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Scoring down again in the NHL this season but what's the answer?

Scoring is down for the second straight season in the NHL and there's no easy solution to fix the downward trend.

The league was averaging 5.5 total goals per game through Monday night (not counting shootout tiebreakers), down from 5.9 through the same number of games last season and markedly down from 6.2 at the same point in the first season coming out of the lockout when a number of rule changes opened up the game.

That's 100 fewer goals from last season through 251 total games and 175 fewer goals from 2005-06 at the same point.

Is the league alarmed?

"Not yet," commissioner Gary Bettman told The Canadian Press. "It's something we're going to keep an eye on. It's something we're going to continue to monitor. The game is still entertaining. We've had some high-scoring games, the Dallas-LA game Saturday night (6-5) is another good example. But we are keeping an eye on it."

The numbers are still up from the 5.1 total goals per game the league was averaging through the same number of games in 2003-04, but it's trending back the wrong way.

The league came out of the 2004-05 lockout armed with a package of rule changes that helped open up the game dramatically, changes such as reduced goalie equipment, removal of the red line to allow the stretch pass, and most importantly a crackdown on obstruction and hooking.

"I think the biggest thing is the players' adjustment to the rules," veteran defenceman Rob Blake of the Los Angeles Kings, a member of the NHL's competition committee, said Tuesday.

"There are fewer penalties being called because the players have adapted so obviously the goal scoring will go down."

Blake's assertion is a widely held theory around the league.

"The coaches are smarter, they're adapting to the rules we changed," said Colin Campbell, the NHL's executive vice-president and director of hockey operations. "They're teaching their players not to take penalties so there's less power plays.

"They're teaching not to hook, not to hold, not to interfere."

But Buffalo Sabres president Larry Quinn feels the problem runs deeper than that.

"This is anecdotal, and it may just be my view from watching our team play, but it seems like we're going back to the old way of playing, where you've got five goalies in front of you," said Quinn. "The other night we had 47 shots on net against Boston, scored one, and they won the game on a shot that hit four people and went in.

"I hope that's not what's going on around the league but I would hate to return to that kind of hockey."

The bottom line, even with the crackdown on obstruction and interference, is that most NHL head coaches are yet again stressing defensive systems instead of an offensive mindset.

"It just seems like it's easier to teach defence," said Blake. "I look at our scouting reports, every team collapses. The puck goes out to the point, you collapse down low, players get in shooting lanes."

Said New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello: "No matter what you do, and no matter game it is, pitching and defence always takes precedence over offence."

So what now? Bigger nets? Even more reduced goalie equipment? Four-on-four play for the whole game?

"I think we should just play," said Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray. "I think the good players are still going to find ways to score some goals. Maybe we're not going to get five goals a game but you know our games are pretty darn good.

"Our game with Montreal on Saturday (3-1 Ottawa win) was a great goaltended game and a good game as far as entertainment for fans. I don't know what else we need out of our game. I don't know that five goals for a team in a game makes it a better hockey game."

Blake also warns against knee-jerk reactions.

"It's a difficult thing when you see the goals go down after putting different rules in," he said. "But it's an ongoing process and you've got to test different things until you can come up with something."

Said Bettman: "You got to look at it over time - no snapshots."

Quinn agrees there's no quick fix but feels there's work to be done.

"I don't advocate people coming to the Board of Governors' meeting and beat up Collie or introduce a rule change here and there," said Quinn. "I think it needs a really good, healthy, thoughtful look on the part of people that really know what they're doing. I don't necessarily include myself in that category. There's a lot of smart people in this game that can do that."

The Sabres president would like to see more time and resources spent on these issues.

"What I'm a bigger proponent is really spending a lot of money on R&D," said Quinn. "So that we really are up on the game all the time. Because equipment has significantly changed the way the game is played. With the way players are padded now, you've got five goalies out there. So if you're not ahead of the equipment, the game is going to change even though you didn't want it to."

Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford is of the opinion that players and coaches will adapt no matter what changes are made.

"Any time you put in new rules, they adjust to the new rules," said Rutherford. "Put soccer nets in, they score lots of goals in soccer, right? My point is, they have huge nets in soccer but they have great systems to prevent goals.

"The players and the coaches are smart. They adapt to changes like that."

And the debate continues...


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