NHL Systems, NHL History, and Forward vs. Defense Shooting

Photo by “ravenswing” via Wikimedia Commons

“It’s a matter of systems,” “They don’t have a good system,” “There is no system there”…we hear phrases much like this frequently, and I wonder just how much weight we give the word “system” in a game that flows and relies on instinct and reflex. Teams have some kind of system, no doubt, but it’s funny how the actions of any kind of system pale in comparison to the number of times we notice the classic breakout, setting up of the zone, or cycle. What I’m trying to say is, might we be putting too much emphasis on system, when the results are not clearly resulting in different shot quality? Might we be overstating the role of something practiced for a couple of months, maybe a year or two, versus 15-30 years of playing experience, and all the instincts, common tactics, and reflexes?

In my mind, systems are important in-and-of themselves, because their organization principles are intuitive. Cover the man or take away the passing lanes, apply forecheck pressure or trap in the neutral zone…these base ideas probably need to be there to keep things from devolving into pickup hockey. And you all know that game, where everyone’s a superstar forward and nobody backchecks. Seriously, no wonder you guys can’t ever find two goalies.

Anyway, with my current treasure trove of game-by-game, player-by-player data going back to 1987-88 (thanks to Hockey Reference’s excellent Play Index), I wanted to see just how much the game has evolved since the late 1980s, particularly in regards to defensemen involvement in the offense. We already know that the difference in shots-for per team, per game is 30.4 in 1987-88 to 29.1, so not a heck of a lot has changed in shot generation, and the goals/game per team has changed drastically, from 3.71 in ’87-’88 to 2.75 today. This information alone should suggest we probably haven’t improved too much in regards to what we might call offensive systems. Has defensemen involvement increased, and driven the scoring down? Have teams attempted more forward involvement to improve scoring? Will Guy Boucher ever convince us he has the key to better offense again?

I took data from about 30,000 individual player performances in 1987-88 and about 26,000 in 2012-13; I compared the player’s shot totals to their team totals in those games and derived my %TSh, or percentage of team shots metric, previously used in my piece on Career Charting.

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