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Charlton's NHL: Scoring Demise Greatly Exaggerated

Rick Charlton

October 9th, 2000

In the end, it may turn out there is nothing at all wrong with NHL scoring.

We may instead have to live with the fact that, from an historic perspective, scoring today is fairly normal, that statistics we see now closely match those posted throughout much of NHL history.

The average of 5.45 goals scored last season matches exactly the 5.45 goals per game scored in the period 1930-31 through to 1966-67, the supposed Golden Era of Hockey. Scores of 2-1 and 4-2 abounded on a nightly basis then just as they do today. And that was true for 45 years.

Given the numbers, an obvious question sticks out: "If it was good enough then, in the age of Gordie Howe, The Rocket and Auriel Joliet, then why isn't it good enough today?"

Ken Dryden may have hit on the answer while waxing nostalgic the other day. Television.

"On radio, there was never a bad game ever played," Dryden said. "Foster Hewitt gave you
bare-bones information; you would fill in the rest with your imagination and, in your imagination, every shot was 150 m.p.h, and if somebody blocked a shot, it was an incredibly courageous act."

That makes one wonder if the Golden Era of Hockey, the 1930-31 through 1966-67 period, would have had the same reputation it does if it had been played in the 100 channel universe.

Most critics of today's game compare it to the freewheeling 1980's where NHL scoring hit a high of 8.03 goals per game in 1981-82. Those numbers leveled out and began to fall back to historic levels in roughly 1992-93.

In fact, critics point to two factors contributing to the decline - dilution created through expansion as well as economics, the creation of a financial system where dynasties are almost impossible.

Statistics, however, paint a different story.

In virtually every period where the NHL has seen dilution of talent, scoring levels have risen, not fallen.

Dilution actually creates more scoring and usually does not reduce it. The first time this was tested in the "modern era" was during World War II when many of the best NHL players donned uniforms of a different kind. It wasn't expansion but it was dilution all the same. Scoring statistics in the NHL jumped from 4.8 goals per game through the 1930-41 to 6.23 in 1941-42, 7.22 in 1942-43 and 8.17 in 1943-44. As World War II began to wind down and players began to return to their teams, scoring statistics began to drop. There were 6.69 goals scored per game in 1945-46, 6.32 in 1946-47, 5.86 in 1947-48 and on down.

The NHL of the 1950's, the era of Gordie Howe and The Rocket, averaged a heart-stopping 5.16 goals per game.

When the NHL doubled in size in 1967-68 scoring totals remained largely static, at 5.96 goals per game in the six team NHL the year before and 5.58 goals per game in the 12 team league the next year.

As the NHL began to add more teams through the 1970's, however, scoring totals began to jump. There were 14 teams in 1970-71 and scoring averaged 6.24 goals per game. In 1972-73, there were 16 teams and an average of 6.55 goals per game. In 1974-75, goals scored averaged 6.85 in an 18 team NHL.

In 1976-77, with the demise of Kansas City resulting in only 17 teams in the NHL a sort of reverse expansion - scoring dropped to 6.42 goals per game.

The NHL added four WHA teams in 1979-80 resulting in 7.03 goals scored per game, the highest level seen since World War II. By 1981-82, scoring totals reached 8.03 per game, the highest the league has seen in the post-expansion era before or since.

Scoring totals leveled off through much of the 1980's, averaging 7.48 goals per game in 1988-89, the year the Flames won the Stanley Cup.

Then a strange thing happened, scoring kept declining in spite of the addition of new teams through the 1990's. This would seem to blow out of the water our theory that expansion or dilution actually increases scoring rather than hinders it.

Or does it?

Through to roughly 1973, one country with a population of about 23 million supplied some 90% of all NHL players. The NHL was, in effect, expanding to the point where it was outstripping the pool of talent available to it.

Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom of Toronto represented the first of a relatively small wave of Europeans onto the scene in the early 1970's. But the collapse of communism early in the 1990's effectively changed everything. In addition to an increased number of American players coming into the league the NHL suddenly had a large pool of talent previously inaccessible from former communist countries in Eastern Europe.

A population base closing in on one billion people instead of a single country of 30 million was now providing talent to the NHL.

Nine NHL teams have been added, including two this year, through the last decade, producing 207 new jobs in the major leagues. Given the expansion of the talent pool available to the NHL, filling these jobs was hardly a stretch. Canadian born players now represent only 58% of all NHL'ers

We have effectively seen expansion WITHOUT dilution through the 1990's. And throughout NHL history, where the quality of the average major leaguer has increased, scoring has dropped.

In 1991-92, with the addition of San Jose, the first expansion in 12 years, scoring was 6.62 goals per game. The league exceeded its speed limit the following year by adding two more teams, with scoring totals jumping to 7.25 goals per game, right on schedule. In 1994-95, with the European invasion now in full swing, two more teams were added, with scoring still dropping to 5.97 goals per game in a lockout-shortened season.

Scoring reached its lowest point of this era, at 5.27 goals per game in 1997-98. And should we have been surprised therefore, with the addition Nashville the next year, when scoring totals leveled off and began to rise the following season as the NHL began another aggressive round of expansion, this time without the benefit of a massive influx of new, previously unavailable, talent.

And scoring totals will undoubtedly rise this campaign as well with the addition of Columbus and Minnesota to the mix.

In light of these numbers it bears looking back at a period of NHL history the addition of six teams in 1967-68 - where a large dose of expansion did not appear to impact scoring to any great extent. It might be argued that the pool of talent in that era had simply outgrown a six team NHL, that the addition of six new teams simply sopped up the pool of talent that might have been considered major league but simply didn't have the jobs available to prove it.

Certainly, as the NHL aggressively expanded through the 1970's, scoring totals began to be affected in the predicted manner.

It is a myth that dilution reduces scoring. The effect is quite the opposite.

The dilution debate aside, there's no denying that scoring today is, from an historic point of view, is fairly normal. If it was good enough for 45 years through the Golden Era, good enough to fill arenas and good enough to cause the adulation of millions of people then, I would ask, why isn't it good enough now?

And what does this say about the quality of the average player in today's NHL?



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