NHL trends at the quarter mark of 2022-23: Which will continue?

NHL

There are some trends found around the quarter mark of the NHL season that famously stick around. For example, the oft-cited stat that teams in playoff positions on Thanksgiving have made the playoffs 77% of the time in the salary-cap era (since 2005-06).

But for every harbinger of things to come, there are early season aberrations and trends that are all but forgotten by season’s end.

Here’s a look at several NHL trends that have caught our eyes through the first quarter of the season, and whether there’s evidence that they’ll continue through the 2022-23 campaign.

Jump to:
More goals | New coach success
No lead is safe | Team turnarounds
Power kills | Scoring leaders
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After the best NHL goal-scoring season in 26 years, offense has continued to boom in 2022-23

Last season, the NHL averaged 3.14 goals per team per game, the highest since the 1995-96 season (also 3.14 goals on average). There were many factors that contributed to that outcome.

Some were specific to the NHL’s COVID pandemic-impacted seasons, such as lineup absences and the fact that teams used a record number of goalies in 2021-22. But some were part of a larger trend that points to this being an offensive era in the NHL. Goal-scoring has increased in five straight seasons (minus the truncated 2020-21 season). So far, the 2022-23 season is on track to extend the streak. Through 330 games, teams were averaging 3.16 goals per game.

As mentioned, there are some multi-season trends that have fueled goal-scoring in the NHL. Teams are built for speed rather than physicality, with three scoring lines and a fourth line that’s also expected to chip in. The NHL’s youth movement plays a role, too: Not only in the incredible offensive creativity from these talents but because of what they don’t do on the other end of the ice. “There’s not a lot of defensive detail in a lot of those young guys,” veteran NHL coach Barry Trotz told us earlier this year, “but they have great skills, so it’s a little more wide open.”

Analytics have made players and coaches more cognizant of high-danger shot opportunities and changed the way offenses are run — the days of booming slap shots from the point have been replaced by smartly placed wrist shots meant to create rebounds and deflections. Meanwhile, years of subtle rules changes have made defending against those chances more difficult.

Will it continue?

It would certainly be keeping with the overall trend, but it might be hard to reach last season’s heights.

For example, last season saw power-play conversion rates hit 20.6% on an average of 2.89 power-play opportunities per game. Through 330 games this season, the conversion rate is a whopping 21.9%, which would be the highest since the 1985-86 season, on an average of 3.34 opportunities per game, which would be the highest since the 2010-11 season. Power-play effectiveness has been trending up in the NHL — we haven’t seen these many seasons with teams over 20% since the 1980s. But it’s hard to imagine those numbers holding.

But the main reason for skepticism is how anomalous last season might end up being. From the COVID interruptions to schedules and lineups to the subtle impact of expansion, there’s a reason why the 2021-22 campaign’s numbers were a leap forward rather than another incremental climb. This season might be more the latter. — Greg Wyshynski


In fact, more players are averaging more points

Everyone loves offense, right? Fans want goals. The league wants excitement. And this season, players have obliged with higher outputs from an increasing number of skaters.

By the quarter mark of this campaign (or, through 317 games), there were 54 players (who had appeared in at least 10 games) averaging over a point-per-game this season, the most since 1993-94. That included seven defenseman in the mix of mostly forwards.

There were also 31 players who had hit double-digit goals totals by the quarter mark. Only 16 players had reached the same milestone by this point a year ago.

It can be difficult to quantify — and qualify — how much scoring goes up year over year (and things like COVID-19 pauses the last couple seasons can skew the data). Diving into some of these figures tells a larger story though. Only a handful of the 54-plus players averaging over a point per game are on teams not currently in playoff position, suggesting that — unsurprisingly — good teams tend to have consistent contributions up front. And there are several examples of offensive workhorses playing on a line with someone else generating eye-popping totals for their club out of the gate.

Will it continue?

The start of any season is a free-for-all. And that’s hardly an exaggeration. Defenses are sloppy, goaltenders are reading off new teammates, injuries impact initial assessments of where teams will be, etc. If you’re a highly skilled offensive talent it’s easier to take advantage in the early goings. To feast on an opponent’s weakness.

