The hockey world has spent the past few weeks discussing the NHL's scoring rates, and what (if anything) the league should be doing about them. I've covered the topic from a few different angles, and each time I do I get a big dose of feedback from readers. Some are pining for the high-scoring days of the 1980s and '90s. Others aren't sure there's really much of a problem at all. And almost everyone has an idea about what's behind the league's two-decade drop in scoring.
The usual suspects show up often: The goalies are too big and too good; their equipment is out of control; defensive systems are too well-coached; the rulebook isn't enforced properly; the rinks are too small; and the loser point has left everyone playing for the tie.
But there's another culprit that comes up surprisingly often, so much so that it's easily one of the most common I hear from fans: talent dilution. There are too many teams and not enough players.
The argument goes something like this: If you want to know why scoring rates started to plunge in the early '90s, look at what else changed in the game around the same time. In 1991, when scoring was high, the NHL had 21 teams. It added five more over the next three years, and another four more by 2000. That's a 42 percent increase in teams, and roster spots, in less than a decade.
All that expansion, the thinking goes, might well have added new fans and increased the league's reach, not to mention its revenue. But it also watered down the talent level, to the point that hundreds of players who wouldn't have made the cut in a 21-team NHL were suddenly holding down big-league jobs. Those guys weren't as skilled, so of course we saw a drop in goals. Each team had fewer guys who could score them. And further expansion will only make things worse -- if anything, we could use a good round of contraction.
It's a convincing argument. And it's a timely one, as the NHL continues to tiptoe down the path to adding new teams. If the talent dilution theory is true, the scoring situation might be about to get even worse.
Luckily for us, it's not true. Talent dilution isn't behind the scoring drop. And here's why.
Supply and demand
The NHL grew to 21 teams in 1979 (although it wasn't a true expansion; the league absorbed four teams from the WHA). Let's look back at what the league's makeup was like back then.
By the start of the 1980s, the NHL was almost exclusively a North American league in terms of player nationality, and you wouldn't have been far off if you had just called it a Canadian league and been done with it. Canada provided 84.1 percent of the league's players. The United States provided another 10.4 percent. Just 5.5 percent of the league came from Europe and beyond, almost all of that from Sweden.
In the years since, two crucial things have happened. The first is that the gateway to Europe opened up, with players from Russia, Finland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere flooding into the league.
The second is that the U.S. development program improved by leaps and bounds. The country now provides almost a quarter of the league, and by some accounts has more players in minor hockey than any other country in the world, including its neighbor to the north.
Speaking of Canada, it now supplies just under 50 percent of the league's players. Do the math, and there are fewer Canadians holding down jobs in the "diluted" NHL today than there were in 1980. Did Canada get worse at developing hockey players? Maybe. Hockey is no longer the country's clear No. 1 sport in terms of participation rates. But even then, those rates are largely flat. It seems unlikely that the country has seen its population increase from 25 million in 1980 to 35 million today yet is somehow producing fewer hockey players. And if the results of the past few Olympics are any indication, it sure isn't producing worse ones.
A far more likely scenario: Canada is producing just as many NHL-caliber players as ever, maybe even more. Those players just aren't finding as many jobs because they're competing with players from all over the world. In other words, the NHL hasn't seen its talent pool diluted at all. Quite the opposite, actually. There's more talent available from around the world than ever. (And that's not even factoring in the disappearance of the one-dimensional enforcer who used to take up a roster spot or two on every team.)
But maybe you don't buy that. Maybe you don't care about what the numbers says; your eyes are telling you that the league is watered down. There's still a major flaw with the dilution argument: A lower leaguewide talent level should lead to more scoring, not less.
The bad old days
Before the 1990s, the NHL had already undergone one major era in which dilution really should have been noticeable. That began in 1967, when the league underwent its first expansion and went from six teams to 12. Overnight, the number of available NHL jobs doubled, without any corresponding increase in available players from around the world.
Before the impact of that move had a chance to stabilize, the WHA appeared and (eventually) began competing with the NHL for the best talent. Combined with ongoing NHL expansion that saw the league add two teams each in 1970, 1972 and 1974, the number of available jobs for top players skyrocketed. It's hard to express how large a sea change this was for the league. In 1967, there were six big-league pro hockey teams, and by the mid-'70s, there were over 30. Now that's talent dilution.
So what happened? Did scoring rates plummet thanks to the presence of hundreds of players who should have been toiling in the minor leagues?
Not at all. In fact, the 1970s saw a boom in scoring that continued through the '80s. In the last year of the six-team NHL, the league averaged just under six goals per game. By 1975, that number was almost seven. By 1982, it hit an all-time high of just above eight.
That doesn't mean the scoring boom happened because of expansion. But if dilution really does lead to lower-scoring hockey, we should have seen it throughout the '70s. Instead, we saw the opposite.
We also saw most of the league's individual scoring records shattered. And if you think it through, that actually makes sense.
The best of the best
For the sake of argument, let's ignore the influx of new talent that has become available over the years and pretend that the world keeps producing the same amount of hockey players and that the NHL really is diluted because of that.
You'd expect the number of truly elite players to stay relatively constant; the hockey world will always produce the occasional Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. But all those extra jobs are being filled by players further down the curve -- guys who wouldn't be in the league if it were smaller.
Logically, wouldn't it make sense that the elite guys would have an easier time against this watered-down competition? The superstars are going to be just as talented as they've always been, but now they're getting some of their shifts against minor-league-caliber skaters, and some of their games against minor-league-caliber goalies.
We still might see scoring drop leaguewide because maybe all those should-be-minor-leaguers can't score at the NHL level, and teams are filling their third and fourth lines with guys who can't crack 10 goals. But in a diluted league, the true stars should excel. The more watered down the league becomes, the bigger the gap that should open up between the elite players and the also-rans. It should be easy pickings for the best of the best.
And again, that's largely what happened in the '70s and '80s, when players such as Bobby Orr and Gretzky started putting up numbers we'd never imagined would even be possible. But what about now? We don't see that sort of impact at all -- once again, it's the opposite. Last season, we saw the Art Ross Trophy go to an 87-point scorer. The gap between the stars and the average Joes is getting smaller, not wider.
Adding it all up
The hockey world is supplying more talent than ever. We're not seeing the kind of offensive explosion that marked previous expansion eras. And the gap between the league's best and worst isn't growing, it's narrowing.
Add it all up and the conclusion seems clear: The league might be bigger than ever, but the league's talent pool hasn't been diluted at all. In fact, today's NHL probably features too much talent and not enough jobs. Expansion might or might not be a wise move from a business perspective; time will tell whether markets such as Las Vegas and Seattle can support NHL teams, and there might be good arguments against expanding now.
But talent dilution isn't one of them. And as for that pesky scoring drought, it's a problem with myriad causes, none especially easy to address. But if you want to see more goals, another team or two (or more) might be exactly what the league needs.