Sports Hockey

TRAIKOS

High-octane offence, jaw-dropping skill fuels early start to NHL season

By Michael Traikos, Postmedia Network

Did he see the game? Of course he did.

Maybe Auston Matthews didn’t see every single goal that the Blackhawks scored in a 10-1 win on Thursday night — against the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champs, no less — but once he found out what was happening he quickly turned on his TV and watched the madness unfold.

“It was crazy,” Matthews said of Chicago’s Patrick Kane, who had a goal and three assists on Thursday. “I think every single goal or assist he had was a top-10 on SportsCentre the next day. He’s such a fun player. It’s always fun to watch that kind of stuff.”

There’s been a lot of that going around so far. Lots of goals. Lots of highlight-reel plays. Lots of jaw-dropping skill on display.

We know, give it a few more days. A week or a month even, before jumping to conclusions. After all, the season literally just started. But what a start it’s been.

On Day 1, the Toronto Maple Leafs scored seven goals without seemingly breaking a sweat and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid scored a hat trick while blowing past defenders at a speed unsafe for most city streets. By Day 2, Alex Ovechkin and Brandon Saad brought the number of hat tricks to four and thanks to the Blackhawks, the league average was 3.5 goals per game — the highest its been since 1992-93 when teams were averaging 3.63 goals per game.

It’s obviously not going to stay like this forever. We all know that. The coaches and their defensive systems would never allow it. Besides, no one really thinks McDavid is going to score 164 goals this season — or even 150 or 100, as Jaromir Jagr predicted was possible, if the kid “would learn how to score on breakaways a little more often.” The Leafs are not actually the reincarnation of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers. There is a solid chance that we have seen our last 10-goal game of the season.

And yet, we haven’t seen our last highlight-reel goal. Not with the amount of high-end talent in the league these days.

That’s the thing that has stood out so far: it’s not the quantity of goals being scored, it’s the quality of them.

Did you see Jack Eichel’s pass to Jason Pominville on that one-timer? How about the deke Patrick Marleau pulled off after receiving a saucer pass from Matthews? Or Jonathan Drouin’s feed to Max Pacioretty? All three of Kane’s three assists could have gone viral.

The speed and skill on display so far has been jaw dropping. That’s not going anywhere. If anything, with McDavid and Matthews and others still in the very early stages of their career, this is just the beginning.

In other words, you probably wouldn’t want to be a goaltender — or even a defenceman — this year.

“It’s no fun,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said of his position. “You look at Kane, you look at McDavid, you look at Auston ... they’re more skilled than ever. I mean, you watch McDavid skate and guys are faster than ever. I think it’s great. It’s great for the league ... but it’s not always the most fun (to play against).”

Whether all this skill will translate into more overall goals is far too early to tell. But last year, which was the first full season of McDavid, Matthews and many other top scorers, saw the average number of goals slightly rise from 2.71 to 2.77 — the highest since 2010-11 — after a gradual 12-year decline.

Could it be a sign that the NHL is in for a scoring boon? Well, let’s wait and see what the scores look like in November, when Chicago’s Ryan Hartman most likely won’t be leading the Art Ross Trophy race and Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray won’t be allowing 5.5 goals per game.

“I think it’s hard to say after only two games,” said 20-year veteran Marleau, who scored twice on Wednesday. “But you saw a bunch of teams that were ready to go and wanted to get off to good starts and it just snowballed.”

“As the season goes on, it will get tighter,” said Matthews, who had a goal and two assists in his first game of the season. “The first 10, 15, 20 games, teams are kind of still figuring out their structure and how they want to play. I’m sure by November you’re not going to see many 10-1 games and stuff like that.”

Something else to watch for is whether on-ice officials, who have been cracking down on slashing and face-off infractions, continue to call the game by the rulebook. Of the 82 goals scored in the first two days of the season, 22 came on the power play, a product of there being 4.5 man-advantage opportunities — up from 2.99 at the end of last year.

More power plays equal more goals, but they also allow skilled players the time and space to be really creative. Neither seems to be in short supply these days.

Fingers crossed, it lasts beyond the weekend.

mtraikos@postmedia.com

twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

TOP SCORERS                                  

2016-17
Connor McDavid, 100 points
Sidney Crosby, 89 points
Patrick Kane, 89 points

Crosby, 44 goals
Nikita Kucherov, 40 goals
Auston Matthews, 40 goals

2015-16
Patrick Kane, 106 points
Jamie Benn, 89 points
Sidney Crosby, 85 points

Alex Ovechkin, 50 goals
Kane, 46 goals
Benn, 41 goals

2014-15
Benn, 87 points
John Tavares, 86 points
Crosby, 84 points
 
Ovechkin, 53 goals
Steven Stamkos, 43 goals
Rick Nash, 42 goals

2013-14
Crosby, 104 points
Ryan Getzlaf, 87 points
Claude Giroux, 86 points

Ovechkin, 51 goals
Corey Perry, 43 goals
Joe Pavelski, 41 goals

AVERAGE GOALS PER GAME
2016-17: 2.77
‘15-16: 2.71
‘14-15: 2.73
‘13-14: 2.74
‘12-13: 2.72
‘11-12: 2.73
‘10-11: 2.79
‘09-10: 2.84
‘08-09: 2.91
‘07-08: 2.78
‘06-07: 2.95
‘05-06: 3.08