Goal scoring in the NHL is on the rise. Teams are averaging 2.95 goals per game this season, the highest rate for this span since 2006-07 (2.95 per game).
In 2005-06, the league emerged from a lockout with new guidelines specifically designed to improve the overall excitement level of the game and crack down on minor penalties such as hooking, tripping and holding. This offseason, referees were instructed to make slashing calls a point of emphasis, with commissioner Gary Bettman and new Player Safety head George Parros hoping it would “change player behavior.”
It’s unknown whether behavior is changing, but the rate of slashing calls has almost doubled from a year ago. In 2016-17, slashing calls accounted for 10 percent, or one out of every 10, minor penalties. This season one out of every six whistles (17 percent) is due to a slashing infraction; every other minor penalty has been called either at the same rate or less than it was just a year ago.
While the intent was to reduce injuries, more slashing penalties has brought more power-play opportunities, which is why, unlike in previous years, the scoring boost could persist for the entire season. Teams are being awarded 3.3 power-play opportunities per game, the highest mark since 2012-13, and are cashing in on 19.3 percent of those chances with the man advantage, the best conversion rate since 1992-93.
The higher conversion rate is a result of more quality chances being produced with the man advantage. According to data compiled by Natural Stat Trick, teams are creating 21.9 high-danger scoring chances, those in the slot or crease, per 60 minutes on the power play in 2017-18, an improvement over the 20.4 per 60 in 2016-17. That coincides with the data from Corsica Hockey, whose expected goals model — which takes into account shot type, angle, location and whether it is a rebound or on the rush — has teams creating chances that should result in 7.6 power-play goals per 60 minutes, the highest output since 2007-08, the earliest data is available. Expected goals is preferable to other advanced-counting stats since it also takes into account shot quality, thus giving us a more reliable indicator of future performance.
To illustrate how much of a difference creating high-danger chances can make, consider the impact of James van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Known for his work around the net, van Riemsdyk has taken 43 of his 62 power-play shot attempts from the slot or near the crease, resulting in seven power-play goals this season. However, according to Corsica, based on his shot locations and shot selection he should have four more goals according to his league-leading 11.4 expected goals for with the man advantage. The forward with the least impact on the power play this season (minimum 100 minutes played) is center Ryan Johansen of the Nashville Predators (0.9 xGF), producing just three of his 18 power-play shot attempts below the faceoff dots.
Generating quality shots is also a big reason the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to have one of the most efficient power-play units in the NHL. The Penguins have generated 26.6 high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes on the power play in 2017-18, an increase of almost 3 per 60 minutes from last season, leading them to score on more than a quarter of their power-play opportunities (27 percent) during the current campaign. Their expected goals rate on the power play has also soared from 7.9 to 9.1 expected goals per 60 minutes in just one season. The highest rate on record before the 2017-18 season was set by the 2010-11 San Jose Sharks, whose power-play chances created an expected goals rate of 10.3 per 60 minutes. They finished second in efficiency that year (23.5 percent) behind the Vancouver Canucks (24.3 percent).
|Penguins power play||High-danger chances per 60||Expected goals per 60||PP%||PP% Rank|
The Washington Capitals, meanwhile, are going in the opposite direction. A threat on the power play in year’s past, this iteration often looks sluggish with a propensity to pass one too many times.
They are generating 17.1 high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes this season, fourth-fewest in 2017-18, compared to 18.6 a year ago and have an expected goals rate of 5.7 per 60 minutes, the second-lowest in the NHL — only the Columbus Blue Jackets are worse — and the team’s lowest mark since 2007-08, the first year data is available.
|Capitals season||Expected goals per 60 minutes on PP||PP xGF/60 rank|
NHL teams as a whole are also generating slightly more high-danger scoring chances at even strength, 10.5 per 60 minutes in 2016-17 to 11 this season, so even if the referees decide to call fewer slashing infractions as the season wears on, this renewed commitment to creating more dangerous shots during all strengths should help keep the scoring level up for the entire season.
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