Parity is something that the major sports leagues in North America all strive for. Conventional wisdom suggests that a league with parity is a good thing.
And that does make sense. Nobody wants their team to be out of contention of a playoff spot by the midpoint of the season. That isn’t good for TV ratings and it isn’t good for keeping the fans attention in a sporting market that has a lot of competition.
But what doesn’t get talked about often is how parity affects the actual gameplay.
In the NHL you could make the argument that we have as much parity as ever before in the modern era. There are a few reasons for this. The obvious one is the salary cap. According to the owners one of the main goals of the salary cap was to create a level playing field for all teams. A league where the rich teams can’t just outspend and therefore consistently outperform the smaller markets. So far the salary cap seems to have helped achieve this.
But there’s another big factor in the league today that contributes to parity that gets ignored. The three point system. That is the system that awards an extra point to a team that loses in overtime or shootout. This system creates a form of artificially parity.
Typically if you were to recreate the standings with the extra points removed, and simply awarded 2 points for a win and 0 points for a loss, you would see a bigger disparity in the standings. The three point system bunches teams together.
The reason it could be described as an “artificial” parity is that it can make it appear like teams are closer to a playoff spot than they really are. Regardless of how closely bunched the teams are in the standings 12th place is still 12th place. 10th place is still 10th place.
When talking about the playoff race we typically only talk about how many points back a team is. But with eight teams making the playoffs there is a huge difference between being five points out of a playoff spot and being in 12th place or being five points out of a playoff spot and being in 9th place. Although both teams may only be five points back, the 12th place team has to outplay four teams to jump into 8th. That’s a huge longshot. Meanwhile the 9th place team only has to outplay one team which is much more possible.
So what does any of this have to do with hockey in the 1980’s?
We all know that hockey in 1980’s was much more wide open than it is today. There was a lot more scoring and it was a style that is often described as run and gun. There are lots of theories as to why this was but something that never gets talked about is how the playoffs worked.
Back then there were five teams in each division and all of them made the playoffs except one. As long as you didn’t finish in last place, you made the playoffs. There were 21 teams in the league and 16 of them made the playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs in 1988 with the second worst record in hockey 21-49-10. Try to wrap your head around that for a second.
How does that affect the on-ice product? Well for one it’s pretty clear that if you lose a game in a system like that it’s not really a big deal- you’re probably still going to make the playoffs. Some of the games were like glorified exhibition games. There certainly was not as much accountability.
Compare that to the league today. The teams are bunched so closely in the standings that a single bad week could knock a team down four spots in the standings and out of a playoff spot. Everything is magnified.
The theory of loss aversion suggests that people’s tendencies is to strongly prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains. It has been suggested that losses suffered are twice as powerful psychologically as gains achieved.
What this means is that teams often don’t play to win- they’re playing not to lose. It’s human nature.
Coaches and management are not nearly rewarded as much for winning as they are for not losing. This manifests itself into the ultra conservative style of game that we see being played right now. Run and gun today hockey gets coaches fired.
In the 80’s if you lost a game- no big deal. Probably didn’t put a dent into your playoff hopes. Today if you lose a game two teams might jump you in the standings.
So much is at stake with each loss that a players mistakes are magnified. Think of a game where a player scores a goal but then later commits a bad turnover that leads to a goal. The end result is essentially the same but what do you think will be talked about more the next day on all the radio shows and internet forums? The goal or the turnover?
This mentality partly explains why when the Leafs had one of the highest scoring teams in the league, and were in a playoff spot, people were screaming for the coach’s head. Meanwhile when they play a more conservative style and finish in 30th people are happier with the result because “at least they kept the games close”.
Now you could argue that the Leafs are in a better place today because of Auston Matthews, better coaching and management, more organizational depth etc… and you’re absolutely right.
But, ignoring that, there are many people who will actually tell you that they played better hockey when they finished dead last in the entire league than the type of hockey they were playing when they were leading the league in scoring and sitting in a playoff spot. Think about how silly that is for a minute and that will tell you everything you need to know about why NHL hockey is so conservative now compared to the wild west style of the 1980’s.
Structure is a term we hear a lot and sometimes it seems that playing with structure is valued more than actual results. But there are 30 teams in the league. You need to do something different to stand out. Perhaps it’s time for a team to throw conventional wisdom to the side and bring back the run and gun mentality of the 80’s. It might give some coaches, managers and fans grey hair but hey- it might be fun to watch!