The 1992-93 season is often seen as being among the best ever. Mario Lemieux beat cancer and had 160 points in 60 games. Teemu Selanne obliterated the rookie scoring record with 76 goals. A new wave of Russian stars such as Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure was dazzling fans. And the league saw 14 players hit the 50-goal mark, and 20 reached 100 points.
The season also featured 7.26 goals per game. That was well down from the high-flying '80s, which at their peak topped the 8.00 mark, but it was the highest offensive output in four seasons. And, although we didn't know it at the time, it was the highest mark we'd see for another 22 seasons and counting.
The following season, which happened to be the first full season under the watchful eye of a new commissioner named Gary Bettman, scoring dropped to its lowest level in two decades. While some were confident that the plunge was a temporary blip, there was general agreement that something should be done. The only question was: What?
And so the debate began.
If that sounds a lot like the sort of conversation we're having today, well, that's because it is. This has been kind of a thing for the NHL ever since Bettman arrived. Scoring drops, the league scratches its head, and then someone announces that they've come up with a solution.
The whole thing can start to feel repetitive. So I went back over the past 22 years of NHL history and found articles from each and every season in which somebody is expressing concern about plunging scoring rates, and the league is assuring us that it has it all figured out. Just for fun, we'll also look at what (if any) rules actually did change that season and keep track of the overall league-wide scoring rate.
So yes, today's NHL might feature scoring levels that are headed toward historical lows, but don't worry, everyone: The league is on it. It's got it all figured out. And it's got a plan to get scoring back to where it needs to be ...
The season: 1993-94
The headline: Scoring is down but fights are flourishing (Jan. 12, 1994)
The proposed changes: Among a long list of complaints and grievances, the referees are singled out for allowing too much obstruction.
What actually happened: Not much. The league made one minor change, slightly loosening the rules around goals scored with a high stick.
Money quote: "Last season at this point, each game averaged 7.30 goals. So far this year, the average is 6.06." Don't worry, I'm sure it won't last.
Average goals per game: The final goals-per-game average settled in at 6.48, making 1993-94 the lowest scoring season since 1973-74. Or, as we call it today, "The good old days."
The season: 1994-95
The headline: Neutral-zone trap to champagne pop (June 26, 1995)
The proposed changes: A crackdown on obstruction "so that skilled players aren't nullified." Also mentioned is a "more radical suggestion": eliminating the two-line offside.
What actually happened: Neither of those changes would actually be made for a decade.
Money quote: "Claude Lemieux of the Devils, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs, seemed insulted when asked about critics of the team's efficient neutral-zone trap. 'Well, too bad,' he said. 'Go watch a show somewhere else.'" Which they did, according to weeping TV executives.
Average goals per game: 5.98. This was the first time the league had been below the 6-goal mark since 1970.
The season: 1995-96
The headline: League hopes anti-trap rules lead to more excitement (Sept. 30, 1995)
The proposed changes: This article covers the attempt to crack down on obstruction, especially in the neutral zone. Nobody seems to really like it, with Mike Milbury complaining that "hockey as we know it has ceased to exist."
What actually happened: The crackdown resulted in a temporary boost to power plays and overall scoring. Then the season ended with a triple-overtime 1-0 game.
Money quote: "Labour troubles will be a thing of the past -- and the controversial neutral zone trap may be doomed too." Yeah, I'm going to go ahead and call that an 0-for-2.
Average goals per game: 6.28, which remains the highest mark of the past two decades and counting.
The season: 1996-97
The headline: Nice spin, but quality is answer (Jan. 21, 1997)
The proposed changes: Bettman shrugs off plunging scoring rates by pointing to better goaltending, although director of officiating Bryan Lewis admits that referees need to do a better job of calling the rulebook.
What actually happened: No major changes.
Money quote: "In his annual state-of-the-league address during last weekend's All-Star festivities, Commissioner Gary Bettman sounded like Mr. Rogers." Seriously, this whole article is just the legendary Helene Elliott going full B.S. detector on Bettman. By this point, the media was officially turning on the new commissioner.
Average goals per game: 5.84.
The season: 1997-98
The headline: Bettman ices talk of mounting woes (Jan. 20, 1998)
The proposed changes: The game is just fine as is, according to Bettman, who at this point has been on the job for almost five years. He then goes on to rattle off a long list of possible changes, including eliminating the two-line pass, moving the nets out a few feet from the end boards, restricting puckhandling by goalies, "mandating forechecking," and, in what surely went over well with traditionalists, switching the league from three periods to four quarters.
