The process to normalize the NHL statistical ledger has led us through two critical adjustments. Each focused on boosting or docking a player in line with a given season’s conditions for earning goals and assists. These adjustments serve to bring production to a neutral level – six goals and 10 assists per game – in line with historical norms. Based on frequency alone, we know a goal or assist in 2000-01 is indisputably more valuable than a goal or assist in 1987-88. These adjustments recognize and correct for the imbalance in environment. Our final two adjustments are considerably simpler, using routine arithmetic based on the length of an NHL season and the number of skaters on a roster.
When it comes to season length, the clear mandate for sports leagues is to play as many regular season games as possible until the product or the players suffer from fatigue. With that principle in mind, the NHL’s schedule grew steadily for its first 77 seasons. As a for-profit enterprise, the logic for an ever-extending schedule is simple – more games played equals more ticket sales, advertising, concessions, and ultimately revenue. The greater the top line, the greater the pie available to pay players, coaches, management, and staff, and, ultimately, more profit to the team owners. In theory, anyway.
The table below summarizes games played per season across each of the NHL campaigns. For simplicity, the seasons are listed as the year in which the schedule concluded (i.e., the 1917-18 season is listed as “1918,” the 2020-21 season is listed as “2021”). The Length Factor is the multiplier required to extrapolate or interpolate the season to put it on a level 82-game regular season, the modern NHL season length and Hockey Reference’s baseline figure.
NHL REGULAR SEASON LENGTH, 1917-18 TO 2020-21
|Season(s)||# of Seasons||Games Played||Length Factor|
|2020||1||68 to 71||1.15 to 1.21|
The NHL grew its schedule on 13 different occasions from 1919-20 to 1992-93. An 82-game product has won out as the “right” number for the league in terms of practicality and travel for its current 32-team conglomerate. We also see four instances where an abbreviated season was the only plausible option due to labour issues (1994-95, 2012-13) and COVID-19 (2019-20, 2020-21).
In keeping with our historical check-in for each adjustment, we’ll take a brief walk down the path of NHL schedule length, which weaves an interesting tapestry. The league’s first season, 1917-18, did not go according to plan. With rosters lean from World War I, while attempting to fend off rival professional circuits, the NHL commenced with just four franchises (Toronto Arenas, Ottawa Senators, and two Montreal squads – the Canadiens and Wanderers). By January 1918, after an arena fire left both Montreal teams homeless, the Wanderers closed shop for good. This resulted in an awkward schedule, where the Wanderers played only four games and forfeited an additional two matches. The remaining three teams would play a 14-game first “half,” followed by an 8-game second “half” – a 22-game schedule. Different times, to say the least.
Things somehow went worse the following year for the NHL. The sophomore season would feature lawsuits, further pettiness and public vitriol over the league’s direction, culminating in a global flu pandemic that infected players and led to the death of Joe Hall amidst a cancelled intra-league Stanley Cup championship. The planned three-team, 20-game schedule saw its second half abbreviated to 8 games (from 10) due to the Toronto Arenas experiencing financial issues; as a result, only 18 regular season games were played, the fewest in league history.
From Season 3 through Season 75, the NHL’s schedule length would increase steadily and incrementally. The league stabilizes for a half-decade (1919-20 to 1923-24) as a four-franchise outfit playing 24 games apiece, adding Quebec and rebranding the Toronto Arenas as the St. Patrick’s. In 1924-25, the NHL welcomes the Montreal Maroons and its first U.S. outfit, the Boston Bruins, bumping the schedule to 30 games. The following season adds the Pittsburgh Pirates and sees the New York Americans replace the Hamilton Tigers, tacking on another six games (36). Another half decade (1926-27 to 1930-31) of stability sees a 10-team, 44-game schedule; expansion into Chicago, Detroit and a second New York franchise allows for a two-division circuit. The only hiccup in this period is Pittsburgh’s relocation to Philadelphia as the Quakers in 1930-31.
Ahead of the 1931-32 season, the impact of the Great Depression takes shape. The NHL loses the Quakers after one troubled season, as well as the founding Ottawa Senators, dropping to eight franchises. Undeterred, the league commences an eleven-season run featuring a 48-game schedule. After a single season on the sidelines, Ottawa hops back in to play for two seasons, then moves to St. Louis for one final attempt at viability before the franchise is folded permanently.
When the dust settles ahead of 1942-43, the NHL has bid adieu to its dual-city format, as the Montreal Maroons and New York Americans leave the Canadiens and Rangers, respectively, to represent their cities. This leaves the famous Original Six to do battle uninterrupted for a quarter-century, and the schedule grows quickly. 1942-43 features a 50-game calendar, increasing to 60 games in 1946-47, then to 70 games in 1949-50. It would stay this way until the league doubles its franchise count to 12 in the 1967 offseason. The new-look league opens with 74 games on the docket. As it sorts out its cross-country geography and logistics, the NHL immediately extends the schedule by two games to 76 the following season. As the league welcomes Buffalo and Vancouver in 1970, it adds two more games to 78. By 1974-75, the NHL is an 80-game syndicate. Despite seeing its franchise count fluctuate from 18 to 22 amidst the melding of the WHA, expansion, and further wonky franchise relocations and mergers, it remains an 80-game league for 18 seasons.
