Sunday, January 21, 2018
Sports

Gretzky: Goal-scorers have lost 'creativity and imagination'

With 102 points in 80 games, Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks is poised to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top point-scorer. His superlative season has evoked achievements from an earlier era. He is the first American-born player with a 100-point season in 20 years. His 26-game point streak earlier in the season was the longest since 1992-93.

But his league-leading numbers also reflect how far removed hockey is from its offensive heyday.

Thirty years ago, Wayne Gretzky set a single-season NHL record with a mind-boggling 215 points in 80 games for the Edmonton Oilers, completing the feat with an assist on a Marty McSorley goal in the season finale against the Vancouver Canucks on April 6, 1986.

That season, NHL teams averaged 3.97 goals apiece per game. It was the second-highest average in the league's history since the 1967-68 expansion to 12 teams from six. The peak was 4.01 goals apiece per game in 1981-82.

At the 30th anniversary of Gretzky's seemingly unbreakable record, another statistic stands out: NHL scoring has continued to decline since the 1985-86 season, never topping the 3.97 mark again.

The roots of that decline are clear in the mind of Gretzky, the NHL's career leading scorer with 2,857 points.

"When I was 10 years old, they'd throw a puck on the ice and say, 'Go score,' " he said. "Now, at 10 years old, the kids are taught to play in their lanes. Defensemen stay back. Everybody blocks shots. I mean, my goodness, I don't think I ever blocked a shot, and I killed penalties every single game. I thought goaltenders were paid to block shots, not forwards. It's changed completely. I think the biggest thing we've lost is a little bit of our creativity and imagination in general."

This season, goals per team per game (2.71) is lower than at any time since the so-called dead-puck era of 1995 to 2004, when interference tactics and the neutral-zone trap were rampant.

The last time teams averaged more than three goals apiece per game was 2005-06 (3.08). After the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, the NHL introduced new rules in a bid to spark more scoring.

The center red line was eliminated to allow for two-line passes that could beat the neutral zone trap. A trapezoid was instituted behind the net to limit the area in which goaltenders could play the puck. Teams icing the puck were no longer permitted to substitute fresh players for the ensuing faceoff in the defensive zone.

The NHL also moved toward a "zero tolerance" officiating standard. Power plays gained a big role.

The average number of power plays per team in 2005-06 was 480, compared with 348 in 2003-04.

But none of these changes has had a lasting effect. For example, the average number of power plays per team this season is 248.

Ken Holland, the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, attributed the reduced scoring to greater competitive balance, more data about opponents and similar coaching strategies leaguewide.

"If the scores were 6-5, you could afford mistakes because you can outscore your mistakes," Holland said. "But when the scores are 2-1 or 3-2, mistakes are critical."

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