The league’s scoring trends have always been something that’s fascinated me. Part of that is the simple enjoyment of big numbers, but that kind of simple metadata is also helpful to keep in mind because it helps us to keep in mind where our expectations should be as far as goaltenders go.
For example, Louis Domingue enjoys a 14-4-0 record, but he also has a 2.95 GAA and .905 save percentage in those 18 starts. That seems pretty bad, and it is certainly far worse than Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s numbers, but in the grand scheme of things, Domingue has actually held his own. The league average goaltender has a 2.90 GAA and .907 save percentage so far this season, so Domingue is a representation of that middle ground rather than a struggling netminder.
You would be forgiven if you saw Domingue as lower-tier though because the standard has shifted so quickly. Domingue’s numbers would have been terrible just a few years ago. For example, in 2015-16 the average goaltender had a 2.51 GAA and .915 save percentage.
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One other interesting example is Henrik Lundqvist. In 2016-17 he had a 2.74 GAA and .910 save percentage in 57 games whereas this season he’s posted a 2.78 GAA and .916 save percentage in 23 starts. However, in 2016-17, his numbers were subpar while as we’ve previously established, he’s been upper-tier in 2018-19 despite putting up somewhat similar results. The standards were shifted and Lundqvist in a way got better in a relative sense by managing to stay the same.
Of course, we’re going with incomplete data when talking about this season, so we might trend towards lower scoring games as the season progresses, but we are deep enough into the campaign that the league averages have some real weight. That’s big because so far this season has been pretty unique.
We had already been trending towards higher scoring games. In 2015-16, the average team scored 2.71 goals per game, which was a low point in the salary cap era, but that average drifted upwards to 2.77 in 2016-17 before leaping to 2.97 in 2017-18. We’ve seen another spike this season with the average being 3.10 goals per game. To give that level some historical perspective, the last time the average was higher than this was 1995-96 when it was at 3.14 goals per game. In that season, Mario Lemieux led the league with 161 points, Jaromir Jagr finished second with 149 points, and Jim Carey won the Vezina Trophy with his 2.26 GAA and .906 save percentage.
In all likelihood, we’re not going to have a 161 point player this season or anything close to it, though if Mikko Rantanen somehow maintains his current pace, he’d finish with around 138 points. One difference between 1995-96 and the league today though is how spread out the scoring has been. In 1995-96, 42 players averaged at least a point-per-game while appearing in a minimum of 40 games. If we fast forward to today, that number is up to 48 players with a minimum of 15 games played. Keeping the same games played minimums, in 2018-19 we have 86 players averaging at least 0.80 points-per-game. In 1995-96, it was 74 players that averaged at least 0.80 points-per-game. So it’s not a huge difference, but you do start to see why the very top-end is meaningfully lower in 2018-19 despite the gap between this season and 1995-96 being relatively small in terms of overall scoring.
Just a little more context before we move on: While scoring has gone up a lot in the last few years, it’s still nowhere close to its peak. Back in 1981-82, the average was 4.01 goals per game and between 1980-81 and 1985-86, the average was never lower than 3.84. So scoring is up, but still far below the crazy pace of the early-to-mid 1980s when Wayne Gretzky was at the top of his game.
I mentioned Domingue and Vasilevskiy above, but what I glossed over at that time was Vasilevskiy missing a little over a month due to a fractured foot. As you could tell from Domingue’s record, the Lightning weren’t slowed down during Vasilevskiy’s absence, but he’ll make his return tonight and its nonetheless a huge boost for the Lightning. Even if the Lightning proved that they could win in front of Domingue, their task is made easier with Vasilevskiy and having a Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender to mix with their top-tier offense makes the Lightning one of the most dangerous teams in the league.
Until the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, Washington’s playoff shortcomings in the Alex Ovechkin era was a frequent topic and I feel like Tampa Bay warrants being put under that microscope now. The Lightning reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and the Eastern Conference Final in 2016 and 2018, but they don’t have a Stanley Cup yet in the Stamkos era. They’re becoming one of those teams that always seems to be good enough to win it all, but has continually fallen just short, similar to the San Jose Sharks during most of Joe Thornton’s tenure. This could easily be the season where the Lightning get their championship though.
Speaking of the Sharks, they can’t be ruled out either. They haven’t been quite as effective as people hoped with Erik Karlsson added to the roster, but they are starting to click. San Jose has won four of its last five games and is the season ended today, the Sharks would be in the playoffs. From there, anything is possible.
Certainly there would be some sentimental reasons to root for the Sharks given that this might be Thornton’s last shot even if the idea of this being his final season is pure speculation at this point. However, the Sharks might also begin transitioning again in the near future. Captain Joe Pavelski can become an unrestricted free agent this summer and even if he does re-sign, he’ll turn 35 on July 11th, so he’s entering the twilight of his career. Burns is locked up, but he turns 34-years-old in March so he’s getting up there as well. Plus it remains to be seen if Karlsson will re-sign with San Jose or if this will just a one-year stint.
None of that is to suggest that the Sharks will fade away. Evander Kane and Logan Couture are still in their prime. Timo Meier is looking like he could be a big part of the next wave of Sharks forwards and Tomas Hertl is coming into his own at the age of 25. But even if the Sharks enjoy another successful transition from one era to the next, it will be a different team. Similar to how this used to be Thornton and Patrick Marleau’s squad before Pavelski and Couture largely took the baton. San Jose managed to minimize the growing pains between eras fairly well, but there was a different feel and ultimately, it felt like an entire era could be summarized as a missed opportunity. Maybe that story will change this time around.