Why goals are rising in the NHL ⁠— and can we expect more in 2019-20?

Watch as Alex Ovechkin makes a nice move to create enough space to score his first goal of the season.

Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL made a concerted effort to crack down on obstruction, which immediately led to more goals in that first season. But this didn’t last and the NHL went from a league that dramatically increased its goal total to one that was losing offence every year.

From 2005-06 to 2015-16, the league saw goals per game drop from 6.16 to 5.42, which doesn’t sound like a lot in a single game, but over a full season that’s 910 goals that disappeared.

Since 2015-16, though, there’s been a silent offensive renaissance. Goals per game inched up over 6.00 last season for only the second time since 1996.

Last season wasn’t an isolated change either. Goal scoring has increased each of the past three seasons, but is it something we should expect to continue in 2019-20?

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To find out, the first thing we have to look at is where shots are coming from. After all, it’s not simply that shots have increased — the NHL’s average save percentage has dropped three years in a row. That’s something that hasn’t happened since the late-1970s according to Hockey Reference, when the NHL saw average save percentages decrease from .891 in the 1976-77 season for five years in a row to .873 in 1981-82.

The current trend isn’t nearly that extreme, dropping from a high of .915 in 2015-16 to .910 last season, but this is a rare thing as goalies continue to get better, especially now.

So what’s driving this change most? Let’s look at those shot locations when the game is at 5-on-5.

In 2015-16, 15.9 per cent of all shots on goal in the NHL came from the inner slot, where expected shooting percentage is around 21 per cent. Those high value shots have risen each of the past three seasons, and made up 20.9 per cent of all 5-on-5 shots in 2018-19.

Similarly, shots from the high slot – the next-best area to shoot from — have increased from 17.1 per cent of all shots to 21 per cent last season. This of course means that shots from the perimeter have dropped from nearly 67 per cent four seasons ago to just 58.1 per cent last season.

The combination of teams taking shots from in closer to the net and adding a whole new franchise in the Vegas Golden Knights resulted in an increase of over 4,700 shots on goal from the inner slot from 2015-16 to last season, and 4,214 shots from the high slot. The game is getting a bit more difficult for goaltenders.

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Beyond simply shot locations, though, it sure feels like the game has changed to be more about speed, doesn’t it? I talk about it all the time, and pundits do too. Speed is definitely a big component to what makes players successful today, but are teams attacking differently outside of just getting the puck closer to the net?

In order to test that, we can look at the types of scoring chances teams are creating, although we only have that data for the past three seasons so it’s a bit more limited than the larger sample.

Over the past three years there has been a mild increase in scoring chances off the rush, but not nearly what you would expect given all the talk about hockey turning into a speed game. Rush chances have gone from accounting for 29.1 per cent of all scoring chances, to 29.7 per cent. Hardly something to write home about.

In fact, the biggest emphasis here, especially last season, has been an increase in cycle chances. This means there’s been a focus on passing plays in the offensive zone to break down defensive schemes. Still, the increase in cycle chances as a total of all scoring chances has only gone from 32.2 per cent in 2016-17 to 34 per cent last season — not a gigantic change in how teams attack.

Forechecking, meanwhile, has been responsible for fewer chances over time, dropping from 17.3 per cent of the total chances in 2016-17 to 15.9 per cent last season.

Uncategorized scoring chances seem to be a bit more variable with no consistent trend, but the changes teams are making in how they approach offence stylistically don’t appear to be that large.

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We can say that forechecking is becoming slightly less emphasized and that passing or playmaking is more important, but that’s about it.

So where does the narrative — which I have contributed to — that speed is king come from? Speed impacts the game in more ways than simply attacking off the rush, but even if we only focus on that it’s easy to find where this focus on speed comes from.

The increase in overall scoring chances, along with a slight uptick in chances off the rush as a percentage of them, accounted for about one extra rush chance in every game that was played last season. Chances off the rush are very noticeable. They’re also extremely dangerous and more likely to produce goals. An extra one of those every game is going to catch eyes.

Just because the game hasn’t drastically shifted to scoring off the rush doesn’t mean that speed isn’t a bigger factor than ever before. You can get into better position, beat opponents to loose pucks, and more, with superior speed. But the typical expectation of hockey becoming a rush game with all these speedy young kids isn’t true.

Despite that, shot quality at 5-on-5 has drastically increased over a four-year period, and it seems like that trend is going to continue. The game is becoming more about offence and for everyone watching that means more excitement.

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