How Matthews, Gaudreau, Huberdeau are shining as league scoring rises

Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau believes increased NHL scoring is based on the league’s and players shift to more of a fast, skill-based game, which is leading to increased PP goals and scoring in general.

If you've got the sense that there have been more goals scored this year than usual, you'd be right. Florida's 7-6 win over Toronto this week, or Calgary's 9-5 victory over Edmonton at the end of March, are less outliers than a part of the story of the 2021-22 season.

According to Hockey Reference, an average of 3.12 goals are being scored by each team per game this season, the highest mark in the cap era. We haven't seen this many goals scored since 1995-96, when that average was 3.14. That season, 26 years ago, is the unofficial end of the scoring era and beginning of the Dead Puck Era. The Florida Panthers, with their suffocating team defence, shocked with a trip to the final in '96 and inspired copycats in the years to come.

Today, the Panthers are at the forefront of this new trend toward offence. They're averaging 4.16 goals per game, which is the highest since the '95-96 Penguins averaged 4.41 per game. No other teams in this time span have averaged over four per game.

What's behind this bump?

League averages since 1995-96, per Hockey Reference.

In 2005-06, the first season of the cap era, goals around the league jumped to over three per game per team, and that can be attributed to the sharp rise in power-play opportunities as the league cracked down on obstruction. That standard waned and was a bit of overkill, but the same thing is not happening today. Teams get an average of 2.89 power plays per game, which is level with last season. It's also the lowest rate that penalties have been called at than any other point in recorded NHL history.

But on the power plays that are given this season, the conversion rates are through the roof. The average PP this season has scored 20.84 per cent of the time, which is the highest league mark since 1988-89. The league average save percentage of .908 hasn't been this low since 2006-07. Average shots per game (31.4) are at the second-highest mark of the cap era, and one of the highest marks in league history as well.

In 2005-06, only three players scored at least 30 even-strength goals, with Simon Gagne's 33 leading the league. This year there are four already, with another eight players within five of 30 even-strength goals. The leader has 41. The cap-era record is 2018-19, when eight players scored at least 30 ES goals in a season.

"It's a little bit of a different year," Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said on The Jeff Marek Show Thursday. "It's not the COVID year, but it's a condensed schedule and you're catching teams tired, certain nights. I don't know if I've seen more third- and fourth-string goalies playing. Partly fatigue, partly injuries, partly COVID reserves during that time."

Lack of practice time? Brunette acknowledged that could be a factor this season as well since teams have games crammed in and can't find as much ice time between. And what about the status of the goalie position? There are elite netminders out there to be sure, but we just passed a trade deadline where a few contenders had a need in net and didn't address it partly because there weren't a ton of guaranteed upgrades available. The list of consistent, difference-making netminders isn't a long one these days.

These all could be factors into why we're seeing goals jump and why we're seeing so many offensive milestones and players hitting marks we haven't seen in 26 years. There's a lot of "first time since 1995-96" offensive stats being achieved this year, so we'll use that season as our barometer and a data point from which to start as we point out just how different and special this year has been.

On Thursday night, Auston Matthews took all the accolades by scoring goal Nos. 55 and 56 to pass Rick Vaive and set a new Leafs franchise record. But, outside of just Leafs history, Matthews' season is tracking to be one of the best by a goal scorer we've seen in over a generation. This is putting him in the driver's seat, it seems, for the Hart Trophy.

But he's not the only one having a standout offensive year.

Here we'll put into context just what Matthews is doing, and also shine a light on some other outstanding years that stick out in recent historical context.

Auston Matthews

The new single-season goal record holder for the Maple Leafs, Matthews is on a truly remarkable run. At 56 goals in 66 games, Matthews' 0.85 goals per game is the second-best rate for any player since 1995-96. The only better mark was Mario Lemieux, who scored 69 goals in 70 games 26 years ago.

Go back two and three seasons, and Matthews somehow looks more impressive with how long he's been able to sustain such goal production. It's 97 goals in his past 118 games, or 144 goals over his past 188 games.

And now, Matthews has the highest sum average goals per game of any NHL player since 1995-96. All-time, he ranks third among players with at least 400 games played.

NHL all-time goals per game leaders, minimum 400 GP.

For added context: Through Alex Ovechkin's first six NHL seasons, he was averaging 0.63 goals per game.

