Analyzing the increase in NHL goal scoring: What is sustainable?

2018's first edition of NHL Plays of The Week featuring Viktor Arvidsson, Marcus Sorenson, Mike Smith and more.

Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly eclipsed Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr Thursday night. 10 NHL teams are averaging at least four goals per game; eight average allowing at least four against. More than half the league converts on at least 20 per cent of their power plays, while the league average save percentage is just .905, the lowest in a decade.

These sound like numbers from the 1980s, so are we back to they heyday of the high-flying offensive NHL?

It’s important to remember this uptick in offence happens almost every year. In fact, exactly a year ago to the day, scoring was on the rise as referees were tasked with setting a new standard on obstruction calls — so I wrote an article to examine the impact of it all.

Let’s start right there. On Oct. 13, 2017 the NHL had played 50 games and on the morning of Oct. 13, 2018 we’re at 56 games played, so the sample size is roughly the same. Here are the goal and power play levels on this date year-over-year, per hockey-reference:

GPG PP% PPO
2017-18 3.16 17.88 4.22
2018-19 3.2 20.05 3.43

As you see, goals are up over last season, but maybe not by as much as it seems. And if history holds true, defences will tighten as coaches sink their teeth into what’s going on and the goals will start to slow.

By the end of last season, teams were scoring an average of 2.97 goals per game, which was down from the 50-game sample, but still stood as the highest mark since the 2005-06 season when power plays were given at an all-time high level.

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What’s interesting, though, and a factor that could keep the average goals per game (per team) over 3.00 for the second time since the lost 2004-05 season are the power plays. As you can see, the average team is converting on more than one out of every five power plays right now, which is much higher than the same point last season. And rather than slow down as the overall goal rates tend to do, power plays tend to get more successful as the year goes on — last season’s average power play conversion rate finished at 20.18.

On top of that, power plays have been getting better each of the past five seasons league-wide.

Per Andrew Berkshire and SportlogIQ, I reached out for some power play scoring chance stats with the idea that, as skill players take over the NHL lineups from top to bottom, perhaps teams were passing it from side to side on the man advantage more often, forcing goalies to open up and leading to more one-timers. But the data provided painted a bit of a different picture (per 60 PP minutes):

Passes to slot (Oct.) Passes to slot (final) E-W passes (Oct.) E-W Passes (Final) % shots from slot (Oct.) % shots from slot (final)
’15-16 29.78 32.57 74.5 87.33 36.95 38.07
’16-17 40.18 39.24 95.95 99.22 42.48 43.82
’17-18 38.71 41.02 99.44 103.02 43.11 47.11
’18-19 49.01 N/A 90.19 N/A 54.22 N/A

Over this sample, those East-West passes have been on the rise, though that’s not the reason for this year’s uptick. Rather, teams are seeking the higher-quality chances by passing the puck to the slot ever more often, and relying less and less on point shots to screen, deflect, or hope result in rebounds for second-chance opportunities. For the first time, more than half of the shots on a power play are coming from the slot and history suggests this could rise even higher by the end of the year.

So while, as always, goals overall will likely come down some from their early level, there seems to be a real chance this could be the first season since 2005-06 to finish with an average goal rate of at least 3.00 per game, per team. Prior to that, the last time the league averaged that many goals was 1995-96, which really was near the beginning of the Dead Puck Era.

This isn’t to say we’re back to the high-flying ’80s — that decade averaged between 3.67 to 4.01(!) goals per game, per team.

But, led by an increase in skill and improved power plays, we do have the potential to rise to a level of offence not seen in more than 20 years.

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