That said, this season has produced some impressive performers. At this stage a year ago, only 36 skaters were at the point-per-game threshold. In 2019-20 (the last full pre-pandemic autumn), there were only 34. The uptick this season feels legitimate, and it could be for a host of reasons. Players actually got a proper offseason to train and regroup. Everyone is settled back into a rhythm that, for at least the last two years, had been disrupted to some extent. It speaks also to the league’s parity and how many good teams and players are emerging early on across both conferences.

So, will this wave of more offense from more players continue? It feels more likely than not. Even as we pass the traditional Thanksgiving mark where a team’s position — in the postseason picture, or not — is generally locked in, individual performances will still vary. And, just like fans, players like to see themselves putting points on the board, too. — Kristen Shilton


Teams that missed the playoffs last season are making a push for the playoffs this season

Knowing that the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets are in early contention for a playoff spot might not be that surprising depending upon the source. Yes, both of them missed the playoffs last season, which led to a number of changes. But it’s not like the gaps were that wide. The Golden Knights fell short by three points of the final wild-card berth. Meanwhile, the Jets’ gap was a bit bigger at eight points.

But to see the New Jersey Devils, Seattle Kraken, New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings in contention? At least three of them being in this position could be considered a shock. Three of those teams were in the top 8 of the NHL draft the past summer. Meanwhile, the Islanders finished ninth in the East last season, but a slow start contributed to why they finished 16 points behind the final playoff spot.

Here’s where things stood with those teams around Thanksgiving. The Golden Knights lead the Pacific while the Kraken are third. The Devils sit atop the Metropolitan due in part to rattling off 13 consecutive wins. Meanwhile, the Islanders are third in the Metropolitan whereas the Red Wings are third in the Atlantic. The Devils and Golden Knights have a bit of a cushion compared to the Kraken, Islanders and Red Wings who are in tighter positions.

Will it continue?

Thanksgiving is considered by some to be the de facto entry point when it comes to assessing whether or not a team has a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. Back in the 2018-19, there were five teams between both conferences that were in a potential playoff spot at Thanksgiving only to miss the postseason altogether. One of the teams on the outside was the St. Louis Blues who would win the Stanley Cup. The 2019-20 season was reformatted due to pandemic while the 2020-21 season was a truncated campaign.

Last year, seven of the eastern teams in playoff spots at Thanksgiving made it to the playoffs. Five of the western teams made it as well. Of the three west teams that missed out, two of them were the Golden Knights and the Jets. They were eventually overtaken by the Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings and Nashville Predators who were all within a three-point margin at that time.

Being in a playoff spot at Thanksgiving can either be a sign of potential optimism or a prelude to disappointment. Four of the five eastern teams that were within three points of the final wild-card berth were in the playoffs last year. In the west, the Blues were in the final wild-card spot but had three teams tied with them on points. For the Blues, they held a goal differential advantage which is also turning into something of a subplot. The Stars were the only team to reach the playoffs last year that had a negative goal differential. It happened during the shortened 2020-21 season with the Blues and Montreal Canadiens. As for this season? The Hurricanes, who are in one of the wild-card spots, had a minus-1 in goal differential. In the west, there were three teams in playoff spots with negative goal differentials while the three teams chasing them also had negative goal differentials. — Ryan S. Clark


The offseason’s coaching hires are altering their teams for the better

There were 10 head coaches hired during the offseason. Only one of them was already with the team that hired them: Lane Lambert, who went from Barry Trotz’s right-hand man to his successor with the New York Islanders. Across the board, the changes have made a positive difference, and in some cases a massive one.

The Boston Bruins hired Jim Montgomery to replace Bruce Cassidy. Through 21 games, they led the NHL with an .857 points percentage, and were the best offensive and defensive team in the league. The players have pointed to Montgomery as being the catalyst. “What Monty’s brought in is that that we’re so process-focused. That allows us to flush a bad play out and get ready for the next one,” forward Nick Foligno said. “Those little comments he makes. Those little resets we have. It allows us to get back to our game. That’s what good teams do.”

