In the 1992-93 NHL season, scoring reached its dizzying peak, with 14 different players all scoring 50 goals or more. Two – Teemu Selanne and Alex Mogilny – managed an eye-popping 76 goals apiece. Mario Lemieux, playing just 48 games, scored 69 times.
Players such as Pavel Bure, Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan and Pat LaFontaine all reached the 50-goal plateau and eventually made their way into the Hockey Hall of Fame in part because of the career numbers they put up playing in such a high-scoring era.
But within three seasons of that apex, scoring completely dropped off a cliff – the NHL entered the so-called Dead Puck era as teams copied the smothering defensive style of the 1995 Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils.
From 1997 until 2015, there’s only been one season with as many as five 50-goal scorers, and it was an aberration. In 2005-06, after losing the previous season to a lockout, the NHL came back determined to take obstruction out of the game. Largely because of the increased number of power-play opportunities, Jaromir Jagr, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jonathan Cheechoo, Alex Ovechkin and Dany Heatley cracked the 50-goal barrier.
But if you eliminate that one year as an outlier, then the numbers are bleak.
Players have reached the 50-goal mark only 12 times since 2008 – and the Washington Capitals’ Ovechkin recorded five of them.
NHL goal scoring is down almost three goals a game from its peak in the early 1980s, and that development represents one of the great contradictions in the evolution of the game: At a time when the players’ offensive talent level has never been higher, scoring has dried up.
So what happened? For one thing, goalies grew. “In my day, I was a big goalie at 6 [foot] 1,” Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. “Now I’d probably be just an average goalie, size-wise.”
And digital video gives coaches and players the opportunity to review plays and schemes almost instantly, aiding in-game adjustments to shut down opposing offences.
“Also, coaching has evolved a lot through video. I remember the first time we used video in meetings, it was VHS. Now we’ve got the computers, and you see the plays, clip by clip, right away, on the bench or in the dressing room.
“As a coach, the easiest thing to correct is defence – the positioning of the defenceman, the forwards coming back,” Roy said. “We’re more aware of how important it is to play as a unit of five in the D-zone than it was back then. …In those days, Wayne Gretzky would make a turn back at the blue line and everybody was totally lost on the ice. It was more man-to-man kind of play.”
“Now, you make a turn back at the blueline and everybody knows what to do. Everybody shuts down the middle. In the past, a three-on-two was a three-on-two. Now, if you have a three-on-two, you know that there’s two other guys coming back like mad men and you better make a quick decision. And the quicker you have to make a decision, the tougher it is to make a good play.”
Now, so many NHL goals are scored in a right-place-right-time sort of way, deflections pin-balling into the net off skates, shin pads and favourable caroms. Goals scored on the rush, on open ice or on a clear breakaway are rare.
Leagues know that scoring helps sell the game better than suffocating defences. Basketball and football have all taken turns tweaking the rules to generate more offence.
Among the NHL general managers, coaches and players interviewed, a surprising number were prepared to at least discuss the notion of making nets bigger to enhance scoring.
“We’re into a 3-2 league now,” Nashville Predators long-time general manager David Poile said. “I would personally prefer a 4-3 league. That’s a big difference, though – that’s two goals per game. How do you find two more goals?”
Poile blames the decline in scoring squarely on the rise of NHL goaltending, describing it as “the one position that’s changed the most in terms of style of any position in our game. The goalies of 30 or 40 years ago, the guys who were in the Hall Of Fame – Jacques Plantes, the Glenn Halls – or the guys like Emile Francis and Gump Worsley, they were between 5 [foot] 5 and maybe 5 [foot] 10.
“If you were to talk to most general managers, they would give very little consideration any more to a goaltender under 6 [foot] 2. Bigger is better – and we all know the result. These guys are fantastic in their skill level and they’re a big factor in why scoring has levelled off.
“Somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to make a choice: Is this the way we want the game to be played? Or are we going to have to make some kind of a change?”
Calgary Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman believes the size of goaltending equipment can still shrink, giving players more open net to shoot at.
“I know you have to keep them safe – you don’t want them to get hurt, and everybody is shooting the puck harder,” Wideman said. “But they can make vests that hug people’s bodies and can stop bullets, so I assume they can make a chest protector and pads that are a bit smaller than they are now.
“The goalies aren’t going to like that point of view – they don’t like to let goals in – but they’ll adjust, and the best goalies will still be the best goalies.”
Last season, Wideman was fourth in the NHL in scoring among defencemen but also sixth in blocked shots. He believes the rise of shot blocking – something the Flames do especially well – is also contributing to the lack of scoring.
“When I came into the league, there were one or two guys in the league who would block shots and people would say, ‘Man, that guy is a warrior,’” Wideman said. “Now everybody does it. Is it the culture that’s changed, or the extra protection everybody wears? It might be a little of both. But if you don’t have shot blockers on, I don’t think many people would be opening up their foot to step in front of a Shea Weber shot. You couldn’t do that before because, if you did, you broke your foot. It’s just the way it is now, not a lot of shots getting through any more.”
In running through the various options at the NHL’s disposal, Poile discounts a switch to a bigger ice surface as impractical both financially and logistically.
“There is almost a zero-per-cent chance of that happening because of ice plants, the history of the game, etc.,” Poile said. “You could get more out-of-the-box thinking – should hockey ever evolve from a five-on-five game to a four-on-four game, or do you consider making the nets bigger?
“I, for one, have time for the latter. I think it makes sense based on where the game has come for the last 30 or 40 years in terms of the size and skill of the goaltenders.”
