The number of NHL players on pace to score 100 or more points this season—12, as of the all-star break—is equal to the total number of 100-point scorers in the last 19 seasons combined. Beyond that dozen, more elite offensive players could make a run at 100 if they heat up down the stretch—guys like Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos.
Goals per game are up leaguewide, but the return of the 100-point scorer is outpacing even that. The last single season with 12 different 100-point scorers was so long ago (1995–96) that there was still one guy playing without a helmet.
How hot are the NHL’s top scorers this year? Nikita Kucherov has an outside chance at posting 100 assists. He’s on pace to score 131 points, which would make him the first player in over 20 years to cross that line (Mario Lemieux, 161, and Jaromir Jagr, 149, both in 1995–96). Guys like Mikko Rantanen, Johnny Gaudreau, and Connor McDavid are likely to approach 120.
If the goal was to erase memories of the Dead-Puck Era, the NHL succeeded.
A scoring boom is in progress across sports leagues, which all assume that casual fans lack interest in low-scoring affairs. The NFL came within a tenth of a point of its all-time scoring record in 2018 (23.3 ppg). The NBA is on pace for the most points per game since 1984. Major League Baseball now has more home runs per game than during the Steroid Era.
The NHL’s Dead-Puck Era, from roughly 1996–97 until the 2004–05 lockout, is easy to diagnose in hindsight. Reverence for “old school” hockey enabled constant clutching and grabbing in the neutral zone that all but killed the flow of the game. The left wing lock, devised by the Czechoslovak hockey teams of the 1970s to slow down the Kharlamov-era USSR, was imported to great effect by teams like the Red Wings, while the Devils perfected the even-older neutral-zone trap. Elite goaltenders were unusually abundant—Roy, Brodeur, Belfour, Hasek, Osgood, Richter, Joseph, and more. Goalie equipment exploded in size, with leg pad widths over 12 inches (an 11-inch maximum was established in 2004-05).
The 2004–05 lockout was a disaster for the league, but the NHL did have the sense to make changes in light of the previous season’s average of 2.57 goals per game–the lowest since 1954. A zero-tolerance policy on interference, especially in the neutral zone, was the single biggest change. Without being bodied and grabbed off the puck players could enter the offensive zone at full speed, and the game became fun to watch again.
But it’s not just league-wide scoring that’s up for 2018–19. Why has the 100-point guy made a comeback?
Part of it is a natural evolution of the game. Scoring spiked after the 2004 lockout. Then teams adjusted defensively to the new style of play and scoring receded. Now, predictably, teams are adjusting by emphasizing the hardest thing to defend—speed—and scoring has climbed steadily since 2009. Power-play opportunities have fallen sharply post-lockout, from an insane 5.85 per game in 2005-06 (when the new interference emphasis debuted) to barely over 3 per game this year.
The scoring trend that began in 2014–15 is also a result of talent cohorts entering and leaving the league. Only one of the current top 10 scorers is over 25 (Patrick Kane, 30). Mitch Marner just turned 21. Mikko Rantanen is 22. The number of new elite offensive talents entering the league in the last three years is abnormally high—a talent infusion not seen since the Crosby-Ovechkin drafts. And with that infusion, the gap between the top scoring forwards and the rest of the roster is growing. In other words, team’s top lines are accounting for a greater share of goals per game.
At the same time, goaltending talent is at low ebb right now. Some of the star goaltenders in recent years have fallen off now from age and injury: Quick, Price, Crawford, Rask, Luongo, and perhaps even Lundqvist. Can you name the league’s elite goalies right now? Who aside from Lundqvist and Luongo are definitely on their way to the Hall of Fame? This year’s leaderboard feature guys like Robin Lehner and Frederik Andersen. Good goalies? Sure. Elite talents? Not really. The Flames and Islanders are currently leading their divisions with Mike Smith and Thomas Greiss in net.
One under-appreciated factor in the scoring boom is one of the simplest explanations: shooting. Even in the go-go ‘80s teams didn’t shoot as much as they have in the past two seasons. To find per-game averages higher than last season’s 31.8 (31.1 so far this season) you have to go back to 1963 when there were six teams and the post-game meal was beer and teeth. The favorite old saws of announcers everywhere—Can’t score if you don’t shoot! Shoot the puck and good things happen!—as well as an analytic-based emphasis on shot attempts, have been taken to heart across the league.
Finally, two 2017–18 rule changes are paying off this season. One was the crackdown on slashing due to a rash of injuries. It took a year after the lockout to adjust to the new interference emphasis; similarly, last year’s slashing emphasis means players are being more careful with their sticks this season. Less slashing means in the slot, in front of the net, or on a rush the puck carrier is far more likely to get a shot—and a clean shot—on net. Combine that with interference enforcement making it harder to clear the front of the net and you have a perfect storm—more shots, more screens, more rebounds, more clean shots off rebounds. The second change was removing 4 inches of maximum height from goalie leg pads, to which skaters have adjusted by shooting five-hole more.
The NHL wanted more goals, and now it has them. Offense ebbs and flows over time as players and coaches adjust to the evolution of the game. This league’s emphasis on speed, shooting, and the rapid transition game is on display in this era. It won’t be long before the defense and goaltending catch up, and the league will find even more rule changes to promote scoring.