Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. (Getty Images)
Once again, the NHL will almost certainly have only one 100-point scorer and one 50-goal man this season. Does this mean we're back to the days of the turn of this century when teams had trouble scoring more than five goals a game?
Barring an injury, Sidney Crosby will score somewhere in the neighborhood of 108 points this season. And it will mark the third straight season in which there has been only one 100-point scorer – Martin St-Louis was the only one to score the equivalent of 100 in last year’s lockout shortened season – in the NHL.
It’s a far cry from the halcyon days after Lockout, Part II, isn’t it. In each of the two seasons that followed the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season and led to an unprecedented crackdown on obstruction fouls, there were seven players who scored 100 points or more.
As it stands today, Ryan Getzlaf is on pace to finish second in scoring with 89 points, while Phil Kessel is on target to finish third with just 87. The only player on pace to hit the 50-goal mark this season is Alex Ovechkin, compared to 2005-06 when five players scored 50 or more.
The league, meanwhile, has produced an average of 5.37 goals per game this season – not including the goal that is awarded to the team that wins the shootout - which is right around where it has been the past two seasons, but again significantly behind the 6.05 goals per game that were scored in ’05-06 and only slightly ahead of the dismal season of 2003-04 when only 5.14 goals were scored per game.
Does this mean we’re back to the dreaded Dead Puck Era in the NHL? All I can say is that speaking from experience, what we watch on a nightly basis in 2013-14 isn’t even close to the rodeos on ice we were forced to endure in the early part of this century. Could the NHL tighten up its standard when it comes to calling penalties? Absolutely, but to liken the game now to the garbage that was being fed to us for 1,230 games during the Dead Puck Era…well, it’s not even close.
I would argue the elite player has evolved even more in the past decade and we are now at the point where younger players are making more of an impact on the game than they ever have. For the most part, the games are compelling and feature enough good scoring chances to keep fans interested. Are there clunkers? Of course, but not near as many as there were a decade ago.
Come to think of it, perhaps much of this has to do with power plays, and the dearth of them that are in the game now. Take, for example, this season. The NHL as a whole is on pace to have 11,632 power play opportunities this season, compared to 14,390 in 2005-06. That’s a difference of 2,588 power plays or more than two per game. So let’s say the average team in the NHL scores on 17 percent of its power plays. That’s about 440 goals, or more than a third of a goal per game right there.
This season, the Washington Capitals are on pace to lead the league with 296 power play opportunities. That will mark the first time in 16 seasons that the team leading the NHL in power plays has had fewer than 300 opportunities with the man advantage. (The Montreal Canadiens led the league last season with 203, which equates to 347 over the course of an 82-game schedule.)
It’s a number that has been dropping for the better part of six years and when you compare it to 2005-06, the Boston Bruins had the fewest power plays in the league at 300. That year, nine teams had 500 or more power play opportunities, with the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes leading the way with 541 each.
Imagine what players such as Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos could do with 500 power plays in a season. Likely not as much as eight years ago, since almost everyone blocks shots now and penalty killing has become even more detailed and refined, but you get the idea.
Truth be told, there are probably a number of factors behind the decline in scoring. What the absence of the red line gives in potential fast breaks it also takes away with more latitude to trap and clog up the neutral zone. Goaltenders are getting better all the time and while the league has tried to tackle the issue of the size of their equipment, even by its own admission it still has a long way to go on that front.
So we’re not exactly back to the Dead Puck Era, but there are some red flags out there, starting with the natural erosion of the standard for obstruction. The good news is that’s something the league could change simply by making it clear to its teams and officials that the post-lockout standard is back in play.