Hockey is back! Last night was opening night for the NHL (unfortunately, the Blues lost the Capitals in overtime). Seems like just yesterday that last season ended!
Let’s look at goal-scoring over the years. I remember when Brett Hull scored 86 goals in a season for the St. Louis Blues, but now great goal-scorers struggle to get more than 40 goals.
Here are the all-time goal scoring leaders in NHL history along with season:
Source for scoring data: https://www.quanthockey.com/nhl/records/most-goals-in-one-season-by-nhl-players.html
Notice anything? The top season goal scorers were in the 1980s and early 1990s. Only two players in the top 50 season scoring leaders were since the 2000 season (Ovechkin and Stamkos). Last year the top goal scorer in the NHL was Alex Ovechkin with 51 goals. That total puts him number 146 in the rankings!
Below are two charts from the NY Times. The top chart shows the most points scored in each year since 1979-80 through 2014-15 (note that “points” are goals plus assists) and the second chart shows average team scoring per game.
Why the decline in goals over time? There are many factors. Sports are like an arms race – coaching strategies, training techniques, player abilities and the like all are constantly changing in order to gain an edge. Plus, the rules are tweaked year-to-year in the major sports which lead to scoring changes.
That being said, here are the primary reasons the number of goals scored in the NHL have declined over the years:
The Goalies are Better!
First and foremost, goalies are better. There are a number of reasons for this:
ONE: They are bigger.
This is a great picture showing how a bigger goalie covers more of a goal:
Here’s Ben Bishop, the current Dallas Stars goalie, next to Darrin Pang, goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks in the late 1980s (wearing each other’s equipment).
Today’s goalies are bigger and more athletic, on average, than their predecessors from a few decades ago, which makes scoring on them much harder. In fact, pretty much every team these days has a pretty fantastic goalie.
TWO: The equipment is bigger and more protective. Bigger pads mean less open goal to shoot at. Also, more protective equipment allows goalies to drop down into more vulnerable positions to stop pucks.
THREE: Goalie technique has greatly improved. Notably, they’ve moved from a more stand-up stance to dropping into a butterfly position.
As a result of these factors and others, here’s what has happened to goalie save percentage:
As goalie save percentages increase, the number of goals scored decrease!
Forwards Are More Defensive-Minded
A great hockey forward these days doesn’t just score goals, they also back-check, block shots and grind defensively in corners. Here’s what Wayne Gretzky had to say about this in 2016:
When I was 10 years old, they’d throw a puck on the ice and say, ‘Go score. Now, at 10 years old, the kids are taught to play in their lanes. Defensemen stay back. Everybody blocks shots. I mean, my goodness, I don’t think I ever blocked a shot, and I killed penalties every single game. I thought goaltenders were paid to block shots, not forwards. It’s changed completely. I think the biggest thing we’ve lost is a little bit of our creativity and imagination in general. All in all, it’s sort of a grinding game now. You’re taught from Day 1 that your role and responsibility is to keep the puck out of your net.
Gretzky has a point – over time the number of shots blocked by all players has increased in the NHL. Coaches have emphasized shot blocking as a valuable contribution and players have responded.
Changes in Playing Style
In the mid-1990s the New Jersey Devils spearheaded a defensive strategy called the “neutral zone trap” which makes is difficult for an offensive rush to move through the center part of the ice with speed and control. Here’s what Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg said about the neutral zone trap:
“I don’t like to complain, because the rules were the rules and the same for everybody, but, yeah, I would have liked to have played in the league about 10 years earlier and seen what kind of numbers I could get. After about ’96 or so, it seemed like everything just became more like tackle football and not hockey. I liked the physical game, but it got a little ridiculous.”
In addition to the neutral zone trap, there is more uncalled interference and it is overall harder to transition into the offensive zone. There is more dumping the puck and grinding in the corners by big players than there was decades ago which makes it harder to score.
NHL Players have gotten taller and heavier and as a result, the game has gotten more physical. It is more difficult for highly skilled players to get past all the beefy players who will lay a big hit on them. Wayne Gretzky played at 160-170 pounds. Alex Ovetchkin, last season’s scoring leader, is 6’3″ and 230 pounds. Size and power are requirements to be a top goal scorer these days.
Teams have looked to larger players as hockey has moved to a more physical, grinding game. Throughout the Blues playoff run hockey analysts noted the Blues’ were a “heavy team” and won by laying a lot of hits on the opposing teams.