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The NHL Has Accomplished Its Goal(s)

If you’ve been paying attention to the 2017-18 NHL season, you may have noticed something: There is no shortage of goals. We’re more than a third of the way through the season, and scores are, on average, the highest they’ve been since 2005-06. Through Sunday, there have already been 31 games settled in regulation in which the teams combined for double-digit goals. A year ago there were only 45 such games across the whole season. We’re still a long way away from the 1980s golden era of goals, but for a league that’s been repeatedly criticized for being too low-scoring, this sudden glut can only be read as a positive development.

It’s difficult to point to just one cause for the scoring uptick. The league instituted a number of rule changes at the beginning of the season,1 and those changes have contributed to an increase in power play opportunities — teams are averaging 3.3 power play opportunities per game so far this season, the highest mark in five years.2 And it’s evident the league wasn’t kidding about cracking down on slashing — through Sunday, officials had doled out 623 penalties for slashing. That number was just 791 for all of last season.

The box is getting crowded

Minor penalties per NHL game over the past two seasons

Penalty 2016-17 2017-18 Difference
Hooking 1.03 0.97 -0.07
Tripping 1.08 1.20 +0.12
Roughing 0.84 0.67 -0.18
Holding 0.64 0.67 +0.03
Interference 0.64 0.71 +0.08
Slashing 0.64 1.22 +0.58
High stick 0.69 0.58 -0.10
Cross checking 0.30 0.31 +0.01
Holding stick 0.11 0.07 -0.03
Goalie interference 0.10 0.09 -0.01
All minors 6.65 7.09 +0.44

Through Dec. 17. Differences may not add up because of rounding.

Source: ESPN

More power play opportunities translate to more odd man advantages, which translate to more shots on net per game: Teams are surrendering more shots per game (31.6) than they have in the past three decades. The math is simple: more shots on goal equals more pucks finding the twine.

And even though goals against averages are up across the league — the current mark of 2.76 is the highest it’s been in a decade — the goaltenders cannot be blamed for the league’s recent scoring outburst. Among qualifying goalies,3 the league average save percentage (92.18) is slightly higher than the league average expected save percentage (92.13), which is the save percentage an average goalie should post given the quality of shots faced.

This suggests that goalies are actually outperforming expectations. During the 2016-17 season, goalies stopped fewer pucks than the data suggested they should have stopped (an actual save percentage of 91.94 versus an expected save percentage of 92.17), and yet goals per game totals remained roughly in line with numbers from the preceding nine seasons.

Goalies in 2017-18 are also outperforming their peers from the previous year on high danger shots (unblocked shots with an expected scoring percentage of 9 or greater); this year’s cohort is stopping 79.4 percent of shots considered dangerous, while last year’s stopped just 78.5 percent of those shots.

Even though teams are converting their power plays with effectively the same efficiency they did in 2016-17, they’re getting more of those man advantage looks, and likely the rule changes — and not poor goalie play4 — offer the truest explanation for the higher-scoring brand of hockey being played in the NHL at the moment.

And let’s not forget the cadre of young offensive talent that has flooded the NHL in the past several seasons: Last year, six of the top dozen goal scorers were 25 years old or younger. And the top point getter (Connor McDavid) was just 20. All of these very young men are already sharing the leaderboards with future Hall of Famers like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, who are still both in the primes of their careers. This overlap of generational talent could be contributing to all the scoring, too.

To be sure, no one in the league office of the NHL is losing sleep over this. More scoring is good news for a league that has been plagued by a spate of absurd calls from pundits to not only tweak the rules of the game, but to change the shape of it too. Reprimanding centers for lining up at the dots incorrectly? Fine, we can all live with that. But making the nets bigger? That’s downright sacrilege. Thanks to the relatively high-scoring climate of the present-day NHL, maybe we can put that tired argument to bed once and for all.

Footnotes

  1. The NHL did something similar after the lockout of 2004-05, introducing a sweeping array of rule changes with the express purpose of increasing goal scoring.

  2. Those changes also include a crackdown on slashing and a conservative interpretation of what a center can and cannot do at the faceoff dot: If a center does not stand squarely facing his opponent’s side of the rink, he is subject to being thrown out of the dot. If that happens consecutively to centers from the same team, that team will be subject to a bench minor. The league wants to see less stick work and less cheating on the faceoff dots.

  3. We looked at goalies who’ve played at least 200 minutes.

  4. Goalies are always getting blamed; we need to stop blaming those poor goalies.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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