Generally, the complaint against larger nets on fan boards is that hockey doesn’t need 10-7 games or soccer-style nets. But, Poile stresses, that isn’t what they’re pondering anyway. The changes would be subtle – prototypes developed from an NHL research and development camp, with one exception offered up by the Buffalo Sabres, do not look appreciably different to the naked eye.
If larger nets are ever implemented, Poile believes “we need to go wider because the goalies are taller and their legs are longer and they can go post to post. It would seem to be a fair thing to do. And they would have to go higher because a lot of goalies virtually play the game on their knees right now. I for one don’t think that was ever meant to be. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it has to be wider and it has to be taller.”
Under current policy-making protocols, NHL general managers act as the de facto gatekeepers of the game. Most rule changes start with them and are subsequently vetted through the competition committee, which permits player input into the final decision. Generally speaking, if the competition committee makes a recommendation, the board of governors usually rubber-stamps its approval.
According to Poile, the possibility of making nets bigger “is on the radar,” but he added: “In our position, as caretakers of the game, I think the game is so strong right now, there’s not the appetite for it. Obviously, a reduction in the goal scoring from five to a number that starts with a four would catch a lot of people’s attention.
“We had the phenomenon this past year where teams down a goal with five minutes left in the game were getting ready to pull their goaltender. That certainly speaks volumes about how hard it is to score one or two goals – and I don’t think it’s going away.”
Now coaching the Dallas Stars, Lindy Ruff was with the Sabres when the team president, Larry Quinn, proposed the most radical change to the size of NHL nets during one of the early R&D camps, where the posts were actually bowed out by about four inches in the middle. They were an eye-catching oddity, intended more as a conversation starter than a legitimate option.
“That development camp had a lot of people shaking their heads,” Ruff said, “but the reality is when a goalie goes down on his knees and butterflies and he’s 6 [foot] 7 and he’s holding his hands in a proper spot and he’s not even moving, there is so little net to shoot at.
“Somebody’s got to tell me what the answer is. But I do know the only way you’re going to score is to make that goaltender move – because at a certain place, if he’s in perfect position, you’re not scoring.”
Ruff came through the playing ranks the traditional way – through major junior and on to the NHL – and has three decades of experience in the NHL, but says he has no issue with adopting slightly bigger nets either, even if some purists might object.
“When we talked about bigger nets, I was told we would ruin the integrity of the game – and that some of the numbers that past players had – their stats – would be affected,” he said. “But I look at it from an entertainment standpoint. Fans coming to the games want to see goals. There are two reasons usually a fan gets out of his seat to cheer – an unbelievable play or an unbelievable goal.
“If they make the nets a little bigger, it forces the goalies out a little ways. That’s going to create a bit more of a scramble. I think taking all the obstruction out years ago has made the game so much better. The speed and the skill and the execution in the game, it’s so good now.
“But there is going to be a next step. There’s going to be a tipping point on what needs to be done next. The leagues that stay pro-active, whether it’s pro football, finding a way to put more offence into their game, I don’t think they want to see 7-6 games in the NFL either.”
This past year, the American Hockey League acted as an incubator for the NHL to test three-on-three overtime. Does it make sense to try larger nets in the AHL to see what the outcome might be?
“I’d love for the American League to try it – just to see what it did statistically and what it changed,” Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “The fear of that is, if there’s a big advantage and the scoring goes up, then do you defend a different way? Do you then have to block all shots? You’re not going to worry about the north-south game. You’re so afraid of those seam plays now. I think the players and coaches will adjust – and you still want that back and forth.
“Even when they’re not going in, the game gets exciting on transition. Any odd man rushes, back and forth, up and down the ice – that’s when the game is at its very best.”
In last year’s Stanley Cup final – which featured two of the league’s top scoring teams but produced a per-game goals average of fewer than four – the teams were separated by only a single goal for the first six games of the series, an NHL record.
Tactically, if every game is close or tied, there’s a tendency for teams to play it safe. They only ever want to open it up if there’s separation in a game – a gap of more than a single goal – because now they need to press to get back in the game, which creates more rush chances, something that has been leached out of the modern game.
Another disturbing trend is how conservatively teams play in the final five minutes of regulation in a tied game, neither wanting to risk the guaranteed single point they earn if they can get to overtime.
Awarding three points for a regulation victory would almost certainly create an incentive to play more aggressively in the latter stages of a close game, but privately, managers say there is little interest in changing the current points system, because the NHL likes how it keeps so many teams alive in the playoff race.
“If you’re looking at more goals, there’s only one thing you can do – and that’s make the nets bigger,” said Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic, the ninth-highest scorer in NHL history. “The game itself doesn’t have to change very much. It’s up and down. It’s fast. It’s everything. But you’re never going to be able to get the coaches away from the defensive systems, good sticks, back-side pressure. You can say goalies can use smaller pads, but then you risk injury. No, they’re all your MVPs, so you can’t risk that.
“You can make the nets a little bigger, and if you did it, I’d go two inches, not just one.”
A possible compromise would be to change the shape of the goal posts so pucks that hit the post routinely carom in instead of staying. If such a change could be safely incorporated in the design, then that in itself might solve the problem – because, as Roy says, there are usually one or two shots a game that the goalie doesn’t stop but his goal posts do.
“I’m surprised they don’t want to make the nets an inch bigger,” Roy said. “What’s wrong with that? There’s a lot of crossbar and post plays in the game. [Players] coming down the wing now don’t see any net. Before, you had a foot on each side and you knew if you had a decent shot, it would go in.
“Just make the net an inch bigger.”