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NHL goal scoring’s up? Skill, speed, stoppers, striplings behind surge

Youth is surely being served (but not so much goaltending) in a more offensive National Hockey League, but more goals are coming for many reasons

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Across the National Hockey League, goals are up.

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The numbers are clear.

So far in the 2021-22 season, 6.24 goals have been scored per game.

That’s the highest rate of goals scored in two-and-a-half decades. In 1995-96, The average NHL game featured 6.29 goals, which was down from the decade before, when the average game featured more than seven goals per game. In 1981-92, there were 8.03 goals per game, the highest per-game average in league history outside of the 1943-44 season, when the Second World War ravaged NHL rosters for talent.

This season’s surge in scoring is part of a five-year trend that has seen scoring go up. In 2017-18, the average game featured 5.94 goals, a leap from 5.53 the season before. The two seasons that followed, 2018-19 and 2019-20, both saw the per-game average creep over six.

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Only one other season since 1995-96 had seen a per-game goal average above six, the 2005-06 season, when the NHL came back from the year-long lockout on a mission to make the game more fun and officials cracked down on all manner of obstruction and interference.

Scoring that year was driven by a surge in power-play goals — 318 goals in all, a record total.

This latest surge is not driven by power-play goals, although the average NHL power play is scoring 20.9 per cent of the time, a success rate higher than any posted in the last 32 years.

That’s because penalty rates are down compared to past seasons, at just over three power-play opportunities per game per team. In 2005-06, teams had 5.8 power-play opportunities per game.

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Even in 2003-04, the last season of the so-called dead-puck era, teams averaged more than four power-play opportunities per game.

Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, at the ripe age of 36, is already over the 40-goal mark this season. While it’s a younger, faster game nowadays, veteran skill players like Ovechkin are playing their part in the offensive resurgence.
Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, at the ripe age of 36, is already over the 40-goal mark this season. While it’s a younger, faster game nowadays, veteran skill players like Ovechkin are playing their part in the offensive resurgence. Photo by Geoff Burke /USA TODAY Sports

The real story here is the opening up of even-strength play, even with the decrease in penalties.

This season teams are averaging 4.5 goals per game, a rate not seen since the early 1990s.

The past few seasons has also seen a small surge in five-on-five shooting percentage. After dipping to 7.5 per cent in 2015-16, it’s up to 8.3 per cent this season. That figure was last above eight per cent in 2009-10.

Overall shot rates are also up, with teams averaging 31.6 shots per game, three more than in 2003-04.

In conversations with scouts, analysts and executives around the league, it’s clear there are multiple reasons for the surge in offence: Increase in skill across the board, an increased understanding of where the best places to shoot are, some changes to goalie equipment and this season (in particular) the impact of COVID-19 on playing rosters and the schedule.

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Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau, giving his star centre Elias Pettersson some love, notes that many teams are playing ‘a fast game’ now. ‘I think the skill level every year in the NHL gets an awful lot better,’ he says.
Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau, giving his star centre Elias Pettersson some love, notes that many teams are playing ‘a fast game’ now. ‘I think the skill level every year in the NHL gets an awful lot better,’ he says. Photo by Bob Frid /USA TODAY Sports

Look at how the top teams are built now, one said. The likes of Colorado, Tampa Bay, Florida, Toronto and Carolina have focused their energies on building forward lines that can all score and defence pairings that can move the puck and contribute offensively.

It’s a formula that was a rarity in the past, but is where the league is trending.

“I think a lot of teams are playing a really fast game these days. I think the skill level every year in the NHL gets an awful lot better,” said Vancouver Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau.

One sign of how aggressive coaches have become is the rate of scoring with the goalie pulled, in both directions. Goalies get pulled with two or three minutes remaining in the game with regularity.

This season, teams that have pulled the goalie for an extra attacker have scored at a rate of 6.4 goals per 82 games, about 50 per cent higher than a decade ago. Teams that pull the goalie are giving 14.7 empty net goals per 82 games, double what they were conceding a decade ago.

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New Jersey Devils goaltender Jon Gillies didn’t have a contract to start this season, but caught on initially with the St. Louis Blues. Since traded to the Devils, he’s made 17 appearances this season and registered a mediocre .882 save percentage.
New Jersey Devils goaltender Jon Gillies didn’t have a contract to start this season, but caught on initially with the St. Louis Blues. Since traded to the Devils, he’s made 17 appearances this season and registered a mediocre .882 save percentage. Photo by Sergei Belski /USA TODAY Sports files

Former NHL goalie Mike McKenna, now an analyst for DailyFaceoff.com and a host on SiriusXM, said the league’s youth movement is part of the explanation.

“The league is younger than ever and the youth movement is skill-based. They haven’t learned how to play both sides of the puck,” he said.

“Lots of depth goaltenders played this year as well. Injuries and COVID played a role in that. So the goaltending hasn’t been the greatest. The condensed schedule and lack of practice really plays a big role, too. There simply isn’t enough time to teach systems on the ice — just a lot of video work. Combine that with young players and it’s a recipe for sloppy hockey.

“And yes, the skill level is the highest it’s ever been thanks to specialized training.”

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The goaltending part of the story is intriguing. Because of COVID-19 outbreaks, 114 goalies have played in a game this season, a record number.

“It’s a record by a lot,” said InGoal Magazine’s Kevin Woodley.

A goalie like New Jersey’s Jon Gillies is a good case study. He didn’t have a contract to start the season but the St. Louis Blues were desperate in early December for a goalie with NHL experience — he had played 12 games for Calgary from 2016 to 2018 — so they signed him and he played one game. A week later, Gillies was traded to the Devils for future considerations and he’s made 17 appearances this season, posting a mediocre .882 save percentage.

The scramble for goalies completely flipped the narrative on the season.

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“The surge in scoring, that’s not how things were going,” Woodley said. Indeed, four days before Gillies was signed by the Blues, Woodley wrote a story for NHL.com that pointed out NHL goalies were on pace for the highest collective save percentage in 20 years.

“It’s not until Omicron hits,” he said. “It’s no question when you have goalies who aren’t maybe experienced enough, maybe aren’t ready for it, playing behind defences that maybe aren’t as experienced or ready for it, it’s a recipe for more mistakes and goals against.”

pjohnston@postmedia.com

twitter.com/risingaction


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