Why is Scoring in the NHL Up?
Increasing offense, a few theories
For years, scoring in the NHL has been steadily increasing. Teams are now averaging over 3 goals per game, something that hadn’t been done since the early 1990s. The low point was in 2003-2004 when the average was 2.57/game.
The question is “why are teams scoring more?”
There have been quite a few theories posited as to why goal scoring has been on the rise:
RULE CHANGES & ENFORCEMENT - With the introduction of the salary cap post 2004 lockout, you would expect that teams would be more even and struggle to create against equally as talented rosters. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the game was relatively slow and lethargic. Defensive hockey was the standard.
But starting in the 2005-2006 season, obstruction-related penalties like holding, hooking, cross-checking, etc. were called more closely and there were further rule changes geared toward opening the game up to more skill.
MORE SKILL - With less-talented players unable to make up for their deficit by holding, hooking, etc., teams suddenly found themselves with three (or sometimes four) lines that are able to contribute offensively. Looking around the NHL today, you can find plenty of 20-goal scorers even on a team’s third line.
LEAGUE EXPANSION - Every expansion dilutes the existing talent base. Given expansion has happened slowly and there are more talented players than ever, this is an unlikely answer, but a theory, nonetheless.
MORE POWER PLAYS - Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, there were way more penalties as the rulebook was called more strictly. But in recent years, the data doesn’t support this, as there have been fewer power plays per game.
BETTER POWER PLAYS - While power plays have been decreased per game, power play efficiency has been increasing. Teams were successful around 15-18% of the time and now are successful around 20-23% of the time.
MORE OT GOALS - NHL games go to overtime roughly a quarter of the time. Since changing to 3v3 overtime, about half of those games end in overtime instead of a shootout.
MORE HIGH DANGER CHANCES - An uptick in high-danger shot attempts can be attributed to the analytics movement. According to data from NaturalStatTrick.com, this season has produced 8.97 high-danger shot attempts per game (20.0% of all shot attempts are from high-danger areas).
SHOOTERS CATCHING UP - It’d be easy to say that save percentage dropped after decreasing goalie’s equipment size in 2005, but in fact NHL save percentage peaked in the 2015-16 at 92.5%. While goalies were early adopters when it came to working with specialty coaches, players are increasingly using them. Today, a save percentage above 90% is considered more than serviceable.
BETTER TECHNOLOGY - Players have better access to advanced technology, mainly hockey sticks. Gone are the days where a few players hung on to their wooden hockey sticks. Now every player on an NHL roster has a dangerous shot.
HIGHLY INVOLVED DEFENSEMEN - While many of these ideas and theories likely have merit, the only one that I’ve been able to find consistent research on showing causation of the increased usage of defensemen being more active in offense creation and scoring more. Top defensemen now are routinely breaking a point per game.
Increased Defensemen Involvement and Scoring
Friend of the Hockey IQ Newsletter, Will Scouch, did research into defensemen scoring rates.
Note - Will recently started a substack. He is an expert on NHL draft eligible prospects. If you’re into that then you should subscribe immediately.
It’s not even limited to those types of ultra-skilled players. Most teams give their defensemen permission to take the reins and join the attack.
Modern hockey has defensemen consistently joining the attack like Roman Josi and Cale Makar. There are far fewer top defensemen looking like bruisers that resemble Scott Stevens.
My best guess is that after calling the rulebook more closely, there were more mobile defensemen joining and succeeding in the NHL. Defensemen were used more traditionally and it wasn’t until more recently that they were unleashed in ways that truly leaned into their skillsets.
Sources of inspiration (ESPN, TheAthletic Cam Charron October 2022, TheAthletic Michael Russo April 2022)
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