The NHL has been struck by a pandemic that no one in the hockey world saw coming; all the goals dried up. Lately the red lights behind the goalies of the NHL have been going dim as the goal production has taken a nose dive. Not since the 1970's has a NHL leading point producer have less that 88 points in the season; Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars was the Art Ross winner with a mere 87 points. So, what is the reason for this downturn in goals? There are three particular reasons why this phenomenon has happened.
Goalies this year have just been standing on their collective heads. Led by Carey Price, the Goals Against Average of most of the starting goalies in the NHL was under 2.5 goals per game. Compare this stat to the mid 80's where the average hovered around 5.2. Goalies in the past little while have been far more active in their nets as far as their ability to get from post-to post in record time. The overall position that the goalies have from even 5 years ago has dramatically improved. No longer do we have the Dominik Hasek's diving around looking like a wounded duck. Even Roberto Luongo has had to change his playing style to keep up with the goaltenders of today. When you take a look at the series that just finished between the Tampa bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens, you saw two of the best goalies on display. Carey Prince continued his strong play into the second round by challenging the shooters without having to make too many unorthodox saves. Ben Bishop on the opposite end of the rink had a series to remember (except for game 4), as he didn't allow more than two goals in a game. Bishop, being a giant of a goalie at 6ft6 without skates, uses his size and mobility to utilize his butterfly technique better than most goalies; on his knees he still covers the whole net. Defenses around the league have been thanking their collective lucky stars that goaltenders around the league have been improving at such a rapid pace, that even the sharpest shooters in the league are baffled at their own inability to score.
The defence and the defencive systems that the teams are implementing this year have been some of the best that the young generation has seen. With such young defensive stars as Aaron Ekblad, Alex Pietrangelo, and Hampus Lindholm leading the way, defenceman are getting more mobile in their own zone as well as becoming better quarterbacks for their teams on the PP. In the 90's and early 2000's, the job of a defenseman was to sit at the blueline and crank shots from the point faster than the Flash can get dressed in the morning. This tactic left the defensemen stationary and easy for the forwards to chip the puck past them and go for an odd man rush or breakaway. Now, defensemen have to be much more mobile on the back end in order to help set up an offensive chance as well as being able to recover if the puck is turned over. This mobility also comes in the form of having an active stick and better body positioning against the oncoming forwards. Looking back on the days of Ray Bourque and Chris Chelios, the defenceman were able to hack and hook to their hearts delight because of the relaxed rules, but now a defensmam as slow as Chelios has gone the way of the doodoo bird because they are unable to keep pace with the Patrick Kane's of the world. Footwork and overall quickness in the transitioning between the offensive and defensive zones are increasingly important. D-Men such as Lindholm have the proper skillset in order to switch from skating forwards to backwards, keeping the amount of breakaways down and dampening the amount of scoring chances that the goalies have to face.
Along with sound defencive strategies from masterminds such as: Babcock, Quenneville, Cooper, and Therrien, the management of shift length and penalty killing strategies have been somewhat of a marvel throughout the season and into the playoffs. Just take a look at the futility of the Montreal Canadiens powerplay in the playoffs so far; an abysmal 5.9%. The main reason for this futility on offense for the Canadiens, and an overall futility for the rest of the league, is because the strategies of the coaching staff have been better. The head coaches in the modern era have been able to find a way to clog up the neutral zone, if they are in the lead, or make a stand at their own blueline if they are on the penalty kill. Looking at Tampa's strategy against the Canadiens, John Cooper created a system where the team created a wall on the blue line, which forced their opponents had to dump-and-chase the puck. the mobile defensive pairing that GM Yzerman has put together gets the puck and clears it out of the zone or starts the defensive breakout. This strategy and more were the reason that the Canadiens could not sustain any pressure and were only limited to 19 shots in an elimination game.
The league and the NHLPA are going to have meeting over the summer and try to implement new rules in order to give fans a more exciting product on the ice with more goals and more action than ever before, but how long will it take for coaches and defensmen alike to figure out a way to keep the scoring chances to a minimum and have another Art Ross winner with less than 90 points? Only time will tell.