Cassidy landed on his feet in Las Vegas and turned the Golden Knights into the Pacific Division’s top team. Despite losing starting goalie Robin Lehner to injury before the season, Cassidy’s Knights went from the 15th best defensive team in the NHL last season to third overall in goal-against average through 22 games.

Peter DeBoer, whom Cassidy replaced in Vegas, moved over to the Dallas Stars and reinvigorated their offense, making the Stars the second-highest scoring team in the NHL through 21 games. Rick Bowness, who Dallas dropped in favor of DeBoer, stripped Blake Wheeler of the captaincy to jolt the team and helped turn the Winnipeg Jets back into playoff contenders. Also a playoff contender — the Detroit Red Wings, who are turning the corner under former Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde. Meanwhile, Lambert has gotten the Islanders back into playoff form after last season’s stumble.

Coaches like John Tortorella (Philadelphia Flyers) and Luke Richardson (Chicago Blackhawks) helped imprint their personalities on teams that aren’t expected to challenge for the postseason. Paul Maurice is trying to do the same with the Florida Panthers, to mixed results. Finally, David Quinn is overseeing a season for the San Jose Sharks in which their draft lottery odds are more important than their proximity to the playoff race.

Will it continue?

Yes. Most of these coaches are taking over teams with low or deflated expectations. And some of them are excelling with teams that are, frankly, pretty darn good.

We knew the Bruins would be solid the minute Patrice Bergeron decided to come back this season. With the return of David Krejci and a full season of Hampus Lindholm, Montgomery pushed a team that already had some momentum. Same thing with Cassidy. The Golden Knights missed the playoffs last season after getting walloped by injuries. They’re healthy, found a solution in goal with Logan Thompson, and off they go.

Dallas had a strong veteran lineup bolstered by young stars in Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger. If Connor Hellebuyck is back to being a .926 save percentage goalie, after dipping to .910 last season, the Jets are back to being a playoff contender. The Islanders are showing last season was an anomaly.

And if Steve Yzerman thought highly enough of this Red Wings team to sign a bevy of veterans in the offseason, Lalonde arrived at the right time. — Wyshynski


Teams continue to use the “power kill” strategy when killing penalties

Forget the conversation about whether or not “power kills” — a strategy where a team tries to generate offense while killing a penalty — are a trend. It appears to be a part of every contemporary penalty kill in the NHL, with the idea that those scoring chances could be determined by a number of factors. Gaining possession is a critical piece to the equation, but there are no guarantees it will amount to success.

On Nov. 26, the Calgary Flames led the NHL with a 20.41% shot-attempt percentage on the penalty kill. Their three short-handed goals at the time were tied for the fifth most. Yet the Florida Panthers owned a 18.04% shot-attempt percentage — the third highest in the league — but were one of four teams to not score a short-handed goal. Maybe the most bizarre statistic of all could be the fact that the San Jose Sharks have the NHL’s No. 1 penalty kill with a 90% success rate, yet have not scored a short-handed goal this season.

Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith is one of the 56 players through Nov. 26 who scored at least one short-handed goal this season. What makes Smith different is he leads the league with three. Two of his goals, however, show how power kills can produce goals in a manner of ways. Smith’s goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs was a result of a breakout pass that was played when the Leafs were out of position. His goal against the Blues happened because of pressure that forced a loose puck in the other direction, which was finished after Smith took advantage of his surroundings by coming in as an unmarked trailer for a point-blank goal.

Will it continue?

This trend has been going on for some time. In the 2015-16 season, there were 14 teams that scored at least seven short-handed goals, with six of them reaching double figures. Since then, the only time there hasn’t been at least nine teams with at least seven short-handed goals came during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season and the contracted 2020-21 campaign.

