NHL Scoring: A League In Transition
There was a time in the not too distant past when a point per game player was hailed as one of the league's best, easily in the top ten. In today's game, however, that threshold has erupted! Eighty is the new sixty in the NHL.
To be competitive in the current NHL, a team needs players pacing at one hundred or more points per season. It's practically a situation where half the NHL teams are rostering either a LaFontaine/Mogilny type of duo or a Gretzky/Messier one-two punch. Scoring has gone bananas. It begs the question, why? Why now? What changed? Is there more offensive talent? Is there less defensive talent? Is there a lack of quality goaltending? Could it be a coincidental combination of all these things occurring at the same time? Or is it something else? Why is a two or more goal lead so difficult to hang on to?
Legitimate questions. The answers are not easy to come by. Everyone has an opinion. However, the most frequent response by insiders and former players is that it's definitely not a coincidence. Steve Yzerman, former Detroit Red Wings captain during their historic Stanley Cup seasons and current General Manager of that same team, seems to have his finger right on the pulse of this. "In the offensive zone [teams] are very active. Their D are very active in the offense and in the bigger end zones teams are having trouble defending, figuring out a way of defending," Yzerman explains. "It used to be when we played it was pretty simple. 3 on 3 down low and wingers cover the points. Now with the D so active and so much more room, we're having a lot of switches. Teams defend with overloads in the corner which creates confusion when the offensive team breaks the puck out of the corner."
Yzerman sees it clearly. Often, in games this season, you'll see players breaking out of their zone and the only thing standing between them and the opposing netminder is a forward. The switching, as Yzerman puts it, is a big part of the game now. The theory is that it's a team game and when a defenseman joins the offensive push, as they are coached to do, a forward not currently in the actionable area moves to cover him. If the puck is turned over, which is not uncommon, the forward finds himself in a defensive role. With a career long focus on offensive prowess, forwards do not have the necessary skills to defend an oncoming rush against other highly skilled forwards. This is today's NHL.
Yzerman continues, "So, the game is in transition and I think the offensive side of coaching has overtaken the defensive side and now teams and coaches are going to have to adjust to come up with better techniques or systems to defend." Is goaltending also an issue? Addressing goaltending, Yzerman offers this. "Now with 32 teams in the league, I think we're all looking for strength in goaltending. Everybody is trying to improve. It's a tough time to try and defend and it's a tough time to be in goal the way the game is played." To the point Yzerman is making, other experts have noted that coaching in the last 15 years has changed from the bottom up, with offense being the focus. This style of coaching will of course yield more offensively skilled players and, as a byproduct, less defensive minded players. To adjust, coaches and teams will need to transition into defensive coaching techniques with newer, modern methods that round out a more complete skill set for the player.
These trends come in waves and the next wave will certainly be more defensive. It will take a while for that to be reflected in the NHL game. Maybe as long as a decade. Until then, we'll probably continue seeing these record setting scoring numbers across the board. I'm good with that. This style of hockey is very exciting.