Scoring has been a hot topic in the NHL over the past several seasons. As 2018-19 winds to a close, the average number of goals scored per game is set to be the highest since the 2005-06 season. That rise in scoring can be explained by a variety of factors, but you might be surprised to learn that the power play hasn’t been as big of a factor as you might think.
NHL teams are currently scoring on an average of 19.72% of their power play opportunities this season. While that’s a slight drop from last season’s 20.18%, it’s the second-highest mark in the last 28 seasons. Teams are scoring at a great clip when they have the man advantage, but that’s not the surprising part. The surprising part is that teams are receiving relatively few opportunities to show off their power play skills.
The 2018-19 season is currently averaging 2.89 power play opportunities per game, per team. According to the stats compiled by Hockey Reference, that’s a historically-low total. It’s the fewest opportunities of all of the 55 tracked seasons. By comparison, power play opportunities peaked in 2005-06 with an average of 5.85 per game, per team.
Barring a major increase in power plays in the season’s final stretch, which is fairly unlikely, the 2018-19 campaign may end up being historically dry for opportunities with the man advantage. This should prove that the rise in scoring is genuine and not artificially inflated through special teams play.
So, what’s behind the reduction in power plays?
Were NHL officials told to keep their whistles in their pocket? That seems extremely far-fetched, despite the league’s push to boost scoring. Anecdotally, there haven’t been any major alterations. Of course, that’s a different story in the playoffs.
The slip from 2017-18 to 2018-19 might be due to players finally adjusting to the league’s relatively recent crackdown on interference, hooking and other chippy penalties that are being called on a more regular basis. Players may know what they need to avoid despite the inconsistencies that have plagued NHL officiating for all of eternity.
Fans will say that the average has dropped because their favorite team is oppressed by the league. That silly, nonsensical argument doesn’t hold much water .. though there are a few teams who are way behind the curve.
The Dallas Stars have only had 188 power play opportunities this season. The Toronto Maple Leafs are right there with them as the only two teams with fewer than 190 total opportunities. Meanwhile, the Colorado Avalanche have had 259 chances and 25 teams have had 200 or more chances. There’s a big discrepancy between the “haves” and “have nots” when it comes to time with the man advantage.
Drawing penalties, or the inability to draw a penalty, may be the reason the NHL is seeing a slip in average power plays. The style of play maintained by teams such as the Stars or Maple Leafs may not lend itself to situations where a penalty may occur. That’s an incredibly difficult point to prove or assess, but it makes more sense than a conspiracy theory.
There’s also the idea that the NHL is still finding its way when it comes to defining and calling things consistently. That’s a topic that was specifically discussed at the recent GM meetings. Strengthening the definition of what a roughing penalty is might cut down on some of the blatant sucker punches and may produce more power plays as a result. Improved player safety is the ultimate goal, though more power plays could be the side effect.
Ultimately, the NHL appears to be in a nice spot. Scoring is up, and it isn’t solely due to special teams or gimmicks. A readjustment period may be coming once again should the NHL redefine some of its penalty descriptions, but for now all hockey fans should celebrate the modern era and hope the league doesn’t mess up a good thing.