While the first six weeks of the 2010-2011 NHL season has produced a number of compelling storylines, such as the emergence of Steven Stamkos as an elite (Crosby/Ovechkin level) player, the implosion of the New Jersey Devils and the Colin Campbell email controversy, the most intriguing theme to date is the dramatic rise in both hat tricks and shutouts.
Through Thursday night's action, 24 hat tricks have been recorded in the NHL. With 273 games in the books, that's an average of one hatter every 11.38 games. If this pace is maintained, the NHL will see an impressive 108 hat tricks this season. That's an astounding 47.9% increase over the 2009-2010 campaign, in which 73 hat tricks were scored. For added perspective, consider this: The free-wheeling 1987-1988 season, with Lemieux and Gretzky in their prime, saw 113 hat tricks recorded, while the 1998-1999 season, at the height of the "dead puck" era, chalked up just 56.
More interesting facts: The 3+ goal games are divided almost evenly, with 13 for Eastern Conference snipers and 11 for the West. Also, teams on the receiving end are fairly even, as 13 hatters have been against Eastern clubs, with 11 vs. the West. Perhaps most intriguing is the tendency to "keep it in the Conference," as 9 of 11 Western Conference hat tricks have been scored against other Western Conference clubs. Of the 13 Eastern Conference hat tricks, 11 were scored against Eastern teams.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, NHL goalies have recorded 38 shutouts through 273 games this season. At an average of one every 7.18 games, that's an increase of 9.6% over the 2009-2010 campaign, in which shutouts came once every 7.94 games.
Shutouts are split right down the middle, with 19 each for Eastern and Western Conference goalies. A dramatic disparity is seen, however, in the victims of shutouts: 24, or 63.2%, have come against Eastern clubs, while only 14 (36.8%) have been against the West. This is due in part to the Western Conference's 41-21-9 record vs. Eastern teams. While just 4 of 19 shutouts by Eastern goalies came against Western teams, Western goalies racked up 9 of 19 shutouts against the East.
An increase in hat tricks would seem to indicate a league-wide increase in scoring, while an increase in shutouts seems to indicate the opposite. What's going on? Scoring is up only slightly over last season (5.65 goals/game in 2010-2011 vs. 5.53 in 2009-2010), so the answer must lie elsewhere.
My theory is this: The combination of cap issues (in Chicago and New Jersey, among others) and injuries (in Colorado and St. Louis, among others) has caused an influx of not-ready-for-primetime skaters from the AHL and major junior leagues. The large number of relatively inexperienced players on the ice has resulted in higher-quality scoring chances across the league, which snipers (Stamkos, Semin, et al), savvy veterans (Ed Jovanovski, Raffi Torres) and even a few talented youngsters (Derek Stepan, Chris Stewart) have exploited.
On the flip side, those very same inexperienced players have struggled mightily to score against clubs with solid goaltending and good team defense. Boston, St. Louis and Montreal (combined) own 12 of 38 shutouts in the NHL this season. The Bruins and Habs are ranked 1-2 in team Goals Against Average (1.76 and 2.05, respectively), and the Blues were in the top three until a rash of injuries brought on their recent defensive struggles.
Curse the salary cap and injuries all you want, but they're making the 2010-2011 NHL season one to remember.
Take me back to On Goal Analysis.