The NHL belongs to the fast and the skilled. Several different rule changes and rule enforcements have brought the league to this place, and the results are borne out in the statistics this season. As of the 2018-19 all-star break, the NHL was experiencing lower save percentages, fewer fights and fewer shootouts. Meanwhile, the number of players on pace for 100 points or more has skyrocketed. All these trends are interconnected, but let’s look at them individually, with thoughts from the top players in the game today.
According to hockeyfights.com, scraps are at an all-time low, with just 0.19 fights per game in the NHL. That translates to one tilt every five games, which is half the amount from just five years ago. Simply put, the goons are gone, and even heavyweights who can play, such as Ryan Reaves in Vegas or Tom Wilson in Washington, are more nuclear options than frequent dancers now. “The games and the points are too valuable, as is the importance of depth scoring,” said Capitals coach Todd Reirden. “If you can find a player who combines the physical element and the ability to stand up and protect one another and also play, that’s when you have something really special, and we have an example on our team in Tom Wilson. I think a lot of teams would love to have a Tom Wilson, and that’s where things are headed.”
For the players themselves, there’s a wistfulness to the situation. Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog made a name for himself as a youngster by combining skill and toughness, but even he only fought once in the first half of the season. “Guys will step up when it’s needed, and guys will protect their teammates, but the staged fights aren’t there,” he said. “I’ve always said that it’s important to have fighting in the game. If we remove fighting, I think guys will take advantage of that and start running around a lot more. Having guys that make you answer for your actions makes the game more honest.”
Goaltenders are getting a rough ride this season, with a league-wide .908 save percentage. Last year, that number was .912, and it has been as high as .915 in recent years. Certainly, there are goalies having great seasons and bucking the trend, but even they are willing to admit that shooters are getting the upper hand. According to Nashville Predators netminder Pekka Rinne, they’re just “too good” right now. “For real, though,” he said. “The game is so fast, and there are so many chances. It’s awesome. It’s fun to play, it’s fun for the fans, it’s not always fun for the goalies, but that’s the reasoning.
“More quality chances, more individual skill, and these kids coming in, it’s amazing what they can do.”
Like Rinne, Anaheim Ducks stopper John Gibson has been on the better side of things this season, and while playing for a mediocre squad, he may very well contend for the Vezina Trophy. But he also sees a landscape where league rules seem to favor shooters rather than defenders and that affects goaltenders as well. There’s also the streamlining of goalie gear to consider, which has always been controversial among netminders, though Gibson is pretty even-keeled about how the new equipment sits on him. “I don’t think anybody is ever fully comfortable, but you get what you get, and you make the most out of it,” he said. “As long it protects you the best, then you can’t really complain.”
THE CENTURY CLUB
This is the trickiest trend, because past performance does not necessarily equate to future success, but there were 14 players on pace for 100 points or more by the all-star break. Now, a lot can happen in the final 30 games – guys go cold or get injured – but on the flip side, guys can also get healthy and go on monster runs. What we do know is that last season, only three players hit the 100-point mark: Connor McDavid, Claude Giroux and Nikita Kucherov.
Given Kucherov was already up to 78 points through 49 games, it’s a good bet he does it again. But why are so many of his offensively inclined friends joining him? “The speed of the game helps out with that,” said Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler, on pace for a career-best 104 points. “Power plays are better now, too. Playing into that is the restriction on the clutching, grabbing and holding. There are a lot more scoring chances, and the things they are calling now, they’re calling more frequently.”
This all lines up with what Rinne was saying about the difficulty of stopping dangerous chances this year, and Wheeler has noticed that the derring-do moves of the players are amping up the crowds, too. “The league is in a great place,” Wheeler said. “The premium on fast, skilled players, the product for the fans, their excitement level is at a real high right now, and you can feel it in every building.”
It has always been controversial, but the shootout is in fact less prominent this season, thanks to 3-on-3 overtime. Last season, 193 games were ended within the first five minutes of extra time, while 103 went all the w
ay to a shootout. This year, as teams were hitting the 50-game mark, 3-on-3 OT had solved matters 120 times and the shootout had only been required in 43 games. Toronto, Ottawa and Dallas had yet to play in a shootout. NHLers are quite content with this trend. “A lot of players will say they love the 3-on-3 concept and that maybe they should extend the time to 10 minutes,” said Columbus’ Cam Atkinson. “Likely the game is going to end. I wonder what the stat is on the team that wins the draw, if that team scores to win the game.”
For Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, strategy is key. Defense leads to offense, and when you have the puck, it helps to have a path of attack in mind. “Teams are planning a bit more and guys are adapting to it,” he said. “Maybe refs are more inclined to call penalties now, we’ve had a couple 4-on-3 goals this year, and that’s crucial.”
Whatever the driver may be, it’s working – and most fans are happy to see the game end before the skills competition.