What actually happened: The league tried a midseason crackdown on obstruction, which was temporary. But it did end up making several tweaks for the 1998-99 season, including moving the nets out, trimming the crease, shrinking the neutral zone and beginning the move to a two-referee system.
Money quote: "Bettman's assistant, Brian Burke, added that the size of goalie pads might be reduced." I just like being reminded that Burke was once Bettman's assistant.
Average goals per game: 5.28, but sure to go up now that the league made all those rule changes.
The season: 1998-99
The headline: Despite several rule changes, it's getting tougher to score in the NHL (Jan. 24, 1999)
The proposed changes: Switching to three-on-three, according to Brian Leetch, although he's only kidding. The more serious suggestion centers (again) on removing the red line, which is mentioned by several players and executives, none of whom seem to think the league will actually do it.
What actually happened: The biggest rule change to come out of this season was one that seems obvious in hindsight: scrapping the foot-in-crease rule, after it caused an embarrassing end to the Stanley Cup finals.
Money quote: "But others, including some in powerful positions, suggest leaving things the way they are. One is commissioner Gary Bettman, who predicted 'a swing back up' in goal scoring as players get accustomed to the new rules." Any day now!
Average goals per game: 5.26, another drop from the previous season despite the various rule changes.
The season: 1999-2000
The headline: Now is the time for the NHL to change on the fly (Aug. 20, 2000)
The proposed changes: The NHL is riding high. Thanks to the elimination of the foot-in-crease rule and the introduction of the terrible, awful loser point, scoring has soared back up to 5.5 goals per game. But there still needs to be "more flow to the game" because it's "too easy to neutralize a star with the way the game is officiated now," according to Cup-winning Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock.
What actually happened: Everyone keeled over and died from the irony of Ken Hitchcock complaining about defensive coaches. After that, nothing. You saw the part about scoring being all the way up to 5.5 goals per game, right? Problem solved!
Money quote: "And maybe coaches need a lesson in Creative Offense 101, where there's an emphasis on trying to win instead of playing not to lose." Again, we're being told that coaches need to be more aggressive offensively, like Ken Hitchcock.
Average goals per game: 5.5 goals per game. If this keeps up, maybe next season we can get all the way up to 5.52.
The season: 2000-01
The headline: A record 30 teams; Record attendance; Scoring on rise (Oct. 4, 2000)
The proposed changes: Despite the euphoria of last season's jump all the way to the 5.5 mark, the league isn't resting on its laurels. Not according to this article, which notes that "there are new efforts by referees this season to curb minor slashing infractions in an attempt to free skilled players to score more goals." Yep, once that minor slashing epidemic is cleared up, the game will be perfect.
What actually happened: Other than finally moving to two referees full-time, nothing. What's left to change? Things are so good by 2000 that season preview articles like this one are almost entirely positive.
Money quote: "Games are dull and tedious affairs. The season is interminable, an 82-game death march. Goals are ugly." Look, I said almost entirely positive.
Average goals per game: 5.52 goals per game. Another slight increase. The scoring boom will never end!
The season: 2001-02
The headline: Changes hamper North American NHL players (Feb. 6, 2002)
The proposed changes: The league's second trip to the Olympics sparks another round of discussion about eliminating the red line or moving to international rink sizes.
What actually happened: Everyone argued about the potential changes for two weeks. Then nothing happened.
Money quote: "The current NHL rule, adopted in 1943, was actually a loosening of previous restrictions. Before then, the puck had to be carried from zone to zone. No pass could be completed across the defensive blue line by a team moving out of its own end." That change will ruin the sport forever, insisted 1940s Twitter users.
Average goals per game: 5.24 goals per game. Huh. The scoring boom ended.
The season: 2002-03
The headline: NHL planning to reduce obstruction (Sept. 11, 2002)
The proposed changes: Yet another crackdown on clutch-and-grab, this one presented to coaches and GMs at a special preseason meeting in Toronto.
What actually happened: Rule enforcement went down as the season progressed and was reduced even more during the playoffs. Who could have seen that coming?
Money quote: "The league has tried to eliminate obstruction tactics before, but the consensus is that rule enforcement goes down as the season progresses and is reduced even more during the playoffs." Oh. It's almost like they've seen this movie before.