Last season, there were 15 teams that scored more than seven short-handed goals, with five of them hitting double figures. Clearly, the teams that lead the NHL in short-handed goals must be either the best or one of the best PK units in the league, right? Not necessarily. The Ottawa Senators led the NHL in short-handed goals in 2015-16 yet had the worst PK in the league. Of the five most recent 82-game seasons, there have been only two teams that finished with a top-10 PK unit and one of them was last season, when the Maple Leafs were eighth. — Clark


Fewer empty-net goals are being scored

Doesn’t it feel like every team has that empty-net goal specialist? Like, theirs is the Midas touch when it comes to feathering the puck just right towards a yawning cage?

Anyway, I digress.

Speciality work or not, empty-net goals are down at the quarter mark compared to last season (113 vs. 133). But 31 of 32 teams have managed to net at least one, with the Anaheim Ducks being the only outlier.

Will it continue?

Here’s what is interesting about this season: It’s produced the second-most go-ahead goals in the final five minutes of regulation ever. On top of that, 73% of games were decided by one goal. That’s the highest percentage through the first quarter of any NHL season.

When you bring factors like that into the mix it can hurriedly alter a coach’s strategy. How fast will a team then pull its goalie looking for an equalizer? How much momentum swings towards the late-scoring side? How deflated is their opponent now that they’re behind with time running out? How many players are willing to throw themselves in the line of fire to stop a puck going in?

Those answers have an impact on empty-net goals. And to be frank, so does dumb luck. We see it all the time, where multiple players fire shots down the ice only to repeatedly miss. It can be bafflingly strange.

The numbers are also down year-over-year right now, but in 2019-20 there were only 95 empty-netters scored through the quarter mark. Does that make the trend last season a one-off? The conclusion feels tied to whether the other trend of wild comebacks, late rallies and third period offensive explosions continue to track as well. But it’s safe to say the more aggressive teams are with their goalie pulls, the more opportunity there will be for sharp-shooters to pad their stats. — Shilton


No lead is safe in the NHL this season

The New York Rangers had a 3-0 lead and Igor Shesterkin in their net entering the third period against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night. But when the game ended, the Oilers skated out of MSG with a 4-3 regulation win over a shocked home team.

“We were passive. And then we got put on our heels, and we never got off’em,” captain Jacob Trouba said. “That’s not the team we want to be. If we have a lead going into the third, we want to be a team that can hold on to leads.”

That’s all well and good, except for one thing: Who, exactly, can hold on to a lead in the NHL these days?

Entering Sunday night’s action, there had been 44 games in which a team won the game after trailing entering the third period. That accounted for just over 13% of all games played. If that holds, it would be the highest percentage of games with a third-period victory rally in the last five seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research:

In that five-season span, the Florida Panthers (27 wins) have the most come-from-behind victories after trailing for two periods, followed by the Vegas Golden Knights (24). Besides the Seattle Kraken, who entered the NHL last season, the Ottawa Senators were last in third-period victory rallies (10).

When trailing entering the third period, the team with the highest winning percentage in the last five seasons is the Tampa Bay Lightning (.253), with the Senators also the lowest in that category (.067). But we imagine teams would most want to be like the Colorado Avalanche, who have trailed after two periods in only 69 of their 309 games played in that span.

Will it continue?

Absolutely. This season is outpacing last season in third-period victory rallies. Through each team’s 21st game this season, there were 44 total wins by teams that trailed entering the third period — including 23 teams with at least one such win. Last season, through each team’s 21st game, there were a total of 40 third-period comeback wins, with 22 teams with at least one victory. That was before the COVID variant chaos that really started wreaking havoc in December.

The surge in goal-scoring has fueled this. So has the increasing proficiency of power-play units. Who among us hasn’t seen the team trailing in the third period get the benefit of a penalty call? Well, when power plays are clicking at historically high rates, that’s fertile ground for a rally. Then there’s the fundamental shift by teams to pull their goaltenders earlier, a practice influenced by analytics.

All of these factors, and more, point to this trend continuing and perhaps intensifying. Which is good news for the NHL, as a lead entering the third period is no longer the death knell it used to be trailing teams. No lead is safe, no matter when a team holds one. — Wyshynski

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