Why Has Scoring Declined so Drastically in the NHL?

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:47 am by Jacob Stoller


Many die-hard hockey fans can tell you that Wayne Gretzky holds the all-time NHL scoring record with 2,857 points. Thos fans will also tell you this record will likely never be broken. Not only because of the nearly 1,000 point lead he has on the next highest all-time scorer, Mark Messier, but also due to the drastic decline of scoring in the NHL.

There is no one simple explanation for this result, but let’s review some of the reasons as to why the number of goals per game is reducing.

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Scoring has noticeably declined from the mid 80’s-early-90’s era to the modern era by close to a goal per game. In every decade excluding the present, there has been at least three goals from each team per game. Scoring has declined so much in the NHL to the point of final scores resembling the results of soccer matches.

In the mid 80’s-early-90’s, we saw two 200 point campaigns along with several 120+ point seasons recorded by Mario Lemieux. In the 1985-1986 season when Wayne Gretzky set the single season point record with 215 points, the league saw 13 players eclipse the 100 point plateau. In the last decade we’ve seen seasons where the Art Ross Trophy winner didn’t even reach 100 points. Such was the case when Jamie Benn was crowned the leagues scoring champion with 87 points in 2014-2015.

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List of Art Ross Winners over the last 8 years

2007-2008: Alex Ovechkin 112 points

2008-2009: Evgeni Malkin, 113 points

2009-2010: Henrik Sedin, 112 points

2010-2011: Daniel Sedin, 104 points

2011-2012: Evgeni Malkin, 109 points

2012-2013: Lockout year.  (Martin St Louis won the Art Ross with 60 points in 48 games. His points per game was 1.25 and in an 82 game season he would have accumulated 103 points). 

2013-2014: Sidney Crosby, 104 points

2014-2015: Jamie Benn, 87 points 

2015-2016: Patrick Kane, 106 points.

As you can see over the last nine seasons, the Art Ross Trophy winners’ point totals are in the low 100’s. While 100 points is still 100 points, there was a time and day where over 150 points was what it took to win the NHL scoring race. 

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The Oilers and Islanders of the 80’s or the Penguins of the 90’s and many other of hockey’s best all time teams shared a common characteristic. The teams’ elite players would get 25+ minutes per night, leading to ample opportunity to reach extraordinary point totals. Now, ice time is more evenly distributed throughout a team and the offensive production is spread out throughout the lineup. 

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The picture above shows parts of a study conducted by Sportsnet about why the NHL’s top scorers don’t score as much anymore. While it may be slightly outdated ( 2015), the graphic’s data echoes a recent trend.  The days of three 100 point scorers anchoring a franchise to a Stanley Cup are over. Superstars don’t have the ability to carry teams solely on their backs anymore, thus providing a larger role to 3rd and 4th-liners. 

Another key reason for a decline in scoring is the current-make up of goaltender equipment.

It started in the 90’s when goalie pads weren’t getting much taller, yet thicker in size with pads checking in at 12″ wide per leg. Then the thigh rise was introduced and goalies took advantage of this by sporting tall and thick pads that took up nearly half their body. Along with this, the chest protectors were going well beyond the size needed to protect themselves. 

The 2005 lockout brought restrictions to how wide goalie pads could be, capping it at 11′. Pads were to be adjusted to the size of the goalie.  The smaller players would get bigger pads and the bigger players would get smaller pads. 

How is this fixed?

Corey Hirsch of Sportsnet thinks there are ways to substantially reduce the goaltenders equipment. If his plan were to be implemented, goaltenders would have to stop with their ability and skill rather than their hulking equipment. 

Current goalie equipment make up 

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Hirsch’s goaltending make up 

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“I think the goalies themselves felt there should be a bigger gap between the greatest goalies in the league and the other guys.” Senior director of hockey operations Kay Whitmore, the NHL’s head on goaltender related issues told NHL.com back in March. ” If the gap is being closed by equipment, they don’t like that.” 

At last June’s Board of Governors Meeting, a proposal was made to reduce goaltenders’ pants and upper body equipment. While that may point to signs of change upcoming, the reality is those changes are unlikely to be implemented for another season or two. When that day does come around and changes are made to goalie protection, will scoring jumpstart dramatically? Will the high volume scoring of the mid 80’s early 90’s be integrated back in to the game? 

Likely not.

Goals will increase to some extent , but it still won’t be easy to score three or four goals past today’s NHL goalies. Goalies are bigger these days and by virtue of that, take up more of the net. In the early 90’s if you were 6 feet tall, you were at around the league average for an NHL goaltender. 

Nowadays, it’s not ordinary to see more than a handful of goaltenders over 6’3. While padding does need to be reduced, the NHL’s goaltenders are still elite and can flat out play and no equipment change will drastically limit their abilities. We may never see NHL scoring reach the peak and excitement it did in the Gretzky era, but with changes made to the goalie equipment, it will at least provide players with a more fair opportunity to score.

Today’s NHL game is evolving. The game is more strategic, goaltenders equipment dominates the crease and superstars aren’t the sole contributors to teams. 

The days of 4-4 games are over, and they’re not coming back anytime soon.