Interestingly, Matthews doesn't lead the NHL in power-play goals, and is actually 10 off that pace. That he's leaned so heavily on even-strength goal output for these numbers is more impressive. This week, he became just the third player of the cap era to score 40 even-strength goals in a season, and will have a chance to chase down Steven Stamkos' 48 achieved in 2011-12. Since 1995-96, nine players have scored at least 40 even-strength goals in a season and Matthews is on pace to finish with at least the second-most in that span.

No player has scored 50 even-strength goals in a season since Teemu Selanne in 1992-93. He scored 76 total goals in 84 games that year.

Most even-strength goals in a season since 1995-96.

The big question for Matthews in the final stretch is, how high can he go? Given that he's scored an incredible 49 goals in his past 49 games, it's not too wild to think he could score another 10-11 goals in 2021-22. If he gets to 60 total goals, which seems a given, Matthews would be the first player since Stamkos in 2011-12 to achieve that feat. Heck, Ovechkin's cap-era record of 65 goals could still be reached at the pace Matthews is on.

And you know what's wild? The most goals anyone has scored in a season since 1995-96 was 69 by Mario Lemieux. It may be a heavy lift, but with the way Matthews is chugging, could he even track down Mario? It would require 13 goals in the last 11 games.

Leon Draisaitl

Overshadowed at times by the superstar he shares a team with, and the one in Toronto, Draisaitl is putting up another monster year and crossed the 50-goal, 50-assist line again this week. It's the second time he's done that in the past three seasons -- and he's the only player to hit 50/50 since Evgeni Malkin did it in 2011-12.

Since 1995-96, a 50-goal, 50-assist season has been attained 20 times by 12 different players. Draisaitl is one of six to do it twice in that span.

Johnny Gaudreau

Pretty much out of nowhere, Johnny Gaudreau is having a career year. On Thursday night, he recorded two assists to bring him up to 99 points on the season and tie a career high set in 2018-19. The single-season points record in Flames history is 131 by Kent Nilsson in 1980-81, and that will be out of reach. But could Gaudreau catch Joe Mullen's 110 in a season, which is second all-time in Flames history? That's still possible.

Gaudreau will get Hart Trophy attention this season, and deservedly so. And while Matthews' goal numbers would blow anyone away, consider that Gaudreau is the NHL's even-strength points leader, with 78 this season -- nine clear of second-best.

Gaudreau is averaging 1.09 even-strength points per game, which puts him in elite company since 1995-96 and paces him to pass anything Connor McDavid has done in terms of even-strength production. With a strong finish in the final 11 games (and he does have 16 ES points in his past 10 games), Gaudreau may even have a shot at catching Jaromir Jagr, who scored 95 even-strength points 26 years ago.

The only players to ever score at least 95 even-strength points in a season? Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, Jarri Kurri, Steve Yzerman, Mike Bossy, Phil Esposito and Jagr. That's it.

Most even strength points in a season, all positions, since 1995-96.

Jonathan Huberdeau

Johnathan Huberdeau had already set a Florida Panthers single season scoring record and then this week also became the first Panther to reach 100 points in a season. It's OK to think of him as an MVP candidate if you wish – Huberdeau is second in league scoring and having a special offensive season of his own.

No left winger in the history of the NHL has more assists in a season than the 76 Huberdeau has posted so far, and he's already pulled out a seven-assist gap on Kevin Stevens, the previous record holder (who Gaudreau could also track down yet). Huberdeau is averaging 1.09 assists per game: only Lemieux, McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Ron Francis and Joe Thornton had better assist per game rates than Huberdeau since 1995-96.

Most assists per game in a season, any position, since 1995-96.

It's key to remember too that Huberdeau no longer rides shotgun with Aleksander Barkov, but has been Florida's key offensive driver on the second line. Huberdeau also leads the NHL this season in primary assists per game and the rate at which he gets a first assist is also one of the best we've seen in over a quarter century. And, while we've already addressed Gaudreau, it's important not to forget him in this discussion as well -- Gaudreau is second to Huberdeau in primary assists and only just barely off his per game pace (0.66).

Highest primary assists per game in a season, any position, since 1995-96.

