Will This NHL Season’s Early Scoring Binge Continue?
The early weeks of every NHL season usually see a higher-than-normal rate of scoring that sometimes seem like a throwback to the firewagon style of the 1980s and early-90s.
As the season progresses, however, those numbers tend to drop off as players become more accustomed to new teammates or coaching systems and settle into the long grind of the regular-season schedule.
Though we’re just over two weeks into the 2018-19 campaign, there’s more of a buzz over the early offensive outpouring compared to previous years.
Part of the hype is coming from Toronto, where the Maple Leafs – powered by Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Morgan Reilly, and Mitch Marne – lead the league in scoring by a wide margin.
Another factor could be the rising wave of younger NHL talent, led by Matthews and Marner, Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, Colorado Avalanche forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, Boston Bruins winger David Pastrnak and Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho.
Some of it could also be traced to the reduction in goaltender chest protectors, giving shooters a little more net to shoot at.
Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire recently observed that goals per games have risen and save percentage declining since 2015-16. Back then, GPG averaged 2.71 while the average SP was .915. Last season, the GPG was 2.97 and SP .912. For this season, it’s 3.11 and .908.
Berkshire theorizes the rise in power-play percentage could be a significant factor, pointing out that it’s increased from 18.66 in 2015-16 to 20.18 last season to 21.31 early in 2018-19. He suggests it could be due to defensemen being used more in support roles with the man advantage teams employ one defenseman and four forwards on the PP.
It’s probably a little bit of everything contributing to a large number of high-scoring games thus far this season. Whether that rate is sustainable, however, remains to be seen.
Since the “Dead Puck Era” (the late-1990s to 2003-04), when a system of uncalled obstruction favored big, slow physical players over speed and creative skill, the NHL has tinkered with its rules in hopes of boosting goal production.
Following the lockout of 2004-05, the league’s implemented rule changes designed to increase scoring in hopes of luring back fans disgusted over a season-killing work stoppage. Those changes bolstered scoring for a few years, rising from 2.57 GPG in 2003-04 to between 2.84 to 3.01 during the five seasons following the lockout.
Between 2011-12 to 2015-16, however, GPG leveled out to between 2.71 to 2.74. Meanwhile, save percentage rose from a low of. 901 in 2005-06 to between .911 to .915 from 2009-10 to 2015-16.
Since 2005-06, the number of players reaching 50 goals and 100 points in a season also declined. During the first season following the ’04-’05 lockout, five players tallied 50-or-more goals and seven reached 100-plus points. That was the high-water mark for the number of players reaching those totals.
The last time a player scored 60 goals was Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos in 2011-12. In the last two seasons, the leading goal scorer never reached 50 goals.
In 2017-18, three players (McDavid, Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux, and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov) tallied 100 points for the first time since 2009-10. The year prior, only McDavid netted that many points. In 2015-16, only Chicago’s Patrick Kane. In 2014-15, Dallas Jamie Benn became the first player in a non-lockout year to win the scoring title without reaching 100 points since Chicago Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita in 1967-68.
It’s not that the players are lesser skilled. Indeed, today’s top NHL talent can generate dazzling offensive opportunities at high speed, unlike anything that’s ever been seen before.
Today’s coaches employ systems with an emphasis on two-way play, shot-blocking and clogging shooting lanes to counter high-scoring opponents. Superior goaltending is another factor, for while their equipment size is reduced, today’s goaltenders are far more flexible, agile and positionally sound than their predecessors.
It’s possible this season could see the onset of a new golden age of scoring. However, it’s more likely that the current high-scoring exploits of October could be reduced by the long slog reality of the regular season.