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Why aren't the NHL's big stars shooting the lights out this season?

Ken Campbell
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Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

News

Why aren't the NHL's big stars shooting the lights out this season?

Ken Campbell
By:

The NHL is on pace to have its lowest-scoring Art Ross Trophy winner since Beatlemania and with the season more than three-quarters complete, there is not a single player on pace to hit the 90-point mark. There has to be an advanced stat to explain all of this.

As we head down the stretch run of the NHL season, the race for the Art Ross Trophy has never been closer. Going into tonight’s games, three points separates first from seventh in the scoring race and there are just eight points between the top spot and 18th place.

There have never been more players clustered at the top of the scoring race, but star players are about to make history this season for another, more ignominious reason. As it stands now, not accounting for Alex Ovechkin’s white-hot scoring streak and based only on points-per-game to this point of the season, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are on pace to score 86 points each to lead the NHL. (If that holds and they finish tied, Malkin would take the Art Ross on the basis of having more goals.)

If that were the case, it would represent the first time the NHL has failed to produce a 90-point scorer – or the equivalent in the case of lockout-shortened seasons – since 1967-68, the first season after the league expanded to 12 teams. And it would mark the lowest point total for an Art Ross winner since Bobby Hull scored 84 points in just 70 games in 1961-62.

But here’s the interesting thing. League scoring is not down appreciably this season from recent years. In fact, not taking into account the goal that is awarded for shootout wins, NHL teams are averaging 5.37 goals per game this season, which is slightly higher than the 5.34 that was recorded last season. That was a season in which Crosby had 104 points, but he was definitely an outlier, since Ryan Getzlaf finished second in the scoring race with just 87 points.

A more interesting comparison would be the 2012-13 season that was truncated by the lockout. That year, six players were on pace to scored 90 points in an 82-game season, including Crosby who was on a mind-boggling 128-point pace. Yet, that season, scoring league-wide was just 5.31 goals per game, which is lower than it is this season.

So why aren’t the stars scoring this season? Well, as we’ve seen by goals per game, we can’t blame it on the return of the Dead Puck Era. Is it the mumps, injuries, better goaltending, worse power plays? Well, the numbers across the board don’t really bear that out. Even before Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin were injured, neither was on pace to score 90 points. As far as the mumps outbreak, the two biggest stars who came down with them were Crosby and Corey Perry, neither of whom would be a 90-point man based on their production in the games they’ve played.

There are a couple of theories. Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland believes that because the enforcer has been edged out of the game, that has raised the tide of all ships. Those players are being replaced by fourth liners who have a modicum of skill and can chip in offensively, but more importantly won’t hurt you defensively. “We’re playing the Rangers tonight,” Holland said. “And I know that if there’s a point in the game where our fourth line is out against their first line, they can get through the shift.”

St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, meanwhile, says the same parity that has hit the league overall has also hit top players. Hitchcock says so many young players can now step into the league and play that coaches aren’t afraid to use them in any situation. And this goes back to Holland’s point about the better fourth lines. That has allowed teams to take some of the checking responsibilities off the third line, so it can be made into a more offensive line.

“It used to be that the way everyone built their team, the third line was the checking line,” Hitchcock said. “Now when I look at teams, I don’t see much difference from a goal-production standpoint from the second line to the third line. You have guys on the third line now that are 20-goal scorers.”

And the theory is that is cutting into the ice time of the star players because they don’t have to be relied on as much. It’s certainly the case for Crosby, who is playing two fewer minutes per game this season than last. A breakout player such as Vladimir Tarasenko, meanwhile, has seen his ice time jump by more than 2 ½ minutes per game this season.

You might be inclined to chalk it up to goaltending. But even though save percentage is creeping up, it's not out of whack with other seasons. Then again, since coming back from an injury in January, Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens has posted a freakish .957 save percentage. And as Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs pointed out at the all-star break, "There's a goalie, too, you have to score on, right? They're the best in the world. It's not easy to score on those guys."

And that's the case evidently, for even the best shooters in the world, for this season at least.

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Why aren't the NHL's big stars shooting the lights out this season?