Whether in the DobberHockey forums or over a pint at the local pub, people who follow hockey love to talk numbers. And without NHL regular season stats to analyze, a lot of talk among many fantasy hockey enthusiasts these days has naturally drifted to hockey history. What’s nice is that in talking about the past, you can definitely gain valuable insight into the present and future, both in terms of “real life” hockey and fantasy hockey.
With this in mind, we focus our debate on historical goal scoring feats and ask:
Which goal scoring mark will be achieved again first – 70+ goals in a season by a forward, or 30+ goals in a season by a defenseman?
70 goals by a forward – it’s happened more often in the past and there have been more near misses in recent years
Quick quiz – in how many seasons between 1981-82 and 1992-93 was there at least one 70+ goal scorer in the NHL? You might be surprised to realize that in all but two of those seasons there was at least one, and in three of those seasons there were two different 70+ goal scorers! So that means for a 12 season stretch, it happened 13 times!
Compare that to the instances during the same time frame where a defenseman scored 30+ goals and you see it happened more often (13 times versus only eight times for a 30+ defenseman goal scorer during those 12 seasons) and that more players did it (seven different players scored 70+, versus only five different defensemen with 30+ during that time span). Of course history doesn’t predict the future, but when you’re debating a non-regular occurrence like this you have to factor in what’s happened in the past as a useful indicator of the future.
What’s more, when you break down who accomplished the 70+ goal scoring feat during those 12 seasons, you see there were generational talents, namely Gretzky (scored 70+ four times) and Mario Lemieux (two times). There were also the pure snipers, like Brett Hull (three times), Teemu Selanne (once), and Alexander Mogilny (once). Lastly, there were also the talented goal scorers whose game was elevated by being able to play on the same line with a generational talent, like Jari Kurri (once) and Bernie Nicholls (once), both of whom had the luxury of playing wing with Gretzky during his prime.
Kurri and Gretzky combined for some magic later on in their respective careers:
Why is this important? Not only does the NHL have its share of snipers (Steven Stamkos and Alexander Ovechkin, assuming he regains his scoring touch under new coach Adam Oates) who could easily flirt with the 70 goal mark, but I also think most would acknowledge that Sidney Crosby likely fits the definition of a generational talent from what we’ve seen from him so far (4th in NHL history for points per game!). If Lemieux and Gretzky could hit 70, why can’t Sid the kid (assuming he can stay healthy)?
Also keep in mind that Crosby really hasn’t yet had the luxury of playing with anything close to a true goal scorer during his entire time in Pittsburgh. Were that ever to happen – and there’s still plenty of time for it to occur during Crosby’s prime – then we could easily find ourselves with another Bernie Nicholls situation, where someone nets 70 playing on Crosby’s wing despite never having scored 50 goals at any other point in his career. In a nutshell – the stage is set for several scenarios where someone hammers home 70+ goals in a not too distant season.
The other thing to keep in mind is offensive forwards tend to have it easier than offensive defensemen. They play fewer tough minutes, and they tend to have fewer defensive responsibilities. If you look at Mike Green’s season in 2008-09 when he scored 31 goals, he logged 25:45 of ice time per game, of which 2:28 of that were shorthanded minutes. Of course it’s true that you can only score a goal when you’re on the ice so more minutes can help somewhat, but those minutes also take their toll, and Green only managed one shorthanded point during all those minutes which means almost 10% of his total ice time was essentially wasted in terms of contributing to his offensive stats.
Also, defensemen like Green who play nearly half a game have to take the ice in many cases with third and fourth line forwards, when fewer goals are scored. In contrast, 70+ goal scorers play nearly all of their minutes while on the ice with other top tier offensive talents, and are out there in more situations tailor made for scoring.
Lastly, but perhaps most persuasively, if you look at the data from the past 15 seasons, the fact is the average number of goals scored by the highest scoring NHL forward each year was 53.4, which is 76.28% of 70 goals, but the highest number of goals scored by a defenseman each year during that time was, on average, only 21.73, which is 72.44% of 30. It’s close, but the numbers suggest that 70+ goals from a forward has been less out of reach than 30+ goals by a defenseman. Simply put – in the end, both logic and numbers support the argument that we’ll see a forward tally 70+ goals before we see another defenseman score 30+.
