Era Adjusted: Greatest NHL goal-scoring seasons of all-time

Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. (Nick Wass/AP)

I write at least one “Alex Ovechkin is incredible” post per season. This season’s has come early.

Who is the best goal-scorer of all-time? The easy answer is the guy with the most goals: Wayne Gretzky.

So let’s change the question to: Who had the best goal-scoring season of all-time?

Again, the easy answer is the guy who holds the record for most goals in a season: Wayne Gretzky with 92 goals in 1981-82. But what if I told you that the era-adjusted numbers suggest Gretzky’s historic and seemingly unbeatable 92-goal season barely even cracks the Top 5 all-time?

This leads to a typical hockey argument today: If you gave Alexander Ovechkin a time machine, how many goals would he score in a different era?

Most hockey fans have probably been in a conversation where someone said something to the effect of “Well, everybody scored goals in the 1980s.”

They’re not kidding. Last season, NHL teams averaged 227 goals for and 227 against, or about 5.5 goals per game. When Gretzky scored 92 goals in the 1981-82 season, teams averaged over eight goals per game.

This is what hockey-reference’s, era-adjusted numbers are for. Goals are harder to score in today’s NHL, so in that sense, they mean more. This makes Ovechkin’s ridiculous nine goals in seven games to start the season just that much more impressive.

So let’s see what the numbers say.

What are the Top 10 era-adjusted single-seasons for goals scored?

That’s right: when adjusting for era, Alex Ovechkin’s 2007-08 is the second-best, goal-scoring season in NHL history.

There’s a lot to unpack here. On the list above, you’ll notice I included the actual amount of goals each player scored, followed by the amount of era-adjusted goals hockey-reference.com gives them, and the difference between the two.

Gordie Howe’s big boost also just goes to show that these numbers aren’t just designed to flatter today’s players. Goals were also hard to come by in the early 1950s so Howe’s 49 goals in 70 games in 1952-53 gets the props it deserves.

Scoring 50 goals in today’s NHL is incredibly hard. The last three players to do it were Alex Ovechkin in 2015-16, Alex Ovechkin in 2014-15, and, wait for it… Alex Ovechkin in 2013-14.

The last person to score 50 not named Ovechkin was Steve Stamkos in 2011-12 with 60. Since Ovechkin entered the NHL in 2005-06, 50 goals have been scored in a single season just 20 times. Out of those 20, seven are from Ovechkin.

To me, the big number is reaching 60 era-adjusted goals. Only three players have ever reached 60 era-adjusted goals in a season three times:

  1. Brett Hull in 1989-90, 1990-91, and 1991-92. Three straight seasons!
  2. Phil Esposito in 1970-71, 1971-72, and 1973-74.
  3. Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08, 2012-13, an 2014-15.

Ovechkin comes with an asterisk, since 2012-13 was a lockout-shortened season. That’s a 54-goal pace if it were an 82-game season though, which would be 62 era-adjusted goals. Shenanigans? Maybe, but the whole stat is hypothetical in a way. Have some fun!

The reason I put such emphasis on Alex Ovechkin is this guy is still here. He’s still playing. Heck, he might never score 50 goals again. He scored 33 goals in a “down” season last year. Cup criticisms aside, we’re watching a legend in the making. It certainly says something that Stamkos made this list, too.

Gretzky and Lemieux took the biggest hits on this list because of the 1980s. The funny thing you might notice about Gretzky’s numbers is that when you adjust for era, his 87-goal season in 1983-84 actually ranks higher than his 92-goal season in 1981-82.

And we should probably give props to Brett Hull, who had the best goal-scoring season of all-time in 1990-91. In that season, Hull scored 86 goals. Even though adjusting for era brings that total down to 78, it’s still the largest era-adjusted total ever.

I mentioned 60 era-adjusted goals as the standard for excellence in this category. Some other players who have done it but didn’t crack the top 10 are Jean Beliveau (1955-56), Alex Mogilny (1992-93), Teemu Selanne (1992-93 & 1997-98), Peter Bondra (1997-98), Jaromir Jagr (1995-96), and Jarome Iginla (2001-02).

Alex Ovechkin is one of the best goal-scorers of all-time whether you adjust his numbers or not. If you disagree, it’s your thinking that needs adjusting.