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This NHL season is proving that parity is overrated

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I often reference the 2014-15 season when assessing the wellbeing and overall watchability of the NHL. That spring Jamie Benn finished with a flurry on the final night of the season, scoring a hat trick and four points to rip the Art Ross Trophy away from then-New York Islanders captain John Tavares.

Scenes, right? Well, kind of.

It was an immensely special and likely once-in-a-lifetime achievement for the Dallas Stars captain, but Benn's season when considering any historical context was pedestrian at best.

In no world should 87 points be enough to win a scoring title.

EDMONTON, AB - APRIL 1: Connor McDavid #97 and Leon Draisaitl #29 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrate after winning the game in overtime against the St Louis Blues on April 1, 2022 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Leon Draisaitl, left, and Connor McDavid, right, are helping boost the NHL's excitement value. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Fortunately, it's an entirely different landscape in the NHL when fast-forwarding seven seasons to today. In fact, there's an argument to be made that the product has never been better in spite of all the noise created from the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, issues with Player Safety, questions involving officiating, matters of integrity related to salary cap circumvention, and everything in between.

This is assuming that scoring is the thing that draws the majority of fans to the sport in the first place.

Since it bottomed out in the early-to-mid 2010s after rule changes initially led to more goals following the lockout, we have been travelling the inverse bell curve to levels of scoring that hockey fans have grown unaccustomed to.

Led by some of the most productive rosters in this era of hockey, teams are scoring more than 3.1 goals per game on average in 2021-22. It's been the highest-scoring season in the last quarter century in the NHL, and when compared to last season there has been an increase of more than a third of a goal on average per game. What's best: scoring isn't being driven by an uptick in power plays unlike the first few seasons out of the lockout, and instead even-strength production has been nearly solely responsible for the changes in the game.

There isn't a catch-all reason as to why this is shaping up to be the highest-scoring season in modern history, but when comparing the game to seven seasons ago it's clear that the NHL has benefitted from an immeasurable talent uptick.

The likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Kirill Kaprizov, Cale Makar, Artemi Panarin, and Jack Hughes have helped lead an influx of talent that simply wasn't available then, while others contributing to the vitality of the game like Leon Draisaitl and Johnny Gaudreau were just getting their feet wet.

We shouldn't draw too many conclusions from last year's pandemic-shortened season, which exists as an outlier. However, most of the same players driving the results of this season were around last year, which suggests there are other explanations for the improved aesthetics overall.

One of them is general volatility, or more specifically the lack of parity the league has tried so hard to institute.

There are brilliant teams — even brilliant divisions — being balanced out by many awful teams. Now, this counters conventional thinking and the idea that more competitive teams will enhance the races to the postseason and therefore improve the overall product. That we have known the eight postseason-bound teams in the Eastern Conference for months would, in any other previous season, be keeping Gary Bettman up at night. But instead what he, and the rest of us, may be realizing is that the presence of super teams and truly fascinating seasons can carry the product more effectively than the customary — and now largely non-existent — collection of middle-ground teams competing for postseason scraps.

The Florida Panthers most certainly qualify for "super" status, scoring at the highest rate since 1995-96 with 4.12 goals per game with only 13 starts left on the schedule. Who hasn't enjoyed being distracted by them?

Florida represents what's also true, which is that the best teams are built on an attack-minded foundations, not strict defensive tactics.

Sure, there are teams that effectively suck the life out of opponents, but a few of the best squads concede at or above the league average. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Minnesota Wild, and Edmonton Oilers are among teams scoring and conceding more than three goals per game on average, while teams like the Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche are maybe best-equipped to engage in fire fights.

It's those bad teams, however, which might be driving the scoring uptick more than anything. Four of the five teams easiest to score on over the last decade are competing in the league this season. But to their credit, the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, Columbus Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils have been fairly competitive at points. Detroit, for example, has allowed more goals per game than any other team over the last quarter century — exceeding the previous mark set by the lowly expansion Atlanta Thrashers — and yet currently sit 11th in the conference. While immensely flawed, the Red Wings have hardly been a chore to watch.

As it goes, increased scoring has resulted in some astounding individual accomplishments, of which most teams can say they are contributing toward.

With still a little less than a month to spare, Matthews and Draisaitl have exceeded the 50-goal threshold, and could conceivably each hit 60. We have two 100-point scorers — Draisaitl and McDavid — with 120 points in their sights.

There are at least six players with 50-goal potential and 15 players with 80 points on pace for three figures. We could see as many as 30 players reach Benn's 87-point Art Ross Trophy mark before the season is through. Widening the scope, one defenseman — Roman Josi — could reach 100 points, while another — Cale Makar — could hit 30 goals.

There are already 29 30-goal scorers with the possibility of as many as 75 players with the potential to hit the mark that served as the benchmark for an exclusive club not too long ago.

While perhaps a bit ambitious from a projections standpoint, it would mark five times as many to hit the mark than in Benn's Art Ross season when 15 managed the now-very attainable feat.

Building on that: 13 teams produced a 30-goal scorer in 2014-15, a mark which will be doubled this season. In fact, it's possible that only the Flyers, Blues, Canadiens, and Coyotes fail to produce a 30-goal player, but it should be noted that the Blues could have as many as eight 20-goal men and that Clayton Keller was two shy of reaching 30 before suffering his season-ending injury in Arizona.

**

Every NHL season is instructive.

From a fan's standpoint this year, and perhaps the strength of the league as a whole, it's possible we're learning that an uneven spread of talent and a world where fewer teams are either legitimately or falsely competitive is to the benefit of the game.

That is to say, maybe we should embrace the truly great teams that come and go — Golden State Warriors-style — and that we don't need to pretend with the rest.

The volatility, disparity, and lopsidedness to this season has led, almost ironically, to a terrific viewing experience.

There are captivating contests every night. There are performances to be excited about in virtually every market. It's a dream if you're betting overs.

This has been a different NHL in 2021-22, and a better one at that.

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