Average goals per game: 5.3 goals per game.
The season: 2003-04
The headline: Bettman wants offense-friendly changes (Feb. 8, 2004)
The proposed changes: A long list rattled off by Bettman, who at this point has been on the job for more than a decade, includes bigger nets, smaller goalie equipment, tag-up offsides, restrictions on goalie puck-handling, and (maybe most interestingly in hindsight) awarding three points for a win in regulation.
What actually happened: Nothing immediately, but this was Bettman setting the stage for the aftermath of what was now an inevitable work stoppage. When the lockout finally ended, he would indeed get some of his proposed changes.
Money quote: "Another problem: In a sport where even minor changes are fought by traditionalists and hard liners who prefer physical play to prolific scoring, gaining a consensus can be very difficult." I think they're talking about us, you guys.
Average goals per game: 5.14 goals per game, which stands as the lowest mark since the mid-'50s ... for now.
The (non)-season: 2004-05
The headline: Union and NHL spar over goalie-pad rule (June 26, 2004)
The proposed changes: Very minor modifications to goaltender equipment. But the NHLPA objected, and Bettman folded because -- and remember, this is June of 2004 -- "I'm not looking to pick any fights with the union." Needless to say this is a short-lived policy.
What actually happened: Once the lockout was done, we finally did see Bettman and friends make major changes. By the time hockey resumed in fall 2005, we'd have said goodbye to the two-line pass rule, added the trapezoid, moved the goal lines and blue lines, and slightly reduced the size of goalie equipment. We also finally got a crackdown on obstruction that lasted longer than a few weeks.
Money quote: "'In terms of moving forward, I want to slow things down a little bit,' commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday after meeting with general managers." Yes, I think we can all agree that the NHL's big problem with boosting scoring up to this point has been moving too darn fast.
Average goals per game: 0.0. Also, 0.0 games.
The season: 2005-06
The headline: Early this season, rules changes buoy NHL (Dec. 25, 2005)
The proposed changes: Scoring up thanks to the various post-lockout rule changes, but the Times throws some cold water on things by pointing out that the jump is almost entirely due to an extra four power plays per game, not an increase in actual scoring rates.
What actually happened: We all just agree to ignore this fact and hang a "Mission Accomplished" banner on the search for more scoring.
Money quote: "'Five-on-five is just as tough -- there's no question in my mind that it's all the power play,' Rangers center Steve Rucchin said." Someone get Steve a copy of the memo about nobody saying that.
Average goals per game: 6.16 goals per game. This was the first season over 6.0 since 1995-96, and as of today, also the last.
The season: 2006-07
The headline: Scoring in NHL at 1945-67 levels (Dec. 18, 2006)
The proposed changes: Nothing, since the league is still adjusting to the post-lockout changes. But scoring is already dropping back to Original Six-era levels.
What actually happened: As the article notes, coaches had already adjusted to the new rules, and defense-first hockey had been firmly re-established.
Money quote: "Teams might be reluctant to take a chance offensively late in a tie game and risk losing a point, thus reducing goal-scoring opportunities." And yet eight years later, some fans still haven't figured out that the loser point plays a key role in all of this.
Average goals per game: 5.9.
The season: 2007-08
The headline: As goals decline, calls for change increase (Feb. 24, 2008)
The proposed changes: Yet another crackdown on goalie equipment, which we're told has been unanimously agreed to.
What actually happened: "Now it depends on whether they actually follow through," notes the article. Spoiler alert: Nope.
Money quote: "Speaking to ESPN, [Bill Daly] called it 'kind of one last try to try and do something about this, and if they're not able to do that, they're going to look at what else they can do -- more dramatic changes.'" Got that, everyone? One last chance, and then we get serious. This was over seven years ago, by the way.
Average goals per game: 5.56 goals per game.
The season: 2008-09
The headline: Scores don't worry Bettman (Oct. 21, 2008)
The proposed changes: Despite making a handful of minor rule changes, the first few weeks of the season feature even less scoring than usual.
What actually happened: The league's latest idea to boost offense: small tweaks to the rules around offensive zone faceoffs.
Money quote: "'I would really urge people not to overreact at this stage,' Bettman said." Seriously, folks. Let's not rush the man, who at this point has been on the job for more than 15 years.
