NHL fans are aware that hockey history has featured ebbs and flows to goal scoring. Seeing the record scores of a series from the 1985 Stanley Cup playoffs will tell you goals were flowing in those days; on the other hand, recalling that the 2015-16’s season Art Ross Trophy was awarded to Jamie Benn with 87 points suggests that season starved for offence. Few, however, appreciate the size of the gaps between the NHL’s goal scoring peaks and its nadirs.
The movement of average goals per game over the league’s 100-plus seasons is a vital concept in adjusting for eras. Goal scoring trends are at the core of the question that adjusted statistics seek to answer: what is the value of a goal or an assist in an NHL season? A cynic might say a goal is worth exactly what it suggests – one goal – on any day, in any year, under any rules, scored by any player. When a puck enters the net, one goal goes on the scoreboard in the rink, on NHL.com, on TSN’s SportsCentre ticker, or on the pages of your morning newspaper.
Given the varying levels of difficulty of scoring a goal under the many iterations of play the NHL has showcased, we know “a goal is a goal” is simply not true. The chart below provides a visual of goals per game, season by season, with the dotted line identifying the six goal per game mark.
NHL AVERAGE TOTAL GOALS PER GAME, 1917-18 TO 2020-21
The NHL’s first five seasons, starting from the inaugural 1917-18 campaign through 1921-22, represent a goal scoring haven. If attending an NHL game in those early days, one could expect to see between 7.92 and 9.58 goals scored in the contest, making these initial seasons five of the eight most offensive on record. These high-scoring affairs were short-lived, however; by the NHL’s eighth season, 1924-25, goals were at a premium, shrinking quickly to an average of only five per contest.
As the NHL, and hockey itself, was still in its formative years, goal prevention quickly became a priority. Many credit Jacques Lemaire and the mid-1990s New Jersey Devils with popularizing offence-stifling traps; however, systematic defensive schemes in the NHL became mainstream more than seven decades earlier. By the end of the “Roaring” Twenties, NHL offence is extinct, and the 1928-29 season represents the low point – just 2.92 total goals are scored per game! This is a measly 1.46 goals for each team per game. Yawn. George Hainsworth records a preposterous 22 shutouts in 44 games, the last-place Chicago Black Hawks average only three-quarters of a goal per game, and everyone agrees something needs to change before the puck drops to kick off the next season.
Two major advancements are enacted in short order, changing the NHL forever. First, a form of the forward pass is allowed in all three zones for the 1929-30 season, previously limited to only the defensive and neutral zones. Less than six weeks later, the league decides it has allowed too much offence, instituting regulations resembling present-day offside rules. Nonetheless, the net effect of the changes launches offence to nearly six goals per game that season, comparable to today’s NHL levels.
The good times are short-lived, however. Offence falls back by over one goal per game the next year, as the coaches and players quickly adapt to the radical revisions. As the NHL’s leadership continues to tweak its rules modestly around penalty shots, icing, and referee systems, offence remains relatively static. For the entire decade of the 1930s, total goals per game are between 4.32 and 5.06 – comfortably above its lowest point, but still the stingiest scoring decade in history.
It takes World War II and the introduction of the center ice red line to meaningfully move the league’s offensive needle. With its rosters decimated by military participation, goals per game creep upward as the NHL enters the 1940s. The significant dilution of talent from war service leads to an incredible rise in league-wide goal scoring. In the 1970s, competition from the World Hockey Association would lead to similar results as lower caliber reinforcements were needed to fill NHL rosters. Naturally, the wider the chasm of the skills of its players, the easier an environment for goal scoring. Further compounding offence, the introduction of the red line in 1943-44 furiously speeds up the game, reducing the number of offside calls at the time caused by “cherry-picking.” These two factors produce the sixth most offensive season of all-time – its 8.16 total goals per game have yet to be matched since. As one of the last major edits to the core rules, this season is commonly credited with pressing the NHL into a new era of play. Bill Cowley’s 1.97 points per game in an NHL watered down from WWII are unmatched until Wayne Gretzky in his sophomore season.
