Just because Wayne Gretzky laced up his skates in an alumni game over the weekend doesn’t mean the NHL is back to the 1980s.
It just feels like it.
Goals are coming fast and furious through the first two weeks of the season, with scoring at a pace that hasn’t been seen in over a decade. Players are scoring an average of 5.98 goals a game, a far cry from the offense-happy days of Gretzky but an increase so far from every other year since 2005-06 when new rules were designed to boost scoring.
An influx of young players, the preseason World Cup of Hockey and more backup goaltenders playing because of injuries have kept red lights flashing around the league.
“Overall, the game is going younger, faster, more skill, so I think everything kind of combines and goes into it,” Arizona Coyotes winger Radim Vrbata said. “I think the penalties are called more now than late in the season last year. That’s normal, so you probably have more power-play goals. And you have all the guys who played at the World Cup, they’re in their midseason form already where normally it would take them a couple games to get going.”
The NHL, hoping to keep its fans entertained, has tried many things to get scoring up, from shrinking goaltending equipment to adopting 3-on-3 overtime. Yet goals have hovered around 5.3 per game over the past five years.
The jump early this season has as much to do with young talent like Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews as anything else.
McDavid and Matthews lead a wave of 16 teenagers in the NHL right now, players who dazzle with flashy moves and who sometimes aren’t afraid to take a risk and maybe turn the puck over. As hockey trends more toward speed and skill, the game becomes more unpredictable and coaches gain more gray hair.
“You have more skill players in the league, too, so they’re not as conscious with puck management,” Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “You talk to the coaches probably around the league that might be as much as anything, and (players are) finding the back of the net on those.”
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett joked that it’s a Team North America mentality, referencing the 23-and-under World Cup group that thrived playing end-to-end, fast-paced games and scored at a blistering pace. Beyond just Team North America, the World Cup got many of the league’s elite up to speed to start the year, and Philadelphia forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare believes he and the other 168 players who took part are already in December form.
“It definitely helps,” Flyers teammate Sean Couturier said. “I think guys have been in game situations at such a high pace, high level for a month and a half before the season actually started.”
Eight of the top nine scorers so far this season played in the World Cup, and surprise standout Richard Panik benefited from so many Chicago Blackhawks players being away by making the most of extra ice time in preseason. The Blackhawks are also doing their part to contribute to the goal fest by allowing a league-high 14 of the 138 power-play goals scored through Wednesday.
Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters thinks power-play units are ahead of penalty kills and that five-on-five play is “looser” than usual.
Loose play plus a lot of backup goaltenders in the nets is a recipe for offense. Through 97 games, 61 different goalies have started at least once, compared with 85 in 1,230 games last season.
That’s in part a product of injuries to starters like the Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Quick, Boston Bruins’ Tuukka Rask and Arizona’s Mike Smith and also the compressed schedule forced because of the World Cup. Each team will have a five-day “bye week” in January or February.
“I’m sure because we have a lot of back to backs and we have the bye week – the games are probably compressed a little bit more together than it’s been in the last (few) years,” Capitals backup goalie Philipp Grubauer said. “If you’re good and play good and get the right numbers and win the games, I’m sure (backups) will get a few more starts.”
Backups will continue to play, but many around the NHL expect production to slide back to normal as the season wears on. So enjoy the throwback scoring while it lasts.
“I think things will tighten up as we go,” Peters said. “But it’s been enjoyable for the fans.”