Hot Sticks Prevail At The Quarter Mark Of The 2023-24 NHL Season

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Goalies, hide your eyes. The NHL’s trend of increased scoring is holding steady as the 2023-24 season approaches the quarter mark.

Last season, teams averaged 3.18 goals per game, according to Hockey Reference. That was the highest output of the salary-cap era — in fact, dating all the way back to the early 90s.

Through 307 of 1312 games played after Friday night’s 15-game slate was complete, this year’s scoring rate is up a hair, to 3.19.

Give credit to Nikita Kucherov, who vaulted himself into the league scoring lead with this season’s first six-point night in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 8-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. A well-established offensive force, the 30-year-old has three previous 100-point seasons under his belt and won the Art Ross Trophy when he put up 128 points in 2018-19 — at the time, the highest point total since Mario Lemieux posted 161 points in 1995-96.

With 35 points in 20 games so far this year, Kucherov will finish with 143 points if he maintains his current pace. That would be a new career high for him, but would fall a bit short of the gaudy 153 points posted by Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers last season.

It’s rather incredible that the NHL as a whole has maintained its torrid scoring rate without big contributions from McDavid, who has won five Art Ross Trophies in his first eight NHL seasons, or his teammate Leon Draisaitl, who won the award in 2020.

The Oilers’ struggles this season have been well-documented. On Nov. 12, they made the first in-season coaching change of the year when they replaced Jay Woodcroft with Kris Knoblauch.

Even after a solid 5-0 win over the Washington Capitals on Friday, the Oilers are already eight points out of a Western Conference wild-card spot heading into Saturday’s games. But the two offensive dynamos are heating up. After logging four assists on Friday, McDavid sits tied for 28th in the NHL scoring race with 20 points in 17 games — 10 of which have some in the last six games, since Knoblauch took over. Draisaitl’s production has also spiked: he has 11 points in his last six games and is now tied for ninth with 26 points.

While the Oilers have struggled, their Pacific Division mates in Vancouver have been picking up the scoring slack. The Canucks sit second in their division with a record of 14-6-1 thanks, in part, to a league-leading 4.05 goals per game — just shy of the Florida Panthers’ salary-cap era record of 4.11 goals a game from the 2021-22 season.

The Canucks currently have three scorers in the top 10, led by defenseman Quinn Hughes with 32 points in 21 games. That translates to nearly 125 points over a full season. And that would not only dwarf Erik Karlsson’s 101-point campaign which won him the Norris Trophy with the San Jose Sharks in 2022-23, it would also be the fifth-most of all time by a defenseman, behind only the two best seasons of Hall of Famers Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey.

Even more remarkably, 24-year-old Hughes is not alone among defenders. Cale Makar who is one year older, sits three points back at 29, tied for fifth place. And Makar’s Colorado Avalanche have played just 19 games, so the production rate for the 2022 Norris Trophy winner is actually a hair higher than Hughes’.

Could we really see two blueliners exceed 120 points by season’s end? For the moment, Hughes and Makar are in a class of their own. Only two other defensemen have cracked the 20-point plateau — 2018 Norris winner Victor Hedman with the Lightning and Hughes’ frequent blue-line partner in Vancouver, Filip Hronek.

One factor in the NHL’s scoring surge is an increase in power-play opportunities. At 3.41 chances per team per game, that’s up significantly from 3.07 last season and is the highest level since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season (3.32).

But it’s still a far cry from what fans saw after the 2004-05 lockout. When the league made a concerted effort to crack down on obstruction in order to increase scoring coming out of the ‘Dead Puck Era,’ as it was known, teams received a whopping 5.85 power plays per game in 2005-06. That number quickly dropped as players became accustomed to the new standard for penalization. It hovered around three per game from 2014 until last season, before jumping this year.

So even though penalty killing around the league has actually improved by one percentage point from last season, more opportunities have led to 24 more power-play goals. That has helped to goose the overall scoring rate.

Also interesting to note — the correlation between cap hit and production so far this season is rather loose.

Fifteen players carry a cap hit of $10 million or more in the NHL this season, led by Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche at $12.6 million. He’s tied for 13th in scoring with 24 points.

Two of the players with eight-digit cap hits are goalies — including Carey Price, who’s on long-term injured reserve with the Montreal Canadiens and is unlikely to play again. Out of the 13 skaters, just two are in the top 10 in scoring heading into Saturday’s action.

David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins (30 points) is in the first season of a new contract extension that carries a cap hit of $11.25 million. Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers (26 points) is now in Year 5 of a seven-year deal with a cap hit of $11.64 million.

Here’s a quick look at the contract status of the Top 10 (all figures from CapFriendly):

  1. Nikita Kucherov (35 pts) – TBL – $9.5 million – Year 5 of 8
  2. Quinn Hughes (32 pts) – VAN – $7.85 million – Year 3 of 6
  3. J.T. Miller (30 pts) – VAN – $8 million – Year 1 of 7
  4. David Pastrnak (30 pts) – BOS – $11.25 million – Year 1 of 8
  5. Brayden Point (29 pts) – TBL – $9.5 million – Year 2 of 8
  6. Cale Makar (29 pts) – COL – $9 million – Year 3 of 6
  7. Elias Pettersson (28 pts) – VAN – $7.35 million – Year 3 of 3 (RFA)
  8. William Nylander (27 pts) – TOR – $6.96 – Year 6 of 6 (UFA)
  9. Artemi Panarin (26 pts) – NYR – $11.64 million – Year 5 of 7
  10. Leon Draisaitl (26 pts) – EDM – $8.5 million – Year 7 of 8

The most immediate contract concern is with William Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He is having the best year of his career and has previously shown himself to be a tough negotiator. In 2018-19, Nylander held out until hours before the Dec. 1 deadline that would have forced him to miss the entire season before coming to terms on his current deal. With unrestricted free agency looming, Nylander should be in line for a big raise, whether that’s in Toronto or elsewhere.

After sitting atop the scoring race earlier in November, Elias Pettersson has cooled off a bit in Vancouver. And while his future is also uncertain as he plays out the last year of his current contract, the 25-year-old will still be a restricted free agent. That gives Vancouver GM Patrik Allvin a little more control until Pettersson reaches free-agent status on July 1, 2026. At this point, the question for both sides is whether they can come to terms on a long-term deal to lock up a key player on a team that looks like it’s on the rise.

Or, Pettersson may prefer to model his new deal off Auston Matthews, who’s one year older. With an option to become a UFA next summer, Matthews opted for a record-setting four-year contract extension which should allow him to capitalize on an expected surge in the salary cap ceiling over the next several years and sign one more big deal when he reaches his early 30s.

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