Could long NHL layoff lead to higher scoring playoff hockey?

David Amber checks in with Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston for the latest details on the NHL's Return to Play timeline. Plus, are Canadian cities still in the running to host NHL games?

If the NHL is able to resume this summer it’ll do so with a 24-team playoff format that includes a 16-team “play-in round” before the standard 16-team Stanley Cup Playoffs get going. Whenever that begins, we wonder what we’re in for here.

The NHL has been on hiatus since March 12, and any resumption is unlikely to begin before late July at the earliest, so we’re talking about at least a four month layoff for every NHL player, which is longer than an off-season would usually be for teams that made the second round of the playoffs.

With social distancing guidelines mandated by the league that includes harsh limits on practice, players won’t be able to even get back on the ice with their whole teams until Phase 3, which won’t happen before July 10. There will be a brief training camp before play starts again, but even with that it’s likely some players won’t return at their peak. This season should bring a big disparity in the type of play we see in these playoffs compared to what we’ve come to expect from playoff hockey.

The impact coaches can have will likely be lessened short term, players’ timing will be off, and teams will likely seek to keep things simple in order to avoid playing messy hockey while everyone gets into form.

So, what does that mean? Typically, October is the highest scoring month of the season in the NHL, with goaltenders settling into their grooves and defensive systems not yet perfected. The game is more chaotic, with more penalties called and more goals scored. That is usually followed by November being the lowest scoring month, as teams crack down on their sloppy October play and goaltenders snap into form after seeing more shots.

That has been the norm for a long time, but the past two seasons don’t fit that description at all for some reason. Looking at recent history first, how does scoring change over the course of a season, and what can we expect in this 24-team playoff given what we know?

Averaging out the past three seasons, this is how scoring varies month-by-month in the NHL on a per-game basis:

If the month over month change seems a little underwhelming, you aren’t wrong, but variability gets smoothed out when you’re putting together a whole league’s worth of data over three seasons.

With that said, there is a pretty big change from the highest scoring month in October, to the lowest scoring month over the past three seasons in March. Between two teams, goals per game drop by about 0.38 overall. Things shoot back up in April, however that is mostly due to an outlier in 2017-18 when April was the highest scoring month — and no hockey was played in April this season to balance it out.

Scoring is relatively steady from November through February as the league settles into its normal, and as the playoffs get closer there appears to be a crackdown where games are tighter.

Without data for what would have been the last month of this season — where defences get more focused and scoring drops — are we in for a high-flying, crazy post-season?

It’s definitely a possibility, but one x-factor in all this is special teams, which is why I separated all other situations out from 5-vs-5 in the graph.

Strangely enough, while scoring overall is a bit more random but steady during the season, scoring on special teams drops every single month. In an average NHL season, we see 2.21 special teams goals per game in October, and that drops every month until we get to an average of 1.78 goals per game in April. Remember that the biggest gap in goals per game overall between the highest scoring month was just 0.38 goals, but in special teams that gap grows to 0.43 goals, and there’s fewer of them to begin with.

Over the course of the season, goals on special teams drop by 19 per cent as we get closer to the playoffs, which is likely why strong 5-vs-5 teams tend to do better as the season goes on. But this introduces a lot of uncertainty in predicting how goal scoring will trend.

There are certainly some adjustments teams make on special teams throughout the season that favour the defensive side and decrease goals, but I think we all know that the referees’ whistles tend to be put away more and more as the season drags on, and especially in the playoffs.

The question then becomes, are we going to see a playoff season where there’s more whistles than usual, where teams that focus on their power play are rewarded, and where there’s more scoring to be had? Or are we going to see messy hockey where the officials swallow the whistles anyway, which could lead to even lower scoring playoff hockey than usual?

At the beginning of the season, the league usually has some directives where officials are trying to lay down the law and get players to adhere to new initiatives, like the crackdown on slashing a couple years ago. In the playoffs, I’m not sure there’s much of a chance of this happening. The high stakes nature of the post-season will lead to the league’s flawed approach of ‘let them play’, which often just means ‘let them cheat the rulebook.’

Also consider that in three of the past four seasons the NHL has averaged less than six power play opportunities per game between two competing teams – the only three times that’s happened since that metric started being recorded in 1963-64. The past two seasons have seen fewer penalties called per game than at any point since that ‘63-64 season.

As a result, those hoping for some high-scoring hockey and an early-season-like crackdown on infractions, shouldn’t be too optimistic about it. Out-of-practice goalies are probably going to be the main reason we might see a jump in scoring – if we see one at all.

As much is things might be messy after so little practice and such a long layoff, these professional athletes have been better and better in recent years at starting off a season like it’s already the middle of the year. And the added incentive of returning to playoffs instead of an October regular season makes it even more likely players will be laser-focused and in-tune with the defensive side.

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