Why is scoring down across the NHL?

The NHL’s in the midst of a long scoring slump.

Between 1996 and 2017, NHL teams averaged three or more goals per game only once – during the 2005-06 season, when franchises netted 3.08 goals per match. Some scapegoat the Devils defensive system of the mid-90s, while others point to goaltending as the reason.

A side effect of the NHL’s lower scoring era involves a greater likelihood of close hockey games, particularly when compared to the run-and-gun days of yore. Blowouts still happen, but the vast improvement in defensive hockey and the improvement of goaltenders - along with bulkier equipment - tends to produce more parity across the board.

This flattens winning margins, increasing the tension of each match while enabling the rise of puckline underdogs. NHL favorites still win most meetings, but a surprising percentage of these contests go right down to the wire, meaning favorites are covering the puck line spread less frequently.

Low Scoring Trend Is About Winning

“I think the biggest thing we’ve lost is a little bit of our creativity and imagination in general,” Wayne Gretzky said, referring to the decline in scoring of the modern NHL.

He’s right, of course. The air-tight defensive systems that players adhere to requires discipline and positional perfection. Imagination and creativity usually involve risk-taking and improvisation, traits which don’t fit in with the current meta of the NHL.

Defensive systems don’t specifically aim to ruin creativity in hockey. Conservative strategy became popular because teams aim to win. The Florida Panthers wouldn’t have made the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals without a trap mentality. There’s no way the seventh-seeded Ducks sweep the second-seeded Red Wings in the 2003 playoffs without superb defense and J.S. Giguere blocking nearly every shot with goalie kung-fu. And then you have the Calgary Flames of 2004. Need I say more?

“I don’t think I ever blocked a shot,” Gretzky reminisced. “I thought goaltenders were paid to block shots, not forwards.”

Forwards have taken on additional responsibilities in the defensive zone over the past couple of decades, reducing energy spent in the offensive zone. The NHL’s current era requires whole scale sacrifice for the greater good. This allows teams with limited offensive talent to compete against the best teams on a regular basis, so long as everyone does their part.

While not as flashy, winning through collective grit and sacrifice is just as admirable as scoring goals in bunches. Creativity was never targeted as a victim of modern defensive strategy. Teams just want to win and compete, even if they don’t have a roster on paper that is expected to compete.

NHL Favorites Face Greater Competition

Winning two cups in a row is even more impressive when you consider that competition has tightened. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been heavy favorites at home for the past half-decade, winning 70% of all home games. Logical, because Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin form the best one-two punch in the NHL, while the front office finds enough help to surround their stars with valuable role players.

The Pens were particularly impressive last season, winning 76% of their home games. Oddsmakers considered Pittsburgh favorites for all but two home games – a clear sign of dominance. However, Pittsburgh won by two goals or more 41% of the time. This means that most home games were close affairs, with the underdog taking the puckline 65% of the time.

A similar trend shows up with the Chicago Blackhawks, perennial favorites of the Western Conference. In 2016-17, the Hawks won 63% of their home games, but beat the puckline only 38% of the time. As such, 62% of Blackhawks home games were nip and tuck affairs.

This trend also works in reverse. The Coyotes were terrible last year, but they covered the puck line as home underdogs 72% of the time. Put simply, one of the worst teams in the league were competitive in more than seven out of ten home matchups, regardless of their opponent. If you know what trends to look for, wagering on the puckline, when taking into consideration the NHL betting lines, picks and parlays, is the best way to beat the sportsbooks.

It would be nice to witness a renaissance of the high-scoring 80s. However, defensive trends in the NHL exist because lesser quality teams want to win – not because they dream of fantasies like scoring in bunches every night could become reality (although they probably do dream of this). If anything, the modern version of the NHL has created the most competitive product of any era in hockey history.

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