The NHL has a goal-scoring problem. They’ve had it for quite some time now, ever since teams figured out that they could clog the neutral zone with a trap, and hook, slash, obstruct, and hold their way to a 2-1 victory.
During the high flying 70s and 80s, two teams could combine to score an average of six or seven goals per game. That trend would continue up until 1997, when the dead puck era really set in.
From 1997 to 2003, there was only one season where the league averaged more than 5.5 goals per game. Scoring dropped to an all-time low, and as a result, rule changes intended to increase scoring were introduced following the 2004-2005 lockout.
For a time, the changes seemed to have worked, as the average goals per game jumped back up over six. Most of that was caused by more power plays, however, and not an increase in offensive play; as soon as the number of power plays returned to normal, goal scoring dropped back down to dead puck levels.
From 2011-2016, teams averaged less than 5.5 goals per game. Offense had dropped to a minimum, and the league was forced to start looking into ways to (yet again) increase scoring. The two biggest ideas that everyone seemed fixated on were shrinking goalie equipment, and making nets bigger.
Both ideas are terrible, for separate reasons. Making the nets bigger would quite literally destroy the effectiveness of every goalie in the league. They would be forced to re-learn angles, techniques, and reads that they had used for their entire career. Many have been playing since age five or younger; at a minimum, you’re asking for a goalie to completely disregard 10 years of learning and experience simply to increase the number of fluky goals scored.
It’s not as though the number of highlight-reel goals would instantly increase. The NHL would see an uptick in scoring due to flukiness, as random shots from the point and other such quirky occurrences would find their way into the net due to goaltenders adapting to new angles.
Shrinking goalie equipment is also a bad idea because it doesn’t work. Streamlining the equipment, which the league did before the 2016-2017 season, is fine. Shrinking the equipment itself, though, hasn’t produced results. The NHL shrunk goalie pads back following the lockout. Average save percentage has increased every year since then. Making the pads smaller and smaller isn’t going to result in more goals; it’s going to make goalies more athletic, and eventually, threaten their safety.
So if the answer isn’t smaller pads or larger nets, then what is it?
Simple. Get rid of the skaters who can’t play, and focus on acquiring skill. Build a roster that can out-skate, out-play, and out-score the opposition. Instead of burning a roster spot on an enforcer, pick up an underrated skill player who can boost the bottom half of your lineup.
As the analytics movement has taken over front offices across the league, more and more teams are eschewing traditional hockey thinking in favor of analytical concepts. We know that enforcers don’t actually deter opponents and that they are typically useless players outside of punching people in the face.
Still, NHL teams insisted on playing them. Enforcers only really left the league this year, as only a few (such as Tom Sestito and Shawn Thornton) remain. Even then, they don’t dress in many games; only when the coach feels they’re necessary.
The analytics movement has also shown that speed, skill, and offense are more beneficial to a roster than strictly defensive play. In the past, teams ran two scoring lines, a checking line, and an energy line. Teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks adapted, and started running three scoring lines and a checking line. They won big, and other teams started to follow; the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup last year by running four scoring lines, as Sidney Crosby ended up taking on the most defensive responsibility.
When all four of your lines are capable of out-scoring the opposition, it doesn’t matter how many total goals are scored in the game. If you give up four, but score seven, you’re going to win. You may lose games due to poor defense, and it may look rough, but overall, you’ll win more games than you lose. Teams like the Dallas Stars and the aforementioned Penguins appear to be embracing this concept.
Though the 2016-2017 NHL season is young, it appears that the focus on speed and skill has resulted in increased amounts of offense. Through 61 games, there’s been an average of 6.1 goals per game, a dramatic increase over the 5.42 goals per game average in 2015-2016.
There are some warning flags that this might not last. Sixty-nine games isn’t the largest of samples, and the current league shooting percentage is around 10 percent, despite being closer to eight percent last season.
There’s reason for optimism, though. There is more skill on display in the league, and teams aren’t quite as afraid to take chances offensively. We’ve seen teams rely more and more on youngers players, with the Toronto Maple Leafs essentially living and dying by the play of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander this season.
The Winnipeg Jets are sticking with Patrik Laine, Josh Morrissey and Nikolaj Ehlers on the pro roster. Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny made the Philadelphia Flyers. The Florida Panthers are giving fourth-round pick Denis Malgin consistent NHL ice time. All of these players (and more) have offensive skill sets, and even if they aren’t defensively elite, they’re benefiting their teams by putting pucks in the back of the net.
It would be surprising to see the NHL continue to keep a goals per game average above six for the rest of the season, there’s clear reason to be optimistic for the future. More and more NHL teams are starting to rid themselves of dead weight, and stack their roster with skilled players, regardless of perceived defensive flaws. Younger players are being given a chance to showcase their skills, without fear of being benched for slight defensive miscues. The games this year are more exciting to watch, and though increased scoring is a part of it, the main reason is that the overall skill in the league is simply better.
We’ll have to wait and see if the recent goal-scoring trend continues, or if scoring drops back down. Based on the way the league has been moving the past couple of seasons, the best would be that it drops down to below six goals per game, but not quite as low as the dead puck era totals we’ve seen over the past five seasons.
If the rest of the season lives up to the expectations set by the entertaining start, the 2016-2017 season is going to be a crazy ride.