Goal Scoring up in NHL - Offensive Awakening
Photo: Jose Quiroz/Icon Sportswire
Goal Scoring up in NHL - offensive awakening or blip on the radar?
The proverbial ‘flood gates’ cracked wide open to the start the 2016/17 NHL season. A mere six days into the new campaign, the average goals per game was up more than a full goal from the 2015/16 season, which is a very significant 18.4% increase. Considering goals generally capture the most exciting moments of a game, fans were treated to a huge bump in entertainment value. This is the highest goals per game since the 1992-93 season, but over the last few days it is already showing signs of slowing. Here is our take on the increase and whether the train can keep chugging along.
The increase in goals can be attributed to a few factors, many relating to the increase in young players due to the salary cap squeeze. Youth and entry level deals have replaced the high paid grizzled veterans who were very well versed at defensive nuances of the NHL game. Today more than 20 teenagers have already played at least one game compared to none a decade ago. Teenage stars lead youth movement
The youngsters have brought a flood of talent along with an early surge of adrenalin topped with a throttle down offfensive approach. Factor in the superior development these elite players receive, including their finishing skills, and the result is a meaningful offensive infusion into the NHL. On the flip side, this young talent also brings inexperienced defensive abilities and a higher frequency of offensive turnovers. All of these factors drive offense and goals.
Traditional analytics are much better at measuring team proficiency than individual player contributions and have a tendency to exaggerate offensive player contributions, and under appreciate defensive proficiency (See Subban v Weber). Case in point, Kris Russell was left twisting in the wind this off-season while his contribution to winning was significantly higher than many defensemen that signed before him. The Oilers signed him on the eve of the season and have been thrilled with his contributions so far. Players that contribute less offensively than expected but are worse defensively help push overall league offense up, especially when these players are defensemen.
With the increased size of the average goalie, teams have focused and improved at creating a net front presence. In the past this skill has been attributed more to individual players, like that of color commentator and former Oiler Craig Simpson and more recently former Red Wing Tomas Holmstrom. Net front traffic has now been adopted as a team trait and expected from most forwards.
Players are getting more adept at recognizing closed shooting lanes and changing the point of attack. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are exceptional at finding open shooting and passing lanes, but the skill is spreading to all defensemen. A great example was this great feed from the Winnipeg Jets Nikolaj Elhers to Patrick Laine for this game tying
Team Defensive Systems
The regular season brings an elevated level of intensity which can challenge a team's defensive systems more than the exhibition season did, especially if several young players replaced veterans. Why teams would be disadvantaged implementing systems this season could be partially influenced by the roughly 160 players missing from NHL training camps. The 160 players of the 600 NHL line-up spots represent 26.7% of the players and could have an impact, but these players should for the most part know the defensive systems.
World Cup, Tipping Point?
For those that have read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “The Tipping Point”, you will understand how significant events can act as catalysts for change. The exceptional offensive performance of Team North America at the World Cup inspired not only team members but all players, coaches and fans across the entire NHL. Their offensive contributions bettered an exceptional Team Canada by 15.5%. Just like Gretzky inspired a raw group of 1980 Oilers to excel offensively, this group of players may have been the significant offensive driver to launch the 2016/17 NHL season.
Will it Continue?
Unfortunately as much as we would like this added offense and entertainment to stay, there are powerful forces working against this offensive push, with winning at the center.
At the World Cup on a play-by-play basis, Team Canada trailed Team North America offensively but outperformed them defensively by a huge 86.3%. Would anyone be surprised Europe was second defensively at 39.4% behind Canada? Strong defense is essential to winning and unless a team and it’s fans are programmed into rebuild mode, coaches need to match or better the expectations that have been created. This means teaching the same defense that suffocates offense, and helps win games. This also means deploying those players, young or old, that can meet the minimum level of defensive proficiency required to win. You can bet both of these things are happening now.... but who's fighting the battle on the offensive side?
How does the NHL increase and sustain offense? This is part of a much longer discussion, but injecting more young talent into the NHL and bringing the best young offensive players together to inspire and promote offense seems like it has some teeth.
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