Scoring 50 goals in 50 games is the crowning achievement of an NHL goal scorer. Players who do so join a club of legends including Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Maurice Richard. The club is exclusive — it has only five members, and it hasn’t accepted a new application in 25 years. There are dozens and dozens of active NHL players who weren’t alive yet the last time someone scored 50 goals in 50 games, when Brett Hull did it during the 1991-92 season.
As with throwing dead octopuses onto the ice and shaking hands with the opponent after a playoff series, the 50 in 50 club is like many things unique to the NHL: steeped in history and perhaps devoid of logic. The attention bestowed on the exploit dates back to the days when there were only 50 games on the schedule. So when Richard became to first to do it in 1945, it meant he averaged a goal a game for a whole season. When the schedule expanded to 60 games — and then to 70 games, and then 74, 76, 78, 80 and 84 games, finally settling at 82 games — 50 in 50 remained a thing. Because, you know, why not?
Like with many exclusive clubs, there are also a lot of rules. To gain access, you must score 50 goals in your team’s first 50 games, not your own. Alexander Mogilny scored 50 goals in his first 46 games in 1992-93, but an injury forced him to miss three weeks at the beginning of the season. Mogilny’s 50th tally came in his team’s 53rd game, so he’s not allowed in. No exceptions!
It’s not easy to sustain a goal-per-game pace for 50 consecutive games, but so far this season, Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov is doing almost exactly that. With 14 goals in 15 games, the young Russian with a hellacious shot has set himself up to make a legitimate run at hockey’s goal-scoring holy grail.
Of course, many others have started the season on a similar tear in recent years — and all of them ended up way short of the benchmark. Here’s how every player who notched at least 14 goals in his team’s first 15 games post-lockout stacked up against the last three 50/50 players.
Amazingly, only one of these players (Jaromir Jagr in 2006) exceeded 50 goals on the season, let alone in 50 games. In the 2005-06 season, winger Simon Gagne scored 17 in the Flyers’ first 15 games, but he ultimately scored only 17 more in the next 35. In that same season, both Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson had 15 goals through the first 15 games. They both cooled, too — like Gagne, they each netted 17 goals in the following 35 games.
But there’s reason to believe this year might be different: The league itself seems different.
So far this season, goalies are stopping pucks with less success than they have since 2008-09. But not all of the blame can be placed on lackluster goaltending — a number of rule changes have led to an increase in power play opportunities per game. More power play opportunities equal more high-quality scoring opportunities, which means more goalies left hung out to dry.
It’s not shocking to see an analog in the 2005-06 season, when Jagr, Gagne, Heatley and Alfredsson each flirted with a goal-a-game pace: The league instituted rule changes in the wake of the 2004-05 lockout with the express purpose of increasing the number of goals per game, which had tanked in the NHL of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Chief among those rule changes was the elimination of the two-line offside pass. Defenses were slow to adjust to the rule change, which led to a preponderance of breakaways and two-on-one situations.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the NHL was a wide open league, and goaltending often seemed like an afterthought. From 1980-81 to 1993-94, the goals against average for the league never dipped below 3.0 — and the 50 in 50 was accomplished seven times.1 From 1994-95 to the present, the goals against average has risen higher than 3.0 in only one season. It hasn’t climbed quite that high this season, but it’s close.2
Kucherov isn’t the only one taking advantage of the increase in scoring. Like during the 2005-06 season, this year’s NHL has a handful of players vying for NHL legend status. Alex Ovechkin has also started the year on fire (13 goals in 16 games), while Islanders’ captain John Tavares has 12 goals in 15.
Of course, a goal scorer is nothing without dime-dishing linemates, and Kucherov has benefited from playing with the league’s leading point getter in Steven Stamkos (who missed 65 games last season, and the Bolts missed the playoffs). Stamkos is known best for his goal scoring prowess — he’s a two-time recipient of the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goal scorer — but this year it’s his passing that has him at the top of the NHL’s scoring list. He’s still scoring goals, but his 18 assists pace the league. And 10 of those helpers have come on goals scored by Kucherov.
Every player to hit the 50-goals-in-50-games milestone played on a line with one (or two) very good passers. Lemieux — who also unofficially scored 50 in 50 in two other seasons3 — played the bulk of his career on lines with some combination of Jagr, Kevin Stevens and Ron Francis. Hull played on a line in St. Louis with Adam Oates. Gretzky had Jari Kurri, Mike Bossy had Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies, and Richard had Elmer Lach and Toe Blake. And it’s not a stretch to place Kucherov and Stamkos among these all-time great duos and trios.
Kucherov’s gaudy numbers aren’t surprising — he’s scored no fewer than 29 goals in each of his three full NHL seasons and has an astounding career shooting percentage of 15.1. But that historically good shooting percentage is up dramatically this season: At the moment, Kucherov is scoring on 24 percent of the shots he’s taking. That’s destined to regress to the mean, but for now, Kucherov’s shot looks damn near unsavable.
Who knows if Kucherov — or Ovechkin or Tavares — can sustain a goal-per-game pace for all 50 games. Even if they don’t, they’ve already made the NHL feel a little bit like the wild old days of the ’80s and early ’90s. And they’ve given every hockey nerd something to pull for.