Enjoy the plethora of goals now because it's very likely goaltending improves, rookie stars slow down, and referees put their whistles away.
Much has been made of the plethora of goals that have been scored in the NHL so far this season. Dynamic players and suspect goaltending have combined to give goal judges a case of repetitive stress injuries from pressing the goal-light button so often during the league’s first 93 games.
And the numbers are there to back it up. So far this season, teams have combined to produce an average of 5.91 goals per game, which doesn’t take into account the goal awarded to teams that win shootouts. In addition, there are 54 players who have played at least four games so far who are averaging a point per game, and that includes nine defensemen and six rookies. One of those players – Zach Werenski – is both a defenseman and a rookie and, going into Wednesday night’s games, freshman Auston Matthews leads the league in scoring and is on a 137-point pace.
It’s impressive to be sure, but is it going to continue? Almost certainly not. Even though this season is a little more productive out of the gate than most, the reality is that scoring is usually higher during the first part of the season before levelling off. It has been speculated that it’s so much more dramatic this season because the offensive players have already found their groove after having participated in the World Cup, but defensemen and goaltenders were part of that tournament, too.
And it’s not as though this is unprecedented. In fact, not long ago, scoring was at the same pace as it is now after roughly the same period of time. After 92 games in 2009-10, teams were actually scoring more than they are this season, averaging 5.97 non-shootout goals per game. The season before, the average was just slightly lower, at 5.86 goals per game after 91 games. And what ultimately happened? Well, in 2009-10, things evened out and the league finished the season at 5.46 non-shootout goals per game, which is pretty much average for this era. The league had four 100-point scorers and a total of 23 full-time players who averaged at least a point per game. In 2008-09, the league had three 100-point men and 20 regulars who averaged a point per game.
It will be interesting to see where this season goes. You’d have to think that there are a number of goaltenders who will find their games before long. Having sleeker pants can’t possibly be making that much of a difference. But what will bear more scrutiny is how the rookies and young players continue to produce as the season goes on.
Remember, these rookies who are filling the net are going through the league for the first time at the moment. Once opponents get a book on them, it’s probably going to be that much more difficult to make the same kinds of eye-popping plays they’re making right now. And none of them has experienced the rigors of the NHL on a long-term basis. Even Connor McDavid played only 45 games last season, so nobody’s sure how good he’s going to be after 60 games of going against the top shutdown lines in the league.
But more than anything, NHL coaches are notorious for finding ways of shutting down offensive players. They will have their teams adapt defensively and as the season moves on, will be clamping down on star players a lot more closely. And that doesn’t even take into account the inevitable erosion in the standard of officiating that seems to happen every year. As the season goes on, the hooking and holding that occurs early often degenerates into tackling and full nelsons by the end of the season.
Perhaps none of that will happen, but recent history tells us that it almost always does. There’s a chance the quick feet, hands and minds of the young players who have dazzled us for the first eight percent of the season will continue to do so, undeterred by checking and officiating. But that being said, it’s far easy to destroy a masterpiece than to create one. By the same token, it’s easier to stop star players from scoring, particularly when you’re abetted by a league that seems to love parity as much as the NHL does, than it is to continue to create offense. This is a league that goes to great pains to point out how close its games always are, conveniently forgetting the fact that it’s impossible to have large margins of victory when nobody is scoring.
It would be wonderful to see this level of scoring continue or, shocker of shockers, even rise a little. Enjoy it now, but it would be unwise to count on it continuing in the long term.