Seven reasons for the scoring explosion this season in the NHL

Alex Ovechkin leads the league with 18 goals, but he's not the only player putting up impressive -- and unprecedented -- numbers this season. Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Any player who has been toiling in the NHL since 2000 has witnessed the peaks and valleys, the ebbs and flows, the traps and ... well, whatever that post-lockout 2005-06 anomaly was. So please forgive Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks for not realizing we're in a goal-scoring boom.

"Goals are up by a lot? Really?" asked a surprised Sedin when confronted with this season's most pleasant trend. "I did not know that."

Know this: Teams are averaging 2.95 goals per game, which is up significantly from last season overall (2.73) and up even more significantly from this point last season (2.63). The average team goals per game through December from the 2013-14 through 2016-17 seasons was 2.64.

You can see evidence of this spike everywhere. Through the first 366 games this season, there have been 18 instances of a team scoring at least seven goals in a game, which is the most in the first 366 games since 2010-11 (21). Twenty-three teams are averaging better than 2.79 goals per game this season; in 2016-17, there were just 13 by season's end. Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos, the current scoring leader, is on pace for a 129-point season, which would be the highest total since Mario Lemieux's 161 points in 1995-96.

And you can hear evidence of this spike everywhere ... as in there has been a significant drop in chatter about the need to shrink goalie gear or widen the nets or counter the scourge of shot-blocking -- or any of the other kvetching that's inherent when the goal totals are smaller. So that's been nice.

What the heck is going on here? Glad you asked.

Here are seven catalysts for the goal-scoring boom this season. All stats are through Sunday, before Monday night's 37 goals in five games. Because that's what's up in the NHL this season.

1. Slashing

By far, the most frequently mentioned factor in the uptick in scoring this season.

Because of some significant injuries last season, the NHL told officials to enforce and emphasize slashing penalties this season -- specifically, the quick tap on the hands or using the stick to disrupt plays or obstruct other players.

Through the first 277 games, 432 slashing penalties were called. At the same point last season, only 147 had been whistled.

A glut of slashing calls made a difference, not only in producing more power plays (more on that in a moment) but in scaring off defenders from slashing -- which, in turn, opened up the ice for attacking players.

According to New Jersey Devils defenseman Andy Greene, the slashes that went unpunished in previous seasons allowed defenders to force offensive players to the perimeter of the zone.

"If I'm chasing you from behind ... here's the middle of the ice and you're on my right, I'm slashing you from the left side," he said, motioning with his hands. "Are you going to cut to the middle more? No, because you're just going to get slashed. But now guys are cutting to the middle more. Once you get to the middle of the ice, it opens up more chances. I think there's more middle entry."

Obviously, getting the puck into the middle of the ice -- or the slot area -- significantly increases a team's chances of getting a quality shot attempt. Take away the slashes that might have previously prevented such a shot attempt, and now it's an even better scoring chance.

The numbers bear this out. According to Tyler Dellow of The Athletic, teams have a shooting percentage of 18 percent in the slot this season -- defined as "seven feet above the goal line to 19 feet above the goal line, extending 25 feet in either direction" -- after shooting just 12.6 percent in 2015-16, for example.

"When you have open ice [now], it's actually open ice," said Devils winger Taylor Hall. "You're not getting hacked and whacked. You're not getting pestered as much."

James Neal of the Vegas Golden Knights agreed, telling Eric Duhatschek: "This [crackdown] definitely helps goal scorers. The top guys, who are playing in high-traffic areas, if you're getting that extra step on a guy, the defenseman has to be very aware of what he's doing with his stick. He can't smack your stick or smack your hands to disrupt you. That's why goals are up."

One can see this in every game: Offensive players getting a chance to create, stickhandling without fear of getting an opponent's lumber across their gloves, making passes without a slash on their stick disrupting the play.

Last season, we were talking about Johnny Gaudreau getting slashed 21 times in a game against the Minnesota Wild. This season, we're talking about the Calgary Flames winger averaging 1.48 points per game at the quarter mark.

But there's another area where tighter rules enforcement has made a difference.

2. The Net Front

Dellow also notes that 19.5 percent of rebound shot attempts have been turned into goals in 2017-18, compared with 15.6 back in 2015-16.

According to Devils coach John Hynes, the enforcement of slashing and interference has opened up the crease as much as it has the slot.

"I think where the league is trending with the penalty calls is that it's getting harder to defend fast teams," said Hynes. "It's harder to get guys out of scoring areas, it's harder to slow players down off the rush. Even boxing out now is harder, and there are more rebound and tip goals. That's had a big factor in it.

"You almost have to skate to the front of the net with [an opponent], rather preventing him from establishing net front presence."

Of course, this reeducation of players about slashing and interference comes with a significant uptick in penalty calls. Which also means a significant uptick in power plays. Which brings us to our next factor...

3. Power Plays

Yes, power plays are up. A lot.

"That's a big thing," said Sedin. "That's what you saw in 2005-06 too, with the rule changes. Before it normalized."

In 2005-06, a post-lockout war on obstruction made power-play chances skyrocket: Teams averaged 5.8 per game that season. While the slashing crackdown hasn't resulted in a similarly dramatic shift in man advantages, the NHL is seeing more power plays per game than it has at any time during the past five seasons, and the most since 2010-11 (3.54 per game).

For full context, here are the power-play averages since 1993:

More important, teams are converting at a 19.8 percent rate this season. If these numbers somehow held for the rest of 2017-18, it would the highest conversation rate in the NHL over the past 25 seasons.

