It is no secret that overall scoring has dropped in the NHL over the past 20 years, and while there are many factors as to why this is the case, the majority of hockey experts will say that the biggest reason this has happened is that the game has changed. What was once a wide open game dominated by skill and speed has now often become a chess match between coaches and their meticulous defensive systems. Percentage hockey is what today's NHL is all about. Limit your mistakes, only take chances when the odd situation arises, and capitalize on the few opportunities you get. Of course, since the 04-05 lockout, the NHL has made strides to allow the speed and skill of the game to shine through, and as a result offensive numbers are starting to rise. But will we see the days of 150+ point seasons anytime soon? Many will say no. I say yes. And I'll explain why.
NHL SCORING LEADERS BY YEAR
87-88: Mario Lemieux - 168 pts (76 games)
88-89: Mario Lemieux - 199 pts (76 games)
89-90: Mario Lemieux - 142 pts (73 games)
90-91: Wayne Gretzky - 163 pts (78 games)
91-92: Mario Lemieux - 131 pts (64 games)
92-93: Mario Lemieux - 160 pts (60 games)
93-94: Wayne Gretzky - 130 pts (81 games)
94-95: Jaromir Jagr - 70 pts (48 games - Shortened Lockout Year)
95-96: Mario Lemieux - 161 pts (70 games)
96-97: Mario Lemieux - 122 pts (76 games)
97-98: Jaromir Jagr - 102 pts (77 games)
98-99: Jaromir Jagr - 127 pts (81 games)
99-00: Jaromir Jagr - 96 pts (63 games)
00-01: Jaromir Jagr - 121 pts (81 games)
01-02: Jerome Iginla - 96 pts (82 games)
02-03: Peter Forsberg - 106 pts (75 games)
03-04: Martin St. Louis - 94 pts (82 games)
05-06: Joe Thornton - 125 pts (81 games)
06-07: Sidney Crosby - 120 pts (79 games)
It has always been difficult to compare eras in sports. Many hockey fans wonder how the greats of years past would fare in today's NHL. How would Gretzky in his prime do? Would he still be able to amass over 200 pts in a single season? What about Bobby Orr and Paul Coffee? 130+ points for a defenseman? Are you kidding me? The list goes on. Many of the accomplishments of past players seem so out of reach for today's NHLers. Could that happen in today's NHL? There is no way to know. (unless the long-awaited time machine gets built sometime soon) What I do know however, is that the closest we have ever been to witnessing a legend play in the "modern" NHL came midway through the 2000-01 season.
Mario Lemieux came out of retirement in December of 2000. Incredibly, he scored 35 goals and 41 assists for 76 points in only 43 games. Extrapolate that over an entire season, and he would have scored 67 goals and 78 assists for 145 points. Only 2 players scored over 100 points in 2000-01. While this may not have been the peak of the pre-lockout clutch and grab NHL, it was close to it. In the following season, no player was able to reach the 100 point plateau.
Mario Lemieux, at age 35, was able to put up similar numbers in 2000-01 as he did 8-10 years prior. No player came close to matching his PPG (points per game) that season. It can also be argued that Lemieux was nowhere close to being in his prime during this time. How could he? He hadn't played for 3 1/2 years, and, at 35 years old, nobody can argue his body would have been in better shape that it was 5-10 years prior. But he still put up huge numbers, testament to his skill level and status as one of the greatest players to ever play the game of hockey.
Has the NHL changed in such a way that players will never reach some of the numbers put up by the greats of years past? While the game has changed in many ways that will make it difficult to reach the ridiculous numbers Gretzky put up in the mid-80's, I do believe that that we will see players put up numbers that rival those of the late 80's-early 90's. It isn't the game that is stopping this from happening, it's the lack of a true superstar (or two) to show the world that it can still be done. If a 35 year old Mario could do it in an NHL that was tighter then than it is today, who can argue that "the next one" won't be able to put up better numbers.
Who knows, maybe Sidney Crosby is ready to be that superstar. We can only hope.