The View From Wisconsin

Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Goal Scoring in the NHL

In 1982, when Wayne Gretzky set the NHL mark for goal scoring in a season, little did we know that the league had reached a turning point in the goal scoring department.

Since 1953, the NHL had gradually increased its goals-per-game totals on a league-wide basis, slowly working up to the point where the lamp was being lit over 67 percent more in the era of Gretzky, Messier and company.

Over a six year period from 1980-86, goals were being scored at a rate that hadn't been seen since the days of Joe Malone and Cy Denney. The NHL averaged well over 7.5 goals per game during that time – something that had never happened before in league history.

The build-up to that point took a lot of stops and starts. In 1953, the NHL posted its lowest goal scoring total since the beginning of the "Original Six" era. An average of only 4.79 goals were being scored per game – by both teams. The following season, in 1954, the league improved by only the slightest of margins to 4.80 goals per game.

Goal scoring had dropped dramatically after Canadian hockey players finally returned home from the war in Europe, after a spike in scoring (thanks to Maurice "Rocket" Richard's 50 goals in 50 games) in 1943-44.

Prior to World War II, goal scoring had fluctuated wildly with the addition (and subtraction) of teams due to the Great Depression. In 1928-29, the NHL posted its worst ever league goals-per-game total of 2.92 – the only sub-three GPG total in the league's existence. Goals shot up the following year to 5.91 per game after the league made a simple rule change – allowing players to pass the puck within any of the three zones. Prior to 1929, goalies knew who was taking the shot because the player who held the puck wasn't allowed to pass it to a teammate in the attacking zone.

Goal scoring would continue its up-and-down roller coaster ride until 1939. After six seasons of six-plus goals per game, the ride would crash when the war ended, with goal totals dropping every year except 1949-50 until the changes in 1954.

What started the upward trend for goal scoring? The introduction of a new rule: minor penalties would end when the penalized team allowed a goal to be scored. And, the beginning of the careers of three players who would change the game: Bernie Geoffrion, Bobby Hull and (later) Bobby Orr.

Geoffrion was the father of the "slap shot" – the hard shot from the point that would make a booming sound when stick hit the puck, and an even louder booming sound when it hit the backboards – or the back of the net. His nickname of "Boom-Boom" was very appropriate, in that sense.

Hull was known for his banana-blade stick, with which he could whistle pucks on a straight line into the net. The heavily-bent blade allowed him to set all sorts of scoring records, including the NHL single-season goal scoring mark. His success actually caused the NHL to legislate away blade curvature, which caused scoring to drop slightly for a few years.

Then came Orr. Bobby Orr revolutionized the game as the league finally expanded in 1967, by doing something defensemen had never dreamed of doing: joining the play in progress and setting up scoring opportunities in the attacking zone. With Orr, players like Phil Esposito could rack up tons of goals with his well-timed passes. Along with the reduced quality of goaltending as each new team expanded into the league, goal scoring shot up to the 7-per-game level when the NHL and WHA merged – and a young teenager named Wayne Gretzky made his NHL debut.

In Wayne's first 11 seasons in the NHL, league goals-per-game totals never dipped below 7. It wasn't until his second full season in Los Angeles in 1990-91 that goal scoring league-wide hit 6.91.

There were reasons for this, too: first of all, glasnost and the tearing down of the Iron Curtain had an effect, as players from the former Soviet Bloc countries came to the NHL and showed the league how to play defense against the wide-open European style of hockey that had been predominant in the NHL to that point.

Secondly, the success of the New Jersey Devils in the abbreviated 1995 season added to the decline. The Devils employed the most frustrating European import of all – the neutral-zone trap. Years later, the NHL franchise with the most European style of play, the Detroit Red Wings, employed a variation of the trap, called the left-wing lock, to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Thirdly, goaltenders from Eastern Europe began to show North American "butterfly" goalies different ways of stopping – and playing – the puck. The likes of Hasek, Irbe, Khabibulin and Salo changed the way netminders participated in games. On dump-ins, goalies used to just let their defensemen or wingers go behind them and gather up the puck to take it up ice. Now, goalies went behind the net to grab the puck, stopping it and passing it forward to speed up the game. With the goalie playing the puck, teams couldn't change players wholesale as they did before; instead, they had to change in stages to avoid getting caught by the goaltender passing the puck up ice.

The NHL moved to change the rules about the center red line for 2005, which resulted in a predictable increase in goal scoring. The goals-per-game total of 6.051 was in the top 40 all-time in NHL history. That may not sound like much, considering the 88 seasons the NHL has played since 1917. However, the 2003-04 season average of 5.137 was the 20th lowest in league history in GPG.

The difference between the two seasons was of the top five increases in goal scoring per game in league history. The other four major increases happened when either a major rule change occurred or when the league finally consolidated. After the 1929-30 increase due to the removal of passing restrictions, there was the first year of the center red-line in 1943-44 (and Maurice Richard's 50-in-50), and the first two consolidations of the league: in 1919-20, when the NHL set on four teams (and Joe Malone returned to play), and in 1942-43, when the weak Brooklyn Americans franchise finally bowed out and the NHL became set at six teams for the next 25 years.

There's no way to tell if the NHL's rule change will result in a long-term increase in goal scoring. History suggests that goal scoring tends to trend downward in the years immediately after a large increase. In the 10 seasons after the four largest increases in goals per game, the average GPG dropped by at least one goal – and dropped by as many as four goals after 1921.