NHL is about offense as the league gets younger, faster more skilled | Michael Arace

Edmonton's Connor McDavid leads the NHL with 37 goals and 46 assists.
Edmonton's Connor McDavid leads the NHL with 37 goals and 46 assists.

NHL teams in a free fall do not draw well. There are exceptions. Supply and demand in Original Six cities, particularly in Toronto and Montreal, guarantee big crowds. But even allegedly awesome hockey markets, like those in Colorado, Detroit and Pittsburgh, have attendance problems when their teams struggle.

The Johnny Gaudreau bump has kept Nationwide Arena from emptying out even though the Blue Jackets are among the worst teams in the league. And while there must be some fans regretting the expense, it’s a testament to Columbus that 16,000 are regularly showing up to witness the brutality. Penguins fans stayed away when their team rotted in the period between Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. Spoiled.

Jackets fans are tracking the progression of the team’s talented young forwards (Kent Johnson, Cole Sillinger, Kirill Marchenko, et al). They’re hoping that the defensive prospects (David Jiricek, Denton Mateychuk, Stanislav Svozil, et al) are developing apace. The Jackets have made five first-round picks in the past three drafts and, if they’ve scouted well, the team and their fans can truly aspire.

The old expression, “you’ve got to be bad to be good,” holds fast. Lottery picks being crucial to building a contender has been something that has been discussed in this space again, again and again. Although great teams are not built on elite talent alone, it is increasingly more difficult to build a great team without elite talent, and the high draft picks are the best place to find such talent.

The Jackets need more of it. Best case, they win the lottery and draft Connor Bedard, the next Crosby. Or, they’re drafting in the top three and can get their hands on a No. 1 center. The 2023 draft class is stacked.

Columbus needs to score like it has never scored before.

This season has just passed its midway point. Coming out of the weekend, there were 16 players with 52-plus points, 14 with 25-plus goals and five with 30-plus goals. Connor McDavid was the league leader across the board with 37-46 — 83.

Put another way, it’s conceivable that the 2022-23 season could produce more a dozen 100-point scorers, a dozen 50-goal scorers and maybe even a few 60-goal scorers.

The last time those kinds of numbers were being posted by such a large parcel of players was 1995-96, when there were 12 100-point scorers, eight 50-goal scorers and two 60-goal scorers. Lemieux led the league in goals (69), assists (92) and points (161).

McDavid is having a Lemieux-like season. At his present rates, his 82-game totals would be 67-84 — 151. What is more, McDavid’s career points-per-game number (1.466) ranks him fourth all-time behind Wayne Gretzky (1.921), Lemieux (1.883) and Mike Bossy (1.497). No. 5 on the list is Bobby Orr (1.393). No. 8 is Sidney Crosby (1.267).

It’s difficult to say that the game is going back to the 1980s, The Great One’s greatest decade. Gretzky’s five most productive seasons were 1981-82 through 1985-86, when his average season included 75 goals and 207 points.

The game was different then. Put it this way: There were a lot of players then who couldn’t play now. That’s not a knock, as every era should be judged on its own merits. But evolution has created modern athletes who are bigger, stronger and faster. Teams are deeper. Today, defensemen who can’t skate and fourth liners who aren’t scoring threats rarely get to the show. And the goaltender position has gone through a technical revolution.

A generation of league officials, prodded by two lockouts (2004-05 and 2012), have tweaked rules to favor offense over defense. Generations of players – better-trained more highly skilled, because they have to be – are exploring their own creativity. Coaches, recognizing all of this, have adjusted their tactics.

Goal lamps are lighting like it’s 1985. Well, not quite, but that’s the way it’s trending.

Connor Bedard is expected to go No. 1 overall in the 2023 NHL draft.
Connor Bedard is expected to go No. 1 overall in the 2023 NHL draft.

In 1984-85, there were 16 players who scored 100-plus points and nine who scored 50-plus goals (including Gretzky and his teammate, Jarri Kurri, who scored 70-plus). The average NHL game included 7.94 goals. What fun!

In the mid-1990s, with advent of neutral-zone traps, left-wing locks and huge, thuggish defensemen, the goals-per-game numbers were squeezed. By the time the Blue Jackets joined the league in 2000-01, the average NHL game included 5.52 goals per game.

A temporary crackdown on obstruction helped bump the number to 6.17 goals per game in 2005-06, but then referees got lazy and the Dead Puck Era returned. Basically, 5.5 goals per game was what fans got during aughts and early teens.

League officials – mainly, the general managers – kept tinkering. They trimmed goalie equipment as referees cracked down on obstruction (again) among other things (such as cross-checking). There are hooking calls made now that were “just part of the game” 20 years ago.

Scoring has climbed from 6.02 per game in 2018-19 to 6.28 per game last season to 6.36 per game this season. Wild shootouts with scores like 6-4 or even 9-4 are not confined to Columbus. It’s a league-wide phenomenon.

The league is younger, faster, more dynamic. Defense is mostly reserved for playoff use. Keep these things in mind as an injury-ravaged Jackets team sinks. If management is doing its job, then future help is already on hand, and more is on the way.

marace@dispatch.com

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: NHL is about offense as the league gets younger, faster more skilled