The only thing that eventually stopped Alexander Ovechkin’s (check that video out, those highlights are just from his rookie year) assault on hockey nets across the country, was the lit red lamp at the conclusion of the third period of the 82nd game of the season. When all was said and done, Ovechkin had tallied 65 regular season goals – the first time a skater scored more than 60 goals since a pair of Penguins achieved the feat 12 years ago in the 1995-1996 season. 10 full NHL seasons (not including the lockout) passed without a single 60-goal scorer.
In the 10 full NHL seasons before that drought (1984-1985 – 1995-1996, because the 94-95 season was shortened due to the strike) the plateau was reached 21 times (in order: Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky (2 times), Jari Kurri (2 times), Mario Lemieux (4 times), Bernie Nicholls, Steve Yzerman (2 times), Brett Hull (3 times), Alexander Mogilny, Teemu Selanne, Pavel Bure (2 times), Luc Robitaille, and Jaromir Jagr).
So why has reaching the 60-goal mark become so rare?
Between the years of 1967 and 1979 the NHL added 15 teams. So in 12 years the size of the league grew to three and a half times its original size. Did the talent pool during this stretch expand at a similar rate? Probably not. Yes there were the baby-boomers, and hockey was becoming more popular, but not enough to stretch out the talent from 6 teams to 21 teams. So, the average talent of an NHL player was at its lowest between 1967 and the mid 90s. Thus the players that would have been really good prior to 1967 were now even better thanks to weaker competition. And so the 60 goal scorer was born in 1971 when Phil Esposito lit 76 lamps. It could be argued that the 60-goal scorer was purely a product of weaker competition, and by the mid-90s when the talent pool finally grew to the size of the NHL, it became extinct.
2. The Berlin Wall
When the Berlin Wall came crashing down and the Cold War ended, USSR citizens were finally welcome in the United States. Because hockey is so much more widely played in the freezing conditions of Russia and its neighboring countries, the NHL’s talent pool suddenly grew exponentially. Instead of relying purely on America and Canada for its players, the NHL acquired more and more players that came over from Europe and Russia. Thus, the NHL finally had enough good players to strengthen competition, and to ensure great players couldn’t dominate in the same way becuase they played with more good players.
3. Stacking the Pads
Have you ever watched footage of games even as recent as the mid-80s? Two things stand out right away; the lack of big hits, and the goalies. The goalies back then not only seem constantly out of position, but they are about half the size of a Roberto Luongo or a Martin Brodeur. Pads are huge. The improvement in goaltending has changed the game so much, and made it an even more defensive-minded sport. Look at the difference in goalies between Gretzky’s time and Ovechkin’s time.
4. The Devils
Speaking of defense, in 1994-1995 the New Jersey Devils, behind coach Jacques Lemaire, won the Stanley Cup. The Devils would win three Cups over the next nine years; the teams were built upon the broad shoulders of Brodeur, the big hits of Scott Stevens, and the neutral zone trap. The NHL is a copy-cat league and once something is successful, it quickly becomes the norm. More and more teams used the neutral zone trap behind good defenders to win games. No longer could a great player skate in to his offensive zone, deke a few defenders and head to the net. The only remaining mode of offense was the Dump and Chase and a good back-check. Scoring overall went down during these years, and the average number of goals scored in an NHL game quickly shrunk from about seven and a half per game in the late 80s to around five and a half per game less than a decade later. Yes, the new rules instituted after the lockout facilitated offense, but in the three years since that wasted season, goals per game fluctuated above six only once.
5. An aging Gretzky and Lemieux
11 of the 21 times the 60 goal plateau was reached during that ten season period can be traced to either Gretzky, Lemieux, or one of their teammates. The best example of their role in the 60-goal seasons is Bernie Nicholls. Nicholls scored 70 goals in his one full season playing along side Gretzky, and never approached that mark again; in fact, he only reached the 40 goal plateau two other times in his career – and didn’t reach the 40 goal mark in either the season before or after the 70 goal season. However, by 1997 the two players were well past their primes. The duo would only have a few more productive seasons between them, and the game would lose two of its greatest legends. Without Gretzky’s vision and pinpoint passing, and sans Mario’s will to put the puck in the net and win games, it’s difficult to imagine a group of players duplicating the flury of 60-goal scorers witnessed during this era.
Remember, the five aforementioned reasons all explain why no player had scored 60 goals during this span. There are no similar explanations as to why someone finally came through. Ovechkin had an unbelievable year, arguably the best since the 1995-1996 season. The NHL is more talented now than it has ever been, so Ovechkin’s 07-08 campaign is even more impressive in that light. Not to overstate Ovechkin’s place in history, after all Pavel Bure netted 58 goals in 99-00, and 59 the following season, but he has etched quite a name for himself in his young career. Only time will tell whether we will look back at this season as one of the best of all time, or as the one that broke through and ushered in many more 60-goal season.