Average goals per game: 5.82 goals per game.
The season: 2009-10
The headline: A changing view on scoring with skates (May 8, 2010)
The proposed changes: Screw it, just let them kick the puck in, said the league that was completely out of ideas.
What actually happened: It worked! No, just kidding, of course it didn't.
Money quote: "During an era of clutch-and-grab tactics and stifling neutral-zone defenses, the hungry-for-scoring NHL loosened the standard." Is it really even "an era" at this point? I'm pretty sure we're up to multiple eras.
Average goals per game: 5.68 goals per game.
The season: 2010-11
The headline: New rules for goalies short and tall (Oct. 4, 2010)
The proposed changes: In yet another tweak to goalie equipment rules, the league decides to create individual limits based on each goalie's size.
What actually happened: Each goaltender was measured and provided with new measurements that in many cases were ... bigger? That can't be right, can it?
Money quote: "The new rule would seem to benefit taller goalies, who can now wear longer pads than previously allowed." Um, NHL, you are doing this wrong.
Average goals per game: 5.58.
The season: 2011-12
The proposed changes: This was the second of what was intended to be an annual research and development camp, in which the NHL could experiment with everything from weird faceoff circles to crazy nets.
What actually happened: Not all that much, as you can probably tell from those headlines. When I write a book about the NHL's total failure to ever fix its scoring problems, I'm calling it "Tinkers and Tweaks."
Money quote: "Not that anyone should look at the camp as the engine for change." Yeah, I'm pretty sure nobody who's been paying attention for the past 20 years really was.
Average goals per game: 5.46.
The season: 2012-13
The headline: NHL target size of goalie pads at annual meeting (March 20, 2013)
The proposed changes: Stop me if you've heard this one before, but they're going to fix the goaltending equipment.
What actually happened: Stop me if you've heard this one before, but nothing.
Money quote: "Stop me if you've heard this one before." Yeah, I'm going to go ahead and stop you.
Average goals per game: 5.44.
The season: 2013-14
The headline: GM meetings could lead to tweaks; no major changes (March 12, 2014)
The proposed changes: Nothing major, according to Bettman, who at this point has been on the job for well over two decades.
What actually happened: Come on.
Money quote: "On faceoffs the managers would like to see the hashmarks outside the faceoff circles extended from three feet to five feet, which they believe would reduce the amount of congestion on a faceoff." Look, I think we can all agree that if you had to fix just one problem with the NHL product over the past 20 years, it would be the amount of congestion on a faceoff.
Average goals per game: 5.48.
The season: 2014-15
The headline: GMs propose new faceoff rule to increase offense (March 18, 2015)
The proposed changes: Lost amid the excitement over a potential move to 3-on-3 overtime, the NHL announces that it's finally figured out how to boost offense: by changing which player has to put his stick down first on a faceoff sometimes.
What actually happened: The faceoff rule went into effect for this current season. Nobody notices.
Money quote: "'It will count for a few more goals for sure,' [Oilers GM Craig] MacTavish said." And when has an Oilers GM ever been wrong about anything?
Average goals per game: 5.46.
And that takes us to the present day, as scoring drops further and further and the debate over what (if anything) to do about it drags on and on. It's almost depressing.
But I don't want to be a downer, so I'll end on an optimistic note. I did find one example of the NHL actually doing what it has spent the past 21 years pretending it'd do. There really was a time when the league recognized that scoring had dropped to unacceptable levels and acted decisively to fix it.
You just, uh, have to go back a while.
The season: 1929-30
The headline: Big increase in goal scoring in NHL (Nov. 16, 1929)
The proposed changes: Oh, just one relatively minor rule change: "It would appear that the forward pass has achieved its intended purpose as far as goal scoring is concerned."
What actually happened: I'm going to let old-timey sportswriter guy from the 1920s take the wheel: "The demand for more scoring has apparently been met by the NHL magnates. The days of strictly defensive hockey have passed and the grand old winter pastime will come back into its former popularity."
Money quote: "It is pleasing to watch expert stickhandling, but unless it results in a goal being scored, the average customer does not get much of a kick out of the puck-manipulating. It's the goals that count with the spectator, as well as on the scoresheet." You said it, old-timey sportswriter guy.
Average goals per game: 5.92, more than double the previous season's all-time low of 2.92.
See, NHL? It really can be done.