NHL Scoring Has Been on a 30 Year Slide, And No One Wants To Talk About It

Created 2 years 345 days ago
by Michael DeNicola

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by Michael DeNicola

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015 --

I didn't really think I'd have much of an interest writing about this topic, but it wasn't until yesterday while engaging hockey fans over social media that I felt the urge to open a blog on it. And oddly enough, it manifested itself while I was researching Pelle Lindbergh's goalie statistics to prove how his career 0.886 save percentage was not "average" by any standard. And I'll be sure to get to that, but first...

Scoring in the NHL is trending downward. No matter which of the current high-scoring NHLers you name, or any singular high-scoring week(s) in recent seasons, this is not a matter of opinion.... it's mathematical fact that scoring in the National Hockey League is sliding. It's not spiraling to the ground in a barreling, fiery mess. But it begs questioning, how do we stop the decline? How does the NHL get scoring back on the climb? 

Okay, so let me backtrack. Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the late Pelle Lindbergh's automobile accident. I had made a post from our blog's Facebook page, and shared that post from my personal Twitter account...

That post, and the tweet, received great feedback. But as suspected, there was a small number of people who decided to tell me how average Lindbergh's stats are, and they don't understand the big deal our fans make about Pelle. Especially those who were too young or not alive to remember him in goal for the Flyers. 

I didn't take offense. People have a right to their opinions, and I respect that. But it still lit a fire under me, and I decided to dive deeper into research. 

It was the 1984-85 NHL season. Pelle Lindbergh was in goal for the Philadelphia Flyers. In 65 starts, Pelle saw 40 wins, 17 regulation losses, and 7 results combined for ties and overtime losses. It was good enough for a number of things...

  1. For the Flyers, it paved the road to the Playoffs, and inevitably the 1985 Stanley Cup Final versus The Great One's Edmonton Oilers. 
  2. For Pelle, it rewarded him the majority vote as the NHL All-Star Team's #1 goaltender.
  3. It had also gifted him 3rd in votes in the Hart Trophy running. 
  4. And lastly, Pelle's performance in the 1984-85 season won him the Vezina Trophy: an award given annually to the National Hockey League's goaltender who is "adjudged to be the best at this position".

Would you believe all of that was accomplished with a 0.899 save percentage on the season?

Lindbergh faced 1,929 shots on his net that year and stopped 1,735 of them. By today's standard, saving 89% of the pucks could barely get you a backup job at the NHL level, let alone slot you in for Vezina consideration.

But it was a different time. A different era. 


The graph above is pretty self explanatory. Each dot is a NHL season, and each season has its average save percentage. Lindbergh's 0.899 beat the League average by 3%. To put that into perspective: the average save percentage in 2014-15 was 0.916. Carey Price, that year's Vezina winner, completed the campaign with a 0.933 save percentage. That's a 2% difference. 

"NHL save percentage has been on a steady upward trend ever since its measurement began in 1982‑83 season. During the high-scoring 1980s, average saves percentage moved between 87.5% and 88.5%, while in the 1990s the number gradually increased and exceeded 90%." [QuantHockey]

So where does this leave the NHL's average shot percentage?


In 1984-85, the entire NHL's shot percentage was an astounding 12.74%. 

Alexander Ovechkin, the man with 483 goals in 773 regular season games and SIX 50 Goal seasons, has a career shooting percentage of 12.4%. 

And here is where I found the motivation to write this particular article...

In the last decade, the NHL has gone from a 10.09 shooting percentage in 2005-06 to an 8.9% in 2014-15, 8.89% currently this season (2015-16). That may not seem like an enormous difference, but compare the current percentage to what it was 25-years ago (11.59%) and you notice a trend. The trend is heading south and has rarely plateaued. 

But save percentages are trending upward. Sure, the game has arguably become more skilled; it's faster; defensive schemes have progressed; the League was smaller, and elite scoring talent was condensed to a lesser amount of rosters; goalies' style has evolved to the butterfly, and goalies in general have adapted their game to the prone scorers. 

These average percentages tell a story, but not with much context. One of the biggest influences that I believe have seen the decline of shot percentage and the rise of save percentage is the goalie equipment. In the days of the sniper, goalies were smaller in size, less mobile, and wore smaller yet heavier pads. These leather pads weighed over 40 pounds.... and as games progressed, the leather picked up water from the ice and moisture from perspiration. By the end of the game, these players weighed an extra 10-or-so pounds since the puck was dropped in the 1st period. Mobility between the pipes wasn't nearly what it is today.

Goalie equipment, over time, has gotten lighter and bigger. 

Now, I don't want to come off like I'm solely blaming the goalie equipment. I don't want to pretend that without these mega-sized pieces of protection, guys like Carey Price wouldn't be phenomenal talents. That's not what I'm implying whatsoever. And there's a lengthy list of theories why these averages have been going in the directions they have. The evolution of a goalie's glove or blocker is not the exclusive antagonist in this tale. But scoring is down, it continues to go down, people have their leading suspicions, and this one just so happens to be mine. 

Back in the '80s, twinesitters like Reggie Lemelin built a winning career with a 0.884 save percentage. Pete Peeters won 246 games between 1978 and 1991 with a career 0.882. Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr spent 19-years in the NHL guarding the net, finished his career with a 0.887 save percentage, and it only exceeded a .900 average twice (1995-96, 1996-97). 

These were some of the best of a top flight era of NHL hockey. Is it wrong to assume that if we took today's great goalies back to this era, we'd see similar stats? No, and that doesn't speak to their talent. Those save percentages were what they were, just as they are what they are today. 

The game's different today. Players aren't scoring like they used to. That doesn't mean today's NHL is lesser quality than what it once was. We're seeing more and more defensive battles and goalie duels, which is its own brand of exciting hockey. The League isn't suffering; in fact, it's just the opposite. The NHL has never been richer and more prosperous. 

My concern is the trend. Regardless if you're happy with what you're watching this minute, the scoring average is going down. Where's it going to be ten years from now? How 'bout twenty years? 

When my daughters are old enough to vote, am I going to be living in a world where the average NHL game sees three or less goals scored? As of 2014-15, we average 5.32 goals per NHL game. That's a combined score, by the way. In 1985-86, crowds witnessed 7.94 goals per NHL game. 

So once again, I'm not unhappy with the product. I love the product. I'm a diehard NHL fan and Flyers fan, and will be until my wife and kids bury me in my Tim Kerr sweater (four 50 Goal seasons with Philadelphia, FYI). But it's that slide over the decade(s) that concerns me. I cannot ignore it. And it boggles my mind how hockey fans today can just come out and say "There's nothing wrong with the scoring." But I guess that's just a matter of opinion. 

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