Hooray for goal scorers early in NHL season

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 10: Vegas Golden Knights Right Wing James Neal (18) celebrates after scoring his second goal during the first-ever home game of the Vegas Golden Knights versus the Arizona Coyotes on October 10, 2017 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV (Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire)
Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire

Since the lockout shortened season of 2013-14, the NHL has seen only a handful of big, individual goal scorers each season.

Last season, only three players cracked the 40-goal barrier. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby had 44, and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Toronto’s Auston Matthews had 40.

In 2015-16, only four players reached 40 goals. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin had 50, Chicago’s Patrick Kane had 46, Dallas’s Jamie Benn had 41, and St. Louis’s Vladimir Tarasenko had 40.

In 2014-15, only three players reached 40 goals. Ovechkin had 53, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos had 43, and the New York Rangers’ Rick Nash had 42.

In 2013-14, three players reached 40 goals. Ovechkin had 51, Anaheim’s Corey Perry had 43, and San Jose’s Joe Pavelski had 41.

Stay with me here. I’m making a point by beating you over the head with it. Simply stated, it has become really hard for players to net 40 goals in a season, let alone 50. Only Ovechkin has done it more than once since the lockout season.

In spite of the league’s efforts to promote scoring by shrinking goalie equipment; further limiting clutching and grabbing; preventing teams from changing lines or calling a timeout after icing the puck; and other measures, scoring by both teams has hovered between 5.34 and 5.45 goals per game since the lockout, and between 5.31 and 5.46 for the last seven seasons.

Maybe, just maybe, the younger, faster, push-the-pace NHL is about to change that.

Through a handful of games, teams are combining for 6.22 goals per game and 20 players are averaging a goal per game. That’s clearly too small a sample — more like a why-the-heck-are-you-even-writing-this kind of sample size — but the presence of some young dynamic players and that aforementioned focus on pace, pushed by the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, raises hope that scoring is coming back.

We need hope.

As of Wednesday morning, 15 teams were averaging at least three goals per game (Toronto led the way at 6.33). For players, Ovechkin again led the way with seven goals in three games. Chicago’s Brandon Saad, the New York Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad and Vegas’ wunderkind James Neal each had five. Buffalo’s Evander Kane, Philadelphia’s underappreciated Wayne Simmonds, and Columbus’s Sonny Milano each had four.

It would be unwise to expect all or even most of those players to reach 40 goals. Saad, 24, has never scored more than 29 goals. Zibanejad, 24, has never scored more than 30 goals, and Neal, 30, reached 41 goals in 2011-12, but hasn’t topped 34 in the last five seasons.

Kane, 26, has never topped 30 goals. Simmonds, 29, has never topped 31 goals. Milano, 21, is playing his first full season in the NHL.

If we had to bet on five guys who could reach the 40-goal plateau this season, which would be a league-high since the lockout, we’d take Ovechkin, Kucherov, Matthews, Tarasenko and Neal, because he’ll get so many important minutes with the Golden Knights.

That said, we’re hoping more players such as Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane, Filip Forsberg and a couple of the hot-start players join the mix. Plenty of hockey fans can enjoy a tight defensive game or a goaltending duel. More hockey fans will enjoy an increase in goals.

Scoring is fun. Scoring sells. Let’s have more scoring, please.

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