It's been a monster year for Huberdeau any way you slice it, and he still has some huge achievements possible to come. Averaging 1.46 points per game, Huberdeau could still also become the highest-scoring left winger in a single season since 1995-96, and is chasing down Ovechkin's 112 points scored in 2007-08 to do that. If he does pass Ovechkin, Huberdeau would be one of the top-five highest-scoring left wingers in a single season of all time.

He has 102 points with 12 games remaining.

Top single-season left-wing scorers in NHL history.

Connor McDavid

We're now five forwards deep in highlighting some outstanding performances and just now getting to the leading scorer in the league.

With 108 points, McDavid is six clear of Huberdeau in the scoring race and is maybe a victim of his own success that we're not talking about him more. McDavid's average of 1.52 points per game this season is tied for the 14th-best pace since 1995-96, but overshadowed by the 1.88 he averaged just last season. That was the second-best per game mark since 1995-96. McDavid doesn't seem to get enough attention around the Hart Trophy talk. We've almost grown too accustomed to what he's doing.

McDavid is still bringing his career average scoring rates up with the pace he's on this season, and to show you how truly ridiculous he is, consider this: all-time in NHL history, McDavid's 1.43 career average points per game ranks fourth.

For a little more focused context, through Crosby's first seven NHL seasons he averaged 1.40 points per game (he's at 1.27 today)

NHL all-time career average points per game, minimum 400 games played.

Roman Josi

The remarkable offensive seasons aren't only coming from forwards. Roman Josi will get Norris consideration for sure, but also might sneak in some Hart votes for what he's done in Nashville.

With 87 points, Josi is eighth in NHL scoring and the 1.28 points he's averaging per game is higher than any other defenceman since 1995-96. Josi has 68 assists, just two shy of Brian Leetch's 70, which stands as the most assists a defenceman has posted in the past 26 years. Josi's averaging one assist for every game he plays, and is on pace to reach 80 helpers in 2021-22. If he gets to that mark, it'd be just the second time ever a blueliner not named Coffey or Orr recorded 80 assists in a single season.

List of defencemen to ever record 80 assists in a season.

Josi's already scored more points than any defenceman since 1995-96 and with just four more even-strength points, he will also set a new benchmark in that category for defencemen in the past 26 years.

For Josi, you can take his scoring context out to a more broad historical view beyond 1995-96. What he's doing offensively at the position will stand up favourably to all-time measures.

The Nashville blueliner has 53 even-strength points this season, which works out to an average of .78 per game. The Predators have 12 games left, so if Josi continues at that same scoring pace at even-strength, he could still add another nine to his total. He's pacing to 62 even-strength points this season, which would be the ninth-best mark for any defenceman in a single season of all-time.

Only three defencemen in league history have scored at least 60 even-strength points in a season: Paul Coffey (3), Bobby Orr (6) and Larry Robinson (1).

Most even-strength points in a single season by defencemen, all-time.

With 87 all-situations points in 68 games, Josi is on pace to finish with over 100 points total this season and, if he gets there, it'd be just the 15th time that's ever been done by a defenceman. In fact, Josi has a chance to post the best offensive season ever by any defenceman not named Orr or Coffey. He'll need to surpass Al MacInnis' 103 points from 1990-91 to do that.

List of defencemen to ever hit 100 points in a single NHL season.

Cale Makar

While Josi's performance is about points and assists, Makar is standing out for the amount of goals he's put up.

The most goals by a defenceman in a season since 1995-96 is 31, scored by Mike Green in 2008-09, and it doesn't look like Makar will surpass that, barring a sprint to the finish line. He has 24 goals with 12 games remaining. There was a time earlier this season when it looked like Makar may be able to pass Green, or at least become just the ninth blueliner to ever score 30 goals in a season. A goalless February knocked him off that probability, but he still stands out when looking at even-strength production.

Green benefitted from a pile of power-play goals in 2008-09, so he won't measure up well here. In fact, since 1995-96, only one defenceman has scored at least 20 even-strength goals in a season: Brent Burns scored 20 in 2013-14, and 21 in 2016-17. Makar is currently at 18 even-strength markers.

The Avalanche have 12 games left, and if Makar can score four even-strength goals in that time and surpass Burns, he'll wind up with a top 10 season in NHL history.

Most even strength goals in a single season by defencemen in NHL history
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