But here's the thing about power plays: There are quantifiable results, and then there are intangible ones. And Greene believes we're seeing the power play boost the confidence of skill players, as it has boosted offensive totals.

"A lot more offensive touches [means] getting those guys to feel good about their games, right?" said Greene. "The skill guys get the puck more. They get the feel. They know [the offense] is coming."

Frequently, that offense is coming in what is typically considered one of the most defensive parts of the game.

4. Shorthanded Goals

In 2015-16, there was an average of 0.067 shorthanded goals per game. That number so far this season, through 702 games? It's 0.10 shorties per game.

Why the spike in shorthanded goals? Several factors are at play. First, there's the changing configuration of both the power play and the penalty-killing units. The trends for teams with the man advantage are for boom-or-bust lineups: Roll four forwards out there, or play a formation that has one player at the point, and it increases the chances that the power play will score or be scored on. Especially when penalty-killing units have become so aggressive in recent years, with pressure on the point shooters.

"I think everyone pressures. Lots of times the penalty kill used to be 'Defend and get it out.' Now, because of the attributes of the killers, you're seeing quickness," said Hynes. "If you can get on the attack, you don't see teams icing it. They're looking for a play. That's because of the pressure and the personnel."

It's hard to get odd-man rushes during even-strength play. Thus, teams are taking more chances to earn them while killing penalties, which is why many teams are using highly skilled offensive players in what used to be the most traditional of defensive roles. The penalty kill has gone from two minutes of protecting the goal to two minutes of finding the right moment to sprint down toward the other net on a 2-on-1.

The leaders in shorthanded goals this season? Florida Panthers first-liner Aleksander Barkov and Buffalo Sabres sniper Evander Kane, who have three each. Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal and San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture each have two.

But the top 10 for shorthanded goals also includes a collection of speedsters: Brian Gibbons of the Devils, Bryan Rust of the Pittsburgh Penguins and William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights among them.

As Hynes said, "The instincts, the speed and the talent have all gone up on the penalty kill," which has contributed to this uptick in shorties.

5. Offensive Zone Draws

As Dellow notes here, teams are doing more with the puck after they win draws in the offensive zone.

Teams have a higher goals (above 3.5), shots for (nearly 60) and shot attempts (over 100) per 60 minutes after an offensive faceoff win than they've had over the last eight seasons.

"My best guess as to why teams are getting so much more effective on offensive zone wins is that they're getting more thoughtful about using space and movement to put the opposition on their heels," writes Dellow.

That space has been opened up by the slashing and obstruction enforcement. Again, chances from the slot and a presence around the crease come into play here as well. But the trend in the NHL of getting defensemen involved in every chance offensively factors in as well.

"If you look around the league, shots are up. It's more of a commitment to get pucks to the net, and having your 'D' involved is now mandatory," said Hall.

The factors listed above are all quantifiable. The final two factors are a bit more theoretical.

6. Expansion

The arrival of the Golden Knights and this offensive explosion could be coincidental. Or ... perhaps not.

Zachary Ingraham of ESPN Stats & Information says that expansion effects are "the hardest ones to quantify" in a season where scoring is up.

"Past expansion drafts had an opposite effect, but it's very possible that the added team thinned out the defensive/goaltending talent more than the offensive talent, which seemed to be hurt more in past expansion drafts," he said.

To wit, the expansion draft was gamed so the Golden Knights could snag at least the fourth-best defenseman from each team if it so desired, as well as one goalie from each team. Meanwhile, the Knights are contributing mightily to the offensive spike themselves, averaging 3.68 goals per game, second in the NHL behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (3.70).

One thing an expansion draft does, for the new team and the holdovers, is give opportunities to younger, cheaper labor to fill in the holes and make significant contributions. Which brings us to our last catalyst ...

7. The Juiced Puck

Just kidding. If it were possible to juice the puck and create more goals, do you really think the NHL would have waited 100 years to do it?

No, our last catalyst is ...

7. Young, Daredevil Players

Andy Greene is 35. He has seen generations of younger players enter the NHL during his career. What he's seeing out of this crop is a surprising fearlessness that has contributed to the offensive boom.

"The younger guys ... like, you used to not want to come in and make a mistake. Now these kids are so skilled, they're fearless. They're going to try things," he said. "If it works? 'Yeah!' If it doesn't, well, you're fast enough to get back and cover for it."

While 20-year-old stars such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews rack up the points, they're merely the drum majors for the parade of speedy young players running the NHL these days. Consider this: We've already had 25 players in their age-20 season or younger -- as in, their age as of Feb. 1 of that season -- combine for 116 goals this season. In 2012-13, only 27 such players combined for 153 goals for the entire season.

"The speedy younger guys, they seem like they're readier to play," said Hynes.

This is true. But it's also true that the more chances younger players take, the greater the chance they'll make a mistake that leads to an opponent's chance. Either way, they're generating exciting offense.

Will this goal-scoring boom prove to be a season-long trend?

That greatly depends on whether officials continue to call the slashing penalties they've whistled early on, and/or whether defending players have changed their games in response to these calls. There's concern about the former, as the slashing calls have decreased recently.

It also greatly depends on whether the number of power plays, and these historic conversion rates we're seeing, continue to climb.

What can't be ignored is how much an uptick in scoring benefits the NHL. It inflates the stats of star players so that they can generate highlights and threaten records. It keeps close games interesting until the end: 26 teams have rallied at least once to win a game that they trailed entering the third period this season.

Scoring is up in the NHL, and this is a good thing.

All it took were referees who enforced the rule book and an influx of cheap, fearless young laborers. Who knew?

Vince Masi and Zachary Ingraham of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this story. Season stats via Corsica.