting obvious penalties that go uncalled. There's Wendel Clark, casually hooking a Senator to the ice to create a scoring chance that nearly ends the game. After the save, there's a Senators defenseman casually reaching out and grabbing an attacking player by the back of the jersey and bear-hugging him into the corner. There's Darcy Tucker getting punched in the face after a scoring chance (and selling it like crazy). There's a Leafs blueliner tackling a Senator chasing a rebound. There's a Leafs rusher shrugging off a hack to the wrists. And that's not even counting all the garden-variety hooks and holds that are happening throughout, often far away from the puck.

And, sure, that action comes from overtime, when referees typically put the whistles away. Maybe some of those same fouls don't get called today, but at least you'd be screaming at your TV about them. Back in 2000, we didn't even notice them. Nobody complained about any missed calls from games like this. That's just what hockey looked like.

We could do this all day. Here's Peter Forsberg dragging Igor Larianov down the ice for a goal. Here's the Sabres trying to contain Eric Lindros by doing everything short of driving the Zamboni over him. And, lest we make this sound like a purely NHL-based phenomenon, let's remember that the only goal in the gold-medal game at the 1998 Nagano Olympics was made possible by some almost-comical interference off the faceoff.

You get the point. And while we associate those clutch-and-grab tactics with the neutral zone trap that took over the game in the mid-90s, they were hardly a new innovation. Even in the high-flying days of the 1980s and early 90s, the NHL's product often looked more like a rodeo than a hockey game.

That was especially true if you were a superstar such as Mario Lemieux, who spent most of his career wearing opponents like a backpack. Remember this memorable goal against the Nordiques?

The play looks ridiculous by today's standard, but back then, it wasn't all that unusual to see a defenseman simply try to water ski down the ice behind a forward who'd beaten him. (And let's also take a moment to recognize the obvious interference that goes uncalled in the background.) And that was on a clear breakaway. When things slowed down in the offensive zone, it wasn't unusual to see a defensive forward playing the role of "shadow," which typically meant following a star player around while tugging on a handful of his jersey and completely ignoring the puck.

It was exactly the sort of thing that inspired Lemieux to famously refer to the NHL as a "garage league" and refuse to promote the game, and back then plenty of fans thought he was being a big baby. This was just how hockey was played, and stars were expected to simply fight through it.

Yes, we still see missed calls in today's game, but none of it approaches the sort of stuff we saw every night for the better part of three decades. The NHL has taken plenty of heat over the years for various offense-boosting initiatives that had little or no impact, and rightly so. But in this case, they got it right. Clutch-and-grab is dead, and the NHL killed it by simply calling the rulebook.

And maybe that's not a good thing. For years, fans complained that clutch-and-grab hockey was behind the decline in goals, and it's vaguely depressing to see that largely eliminating it barely made a difference. It turns out that fans of goal scoring have bigger problems. The goalies are just too big and too good, the defensive systems too well implemented, the shot-blocking too common and, yes, maybe the nets are even too small. As it turns out, the league's offensive problems run much deeper than simply calling the rulebook.

But whatever else it's become, the NHL's days of being a garage league are long gone. The great obstruction crackdown of 2005-06 worked. It really did change the way the game was played, and that change has largely stuck. That means that if we want more goals, we'll have to look beyond the existing rulebook this time.