With the Original Six teams now firmly in place, the war concludes, the available talent adapts to the red line, and the NHL stabilizes. Interestingly, though the same six franchises compete under similar rules for twenty-five straight seasons from 1942-43 through 1966-67, goals per game continue to fluctuate. In 1952-53, goals per game hits the Original Six floor of 4.79 per game, yet 24-year-old Gordie Howe still manages 95 points in 70 games for his third of four straight scoring titles.
The six-team era of the NHL ends abruptly after the 1966-67 season, as the league doubles its franchise count to twelve. With double the number of teams, the number of available spots in the world’s best league also doubles overnight. With two franchises now in California, the landscape of the league has changed dramatically, significantly expanding its reach and its travel demands. Remarkably, when the Toronto Maple Leafs win their last Stanley Cup that spring in 1967, the scoring environment of slightly under six goals per game is identical to the one that John Tavares’ Leafs navigate before COVID-19 puts a halt to their 2019-20 season.
Goals per game reaches no higher than 6.08 until the fourth post-expansion season of 1970-71. The NHL is now a 14-team enterprise, having just added the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks. From there, offence goes off the rails and the league’s record book is never the same. The magical skills of Bobby Orr are on display in a sport seeing an explosion of offence, along with the addition, relocation, realignment and contraction of teams nearly every season. By the time Wayne Gretzky (and Mike Foligno) enter the league as rookies in autumn 1979, an average NHL game features approximately seven goals per game. By 1985-86, as Gretzky wraps up his fifth and final 200-point season and Foligno reaches his pinnacle of 41 goals, the NHL has crept to nearly eight goals per game. The 1980s – each of the 10 seasons in the decade – stand uninterrupted as the 10 most offence-happy seasons since WWII ended in 1945, averaging 7.66 goals per game. In the 1980s, the value of a goal has dropped dramatically; if goals are hockey’s currency, then the price of a goal was never lower.
Goal scoring averages remain in the neighbourhood of seven goals through 1992-93, and suddenly the inexplicable happens – offence starts to dry up. Mike Foligno retires as a Florida Panther at just the right time, as the 6.48 goals per game environment he exits has not been reached since. Slowly but steadily, by 2003-04, the NHL is a defence-first league again. As the Tampa Bay Lightning close out their first Stanley Cup title over the Calgary Flames, a typical NHL game features only 5.14 goals. It is the lowest scoring season since 1955-56, Henri Richard’s rookie year. No single reason is attributed to the goal drought, however theories include copycat tactical strategies focusing on goal-prevention; advancements in the size and quality of goaltending equipment; a focus on goaltending coaching producing better-trained athletes in the position; players’ willingness to block shots due to better protective gear; and a lack of creativity and talent from a decade featuring nine expansion clubs. Regardless the root cause, operating in a so-called “Dead Puck” era and entering a season-long lockout is not good business for the NHL.
After a crippling lost season in 2003-04, culminating in the first year without a Stanley Cup presentation since 1919 (spoiler: due to an influenza pandemic), the NHL uses the pause to reboot its damaged brand and amend the rules yet again. Before Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin launch their rookie seasons, the league announces it will operate under many new guidelines. In terms of the ice surface, the center-ice red line is removed when considering two-line passes, tag-up offside is allowable again, the length of the neutral zone is shortened, and goaltenders are barred from playing the puck inside a trapezoid-shaped section behind the net. Goaltenders are targeted further via an approximate 10% reduction in equipment size. The penalty standard is meaningfully altered as a zero-tolerance policy for interference, hooking and holding produces more penalties and therefore power plays. All these changes focus on improving the flow of the sport, with the intended consequence of bolstering offence. In a league battered by low-scoring games and managing the lost season’s fan backlash, the changes are a welcome distraction. Though a shootout is added to eliminate tie games, it does not directly impact goal totals as any such goals are not considered part of a skater’s season tally.
