The youth movement is front and center during this season’s surge. If you look at the top three scorers for each team, just two clubs, the Washington Capitals and Minnesota Wild, have a trio that averages 30 years of age or older. Ten teams’ top three scorers average 25 or younger.
Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Huberdeau, Jack Eichel, Patrick Kane, John Carlson and Austin Matthews are on or very close to a 100-point pace. The average age of that group is 26, and just three — Marchand, Kane and Carlson — are older than 30. Last season, there were six 100-point scorers, with an average age of 27. If all 11 of those skaters hit the century mark, it would be the biggest group to do so since 1995-96.
Pastrnak, 23, has a league-leading 35 goals in 45 games, putting him on a 64-goal pace. He could be the first player to score 60 or more goals in a season since Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos in 2011-12 and just the 21st player ever. Four players — Pastrnak, Eichel, James Neal and Anthony Mantha — have four-goal games, equaling the total from all of last season. Only Neal is over 30.
Why are so many players, especially the youngsters, pushing the NHL’s scoring to new heights?
Bottom-six forwards are flashing more skill than ever. Most teams can roll out at least three skilled lines, with some clubs boasting a fourth line that can skate, maintain puck possession and produce goals with consistency. For example, Nashville’s third line of Rocco Grimaldi, Nick Bonino and Craig Smith has 19 even-strength goals in 217 minutes, giving it the ninth-most goals scored for a trio this season. Washington’s fourth line of Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic has outscored opponents 9-4 at even strength with an 86-52 advantage in scoring chances.
Defensemen also are getting into the action more frequently. Blue-liners are scoring the highest rate of even-strength goals per 60 minutes since 2007-08, and rookies are starting to make a more immediate impact. For example, Carlson has a chance to become the first defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1991-92 to score 100 points or more in a season.
Colorado’s Cale Makar has 33 points in 37 games, putting him on pace for 66 points this season, which would rank among the best debuts at the position in NHL history. Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes has 30 points in 43 games. The last time two rookie defensemen produced at least 30 points at this point of the season was in 1980, when future Hall of Famers Ray Bourque and Mark Howe broke into the league. The last rookie defenseman with at least 30 points at the halfway point also would become a Hall of Famer: seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom in 1992.
More offensive-minded defensemen also have made the game less physical. Blocked shot rates and hit rates for blue-liners are at their lowest levels in more than a decade, leading to more offensive players parking themselves in front of the net and more shots making it to the goaltender. At even strength, teams are converting more than 18 percent of their scoring chances from the slot or the crease, the highest rate since 2008-09.
“It has changed drastically,” San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns told the Associated Press. “I think they’re trying to create more goals, and [going to the net is] one way to try to do it.”