Saturday, 26 May 2018

The Most Important Rule?

There's a general belief in hockey that coaching leads to better defensive systems before offensive systems evolve to counteract the effects of these better defensive systems. As defensive systems evolve, there is usually a drop in scoring before the offensive systems catch up to where the defensive systems are. Occasionally, however, the NHL will push through a rule that changes the environment, and the introduction of one rule changed the NHL in a remarkable way in 1929.

From 1926 until 1929, NHL goaltenders were nearly unbeatable with fifteen goalies posting eleven shutouts or more in the 44-game NHL season. To give you a comparison, the last time an NHL goaltender hit eleven shutouts in a modern season was in 2010-11 when Henrik Lundqvist completed the trick in an 82-game season. Needless to say, something had to change if the NHL wanted to increase scoring and lose its growing reputation of being closer to soccer than high-scoring hockey.

The NHL made the change in 1927 to allow forward passing. Prior to the 1927-28 season, passes could only go laterally or behind a player, making any sort of offensive push virtually impossible and allowing NHL defences a chance to stand stoutly at their blue lines to deny the oncoming attackers. But starting in 1927, the NHL allowed players to make forward passes in the defensive and neutral zones to help create some additional offensive chances.

The only problem? It didn't work.

In 1928-29, George Hainsworth pitched an NHL single-season record of 22 shutouts in one 44-game season - one every second game on average - and scoring still remained low across the board. Teams averaged just 64 goals in the 1928-29 season, and the rather-awful Chicago Black Hawks scored a league-low 33 goals out of the ten teams. The NHL saw 120 shutouts in the 220 games played in the NHL that season, so clearly this forward passing in two of the three zones didn't do what was intended when it came to finding scoring.

The NHL decided in the off-season to implement and allow the forward pass in all three zones, but players were not allowed to precede the play when entering the opposition's defensive zone. Basically, the NHL wrote its own offside rule to prevent players from camping out in the offensive zone. The only question was would this change to the rule to allow forward passes in the offensive zone accomplish what the league wanted in getting more scoring?

In one word? Yes!

The 1929-30 season saw an explosion of goal scoring the likes of which the league had never experienced before! For the first time in the NHL's history, all ten teams broke the 100-goal mark on the season with the Boston Bruins hitting a high of 179 while the Pittsburgh Pirates squeaked across the line with a league-low 102 goals. Nevertheless, goals came far more frequently as NHL teams averaged 2.92 goals-per-game in the previous season compared to an incredible 5.81 goals-per-game in 1929-30!

Boston was the far-and-away best team in the NHL in 1929-30 as they compiled a 38-5-1 record, setting new records for wins in a season, winning percentage, and most consecutive wins on home ice with 20. Ralph "Cooney" Weiland smashed the scoring records in the NHL when he potted 43 goals and 73 points - a huge leap from the previous season's best scoring marks set by Toronto's Ace Bailey with 22 goals and 32 points. Bailey's total, while respectable, would have seen him finish 22nd in scoring in 1929-30. Just as an additional bonus statistic, Toronto's Lorne Chabot led the league in shutouts in 1929-30 with six. No other netminder had more than four blank sheets.

It's hard to believe that it took the NHL 13 seasons to implement the forward pass, and it might be the one rule that altered the game like no other. Yes, the NHL allowed goaltenders to drop to their knees and reduced the number of skaters from seven to six in previous seasons, but the forward pass is so vitally crucial to how the game is played that it remains the most significant rule change in NHL history in this writer's view.

After all, we may never have seen the scoring exploits of Richard, Howe, Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, Ovechkin, or McDavid without the puck being passed forward. It's hard to imagine what the game would look like without that rule!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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