The overhaul works immediately, as the “new” NHL sees nearly twelve power plays awarded per game – the highest total on record. Naturally, goal-scoring jumps about 18% from the previously played season. The spike in goals is short-lived, however. In 2007-08, as Nick Foligno enters the NHL in the third post-lockout season, goal-scoring has swiftly shifted back downward to 5.44 per game. As we’ve seen throughout history, players adapt quickly to changes in league penalty standards, causing power play opportunities to drop off dramatically. By 2016-17, power play opportunities are about half as frequent as the 2005-06 reboot season – one of the largest culprits for the scoring decline. Consider that a decline of five total power plays per game, in which teams score at an approximate 20% rate with the man-advantage, reduces goal scoring by a full goal per game on power play markers alone. Consequently, for the seven-season window from 2010-11 to 2016-17, amidst the primes of Crosby, Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane, the league averages just 5.36 goals per game – nearly identical to the lackluster scoring environment the NHL sought to boost with its new rules.
As we reach the present day on our journey of NHL scoring history, offence over the last four-plus seasons has seen a mild uptick. Reasons for the latest shift in scoring include higher power play percentages and fewer shootouts given 3-on-3 overtime rules. Featuring around six goals per game, the NHL of today is in line with all-time average scoring norms. Nikita Kucherov’s league-best 128 points in 2018-19, for example, equaled 128 adjusted points – a clear indication that the season’s scoring environment was historically neutral.
We’re now wiser, having learned how the value of a goal has shifted dramatically spanning 100-plus seasons of major rule changes, talent dilution, evolving penalty standards, and varying tie-breaking formats. Hockey’s evolution continues to have an impact on the offence-versus-defence equilibrium. Despite all the noise around these changes, there is only one figure that matters when scoring environment is discussed – goals per game. This single figure in any given season – regardless of the rules, technology, skill of the players – is the driving force behind our first major adjustment. To measure performance accurately, a player must be assessed in the context of their environment.
We stated at the outset of our adjustments that six goals per game is our standard goal environment. A six-goal average reflects both a middle ground of a century of goal scoring and brings the scoring environment in line to easily relatable modern offence. The math then becomes simple. Hockey Reference uses Gordie Howe’s 49-goal, 1952-53 season to illustrate. To calculate the goal environment adjustment, we divide six by the league average goals per game, excluding Howe himself.
The 1952-53 season featured 1,006 goals over 210 games played; removing Howe’s own impact from that year, we get:
- (1,006 – 49) ÷ 210 = 4.56 goals per game
To arrive at our goal environment adjustment, we get:
- 6 ÷ 4.56 = 1.32
Howe scored 49 goals, which using the adjustment, calculates to:
- 49 x 1.32 = 65 goals
Remarkably, this means that Howe’s 49 goals scored in 1952-53 are commensurate to scoring 65 goals in a neutral offensive environment. This is the first of four adjustments we will make to counting stats (assist environment, schedule length, and roster size are still to come).
Adjustment #1: Goal EnvironmentAdjusts a player’s goal total to a goal environment of 6 goals per game
This single adjustment, however, plainly demonstrates how pointedly certain eras in history suppressed goal scoring. Howe, owner of the second most goals of all-time, has zero 50-goal seasons to his credit. In fact, across the last 17 seasons, just a dozen players have a 50-goal season on their hockey card. Yet, in 1992-93 alone, fourteen players reached 50 goals, and, in the decade of 1980s, there were 76 instances of a player hitting the 50-goal plateau. Mr. Hockey simply came along too soon to relish in the offensive paradise that would emerge.
With the history of the NHL’s scoring environment in our back pocket, a look at the mechanics of our first adjustment, we’re realizing the seismic shifts adjusted stats can have on basic scoring totals.
Data from Hockey-Reference.com.