The only instances of the NHL going beyond 82 games occurs in the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons. One of the outcomes of a brief 1992 player strike is that two additional neutral-site games are sprinkled into the following two seasons. The games are played in potential future NHL markets as test sites for further expansion. Interestingly, neutral site hosts Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Minneapolis and Phoenix would see their cities obtain an NHL team in subsequent years, as well as the Cleveland/Cincinnati experiment in Ohio aiding to blaze a path to Columbus. Though the games were a precursor to future markets, the earlier strike itself was a precursor to future labour unrest between players and owners that would besiege the NHL’s next two decades.
In 1994-95, the thought of a full NHL season is quickly squashed, a lockout threatening whether the season is to be played at all. After mercifully resolving the issues in January 1995, the league plays an abbreviated 48-game season headlined by the emergence of MVP phenom Eric Lindros. When plays resumes in 1995-96, the NHL returns to its annual 82-game format. However, the lockout is only the tip of iceberg when it comes to the league’s labour strife and squandered games. The 2004-05 season is famously lost in its entirety – not a single game is played. Full seasons resume in 2005-06 under a salary cap without issue, until the 2012-13 season is forced to replicate 1994-95. An intra-conference, 48-game schedule is patched together in January 2013 after another lockout cancels the opening months of the season.
Relative labour peace emerges from these ashes, as the NHL motors along for seven seasons of planned 82-game schedules, until disaster strikes. In March 2020, about 85% through the season, the coronavirus pandemic brings the planet (and the regular season) to a screeching halt. The NHL acts swiftly in the following summer months, abandoning the regular season and creating an extended playoff format amidst a “bubble” from the outside world in two Canadian hub cities. This leaves the league’s 31 teams with somewhere between 68 and 71 games played in the 2019-20 record book. When play resumes for 2020-21, it is a 56-game, intra-division season – the first of its kind.
The chart below encapsulates the NHL’s unique history of games played in each regular season. The trendline near the top is the 82-game mark, the baseline in our season length adjustment. Any gap below the trendline identifies a season in which all players experienced a disadvantage in accumulating goals and assists via short or truncated schedules; the two 84-game years in the early 1990s above the line represent the only seasons where an advantage in accruing counting stats exists.
NHL REGULAR SEASON GAMES PLAYED PER TEAM, 1917-18 TO 2020-21
Our third adjustment on our trail to level the playing field is clear. If a player did not have the opportunity to play 82 games in season, then we need to credit additional adjusted goals and assists to their stat line. In the instance of the 84-game seasons, a modest 2.4% downward adjustment is required to shrink totals to the baseline. When it comes to the 2019-20 COVID-shortened season, each player’s totals are adjusted upward for the number of games their respective teams completed (i.e., between 68 and 71 games); this season is averaged as 70 games for illustration purposes in the above chart.
Armed with a history lesson on season length and further aided by visual evidence, we revisit Gordie Howe’s 1952-53 season for the latest adjustment. In adjustment #1 for goal environment, we bumped Howe’s goal total to 65. That goal total, however, remains the product of the 70-game schedule played by Howe’s Red Wings.
Seeking to normalize the goal total over an 82-game season, we use the Length Factor in the table “NHL Regular Season Games Played Per Team, 1917-18 to 2020-21” at the beginning of the page:
- 82 ÷ 70 = 1.17
Howe’s 65 goals in a neutral scoring environment, extended across 82 games, is:
- 65 x 1.17 = 76 goals
The third adjustment pushes Howe’s actual tally of 49 goals in 1952-53 further to 76 goals over an 82-game schedule. Applying the same logic to his revised assist total that went from 46 to 66 in adjustment #2, we get 77 assists (i.e., 66 x 1.17).
Adjustment #3: Season LengthAdjusts a player’s goals and assist totals to an 82-game schedule
Howe’s 1952-53 season in league recordkeeping reads 49 goals, 46 assists, 95 points. Through two adjustments, it grew to 65, 66, and 131, respectively; after the third adjustment, we’re up to 76, 77, and 143 – some of the greatest marks in NHL history. We must remember though that this is a four-adjustment process, and that not all adjustments are favourable. Think how Mike Foligno’s career totals shrank due to the scoring paradise of the 1980s. Howe faces further adjustment when it comes to roster size. Regardless, it is already evident from the goal environment, assist environment, and season length adjustments that Howe’s offensive totals desperately warrant further celebration.
We’ve taken the scenic route through the adjustments to discover as much as possible about how the NHL’s history drives the context needed to effectively level the playing field. As our review of season length concludes, we are left with one final adjustment – roster size.
Data from Hockey-Reference.com.