30 goals by a defenseman – it was achieved more recently and is a realistic feat for more players
An important point that’s conveniently overlooked in the arguments above is that despite all the times it happened from 1981-82 to 1992-93, no one has scored 70+ goals since the 92-93 season, but of course Mike Green potted 31 less than five years ago. In fact, not only was Stephen Stamkos’ 60 goals last season just the second time anyone lit the lamp 60 or more times in a season in the NHL since 1995-96, but in roughly half the seasons since 92-93 the NHL goal scoring leader didn’t even net more than 55 goals. Let’s face it – 70 goals appears to be a thing of the past, a milestone that was achievable at one time but which now simply cannot be obtained in today’s NHL, much like a plus/minus rating of +70, which hasn’t been accomplished in roughly the same number of years.
While it may be true that since 1981-82 there have been fewer different defensemen who netted 30+ goals in a season than forwards who scored 70+, what’s important is that several of those defensemen were not Hall of Fame (HOF) guys, including Doug Wilson (39 goals in 1981-82), Phil Housley (31 goals in 1983-84) and Kevin Hatcher (34 goals in 1992-93) – and you could even lump in Mike Green (31 goals in 2008-09) although it’s too early to tell about the HOF. Compare that to the list of forwards who’ve scored 70+ during that time – there you really only have Hall of Famers except for Bernie Nicholls (the jury is still out on Alexander Mogilny; Teemu Selanne likely will be a lock when he becomes eligible).
It’s much the same if you also look at the recent near misses in terms of the defensemen who came closest to hitting 30+ in the last 15 years versus the forwards who were closest to 70+. For defensemen, it’s more “regular” guys like Sheldon Souray (26 goals in 2006-07) and Sergei Gonchar (26 in 2001-02), whereas among the nearest misses for forwards you have perennial first team all stars like Stamkos (60 last season) and Ovechkin (65 in 2007-08).
Of course there are more "regular" players in the NHL than superstar future Hall of Famers. So one could make the case that if more “regular” defensemen like Wilson, Housley, Hatcher and Green have managed to score 30 (and Souray and Gonchar were near misses) than "regular" forwards, then logic dictates that it is more likely a defenseman will manage to score 30+ again sooner than a forward will hit 70.
The argument about defensemen minutes being tougher also isn’t persuasive at all. If that was true, then wouldn’t defensemen wear down as the season went on? But just look at Mike Green – in the 2008-09 season when he scored 31 goals, it turns out that he scored eight of those goals in his final 12 regular season games, which is greater than a 50 goal pace if projected over an entire season. And with Kevin Hatcher, in 1992-93 when he netted 34 goals he managed to light the lamp 10 times in his last 20 regular season games, which is a 40+ full season goal scoring rate. Plus, it’s true that defensemen do have to play many of their minutes with third and fourth line forwards, but in those cases an offensive defenseman actually will be counted on more so than ever for his offense.
And another related point is that many offensive defensemen will routinely play most, if not all of a two-minute power play (which is something that even forwards of the caliber to score 70+ pretty much never do), giving those defensemen a great opportunity to get a goal in a very favorable offensive situation. There is simply no credibility in the arguments about forwards playing easier minutes that are more favorable to scoring.
Green shows off his booming shot:
Lastly, let’s not forget that certain players (Dustin Byfuglien, for example) can be considered defensemen despite the fact that they might line up as forwards on a semi-regular basis. This technicality might only happen from time to time and not every player is a threat to actually score 30+ goals just because he's able to spend time as a forward, but it’s yet another factor (along with the many presented above) that points toward this feat being easier to achieve again than 70+ goals for a forward.
The Final Verdict
On the surface, it seems like there are solid arguments on both sides, but for some reason I was far more easily swayed by the ones presented for 30+ goals by a defensemen than I would've expected. Beyond the fact that it happened more recently - while 70+ hasn’t happened in roughly 20 years - I think it counts for a lot that several “regular” defensemen have scored 30+. It really does seem like 30+ goals from a defenseman is something that can happen any given year, whereas 70+ goals needs truly special players playing for special teams, and that's more of a rarity.
What are your thoughts?