Maybe the NHL finally will leave Devan Dubnyk and the rest of the league’s goaltenders alone.
For the past few years, the NHL has been on a slippery mission to increase scoring. It was operating under the theory that more goals equals more fan enjoyment, which equals higher attendance, better television ratings and more money.
Recently, the league zeroed in on the goaltenders and their equipment as the culprits for less scoring. Last season, the NHL reduced the size of the pants goaltenders could wear, hoping that would be part of the solution.
“Maybe they’ll stop trying to make us wear shin pads if scoring is up,” Dubnyk cracked last week.
He may not have to worry, because after years of trying to increase scoring, the league is succeeding — while leaving goaltenders alone.
From 2011-16, the NHL could not help but be concerned. Teams averaged between just 2.65 and 2.67 goals per game, according to STATS, and scoring was only slightly above the offensive slog of the late 1990s and early 2000s and well below the halcyon days of the 1980s, when teams tallied between 3.51 and 4.01 goals per game.
Last season there was an uptick to 2.73 goals per game, but this season the league has seen a more dramatic increase to 2.88 goals per game The Wild is at the league average, which is approaching three goals per game for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
There are a few reasons behind this revival of scoring. First, NHL power plays are converting at a rate they haven’t been in a long time. The current 19.7 percent success rate of power plays would be the highest since the 1989-90 season if it holds up the rest of the season. Teams also are putting more shots on goal than they have at any time in the past 36 years. The 31.9 shots on goal per game that teams average now (the Wild averages 30.1) would be the highest mark since STATS has recorded seasonlong shot data beginning with the 1982-83 season.
But perhaps the most significant factor is the increased emphasis on slashing penalties — and its ensuing impact on 5-on-5 play. Power-play opportunities and power-play goals are set to rise compared with the past three seasons in part because the number of slashing calls has increased dramatically.
Through Thursday’s games, 854 slashing penalties had been called in 786 games, according to the NHL. Through the same number of games a seasons ago, only 530 slashes were called.
The number of slashes is contributing to the rise in penalties, but perhaps its greatest effect is when teams are even strength — when they try to avoid getting sent to the box for slashing.
“You definitely have to change your game,” defenseman Nate Prosser said. “Some of these stick infractions are a little ticky-tacky sometimes. It’s not making much of an impact on the play, but you’re getting your stick in their hands and they’ll call it slashing. There is a lot more penalties and you definitely have to be aware of your stick a little bit more nowadays.”
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said he has told the Wild it needs to “check with your legs more” and less with the stick since officials are on the prowl for even the smallest of slashes.
“That’s why there’s smaller players in the league right now, but there’s a lot of faster skaters in the league. If you check with your legs, you don’t have the big boost for the most part to go out and run people …” Boudreau said. “They’re not slashing as much, but I can still find one or two a game that they miss, I’ll tell you that much.”
Dubnyk said he didn’t think fans wanted to see more power plays as the avenue to more excitement, and he said he didn’t think increasing scoring should be the means to creating a more exciting game. But in that way, the emphasis on slashing is helping the league achieve its goal of a better game.
“They want guys to have it ingrained in them that you can’t do that, so that might open something else up or allow a guy to get through, get opportunities,” Dubnyk said. “That’s how it should be. You want there to be scoring chances. I don’t think it’s necessarily pucks going in that make an exciting hockey game. It’s scoring chances and pace of play. It doesn’t matter if a game is 1-0 or 2-1.
“If there’s a ton of scoring chances both ways and it’s fast-paced, that’s exciting for people to watch. Cracking down on that stuff so guys have to think to defend differently is a way to do that.”
For Dubnyk’s sake, it might mean the league keeps its hands off his equipment for a little while.