What Does it Take to Score 50 Goals in a Season?

The New Jersey Devils have never had anyone score 50 or more goals in a single regular season. There have been plenty of accolades accomplished by Devils players. A MVP? Taylor Hall won the Hart in the 2017-18 season. A Norris trophy for best defenseman? Scott Niedermayer won that after the 2003-04 season (and I still believe Scott Stevens deserved it in 1993-94 but whatever). What about Selke for best defensive forward? John Madden won that after the 2000-01 season. Vezinas? You know it, bro – it’s Brodeur. But a few have eluded the organization – the Art Ross, the Rocket Richard – and the milestone of 50 goals in a season has been another long-standing one. As the offseason is nearing its end, let’s look at some data to find out what it takes for a player to score 50 goals in a season.

Why 50?

The mark of 50 goals is not just a nice round number. It is also a remarkable and rare achievement for many NHL players. Thanks to Alex Ovechkin, Chris Kreider, Leon Draisaitl, and Auston Matthews meeting or exceeding that number last season, there have been exactly 200 times in the history of the NHL that a player scored 50 or more goals. Given that there have been well over 10,000 individual seasons by skaters in the history of the NHL, being one of just a few hundred is special on its own.

In fact, only 94 players have actually reached the 50-goal plateau and only 46 of those 94 did so at least twice in their careers. Some of those other 48 players range from good players who got hot for one season (e.g. Jonathan Cheechoo) to some of the best players of their respective eras. For as productive and valuable they have been to their respective teams, it is somewhat surprising that players lie Sidney Crosby, Sergei Fedorov, Mark Messier (the third leading scorer in NHL history!), Johnny Buyck, Bryan Trottier, Bernie Geoffrion, Dale Hawerchuk, and Paul Kariya have done it only once in their illustrious careers. Some legendary players never did it like Gordie Howe (!); and the current best player in the world, Connor McDavid, has not (yet) done it. That only serves to make it more of an achievement. It is not something that a “scorer” just does. It takes a special season if that 50-goal mark be touched.

Some further perspective: The Devils have never had anyone do it in a Devils uniform. But past players who did accomplish the 50+ goal achievement includes Jaromir Jagr, Alexander Mogilny, Brendan Shanahan, Dave Andreychuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Joe Nieuwendyk, Stephane Richer, Bernie Nicholls, Bobby Carpenter (!), and Lanny McDonald. Here’s the rub. Jagr only did it three times in his career. Mogilny, Shanahan, Andreychuk, Kovalchuk, Nieuwendyk, and Richer all did it just twice. Nicholls, Carpenter, and McDonald did it once (as did former assistant coach Mark Recchi). It is a really difficult goal to reach, especially when the second-leading scorer in NHL history only managed it three times. It also makes Alex Ovechkin, Mike Bossy, and The Great One having done so nine times even more incredible.

The 50-goal mark is also more of a challenge than ever to reach it since the number of 50-goal seasons have dwindled dramatically in recent decades. The high-scoring 1980s featured 75 individual seasons of someone scoring 50 or more. There has been a combined 31 individual seasons of someone doing that since 2000.

50 Goal Seasons by Decade
NHL.com

That one season in the 1940s is Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s 50 goals in 50 games in the 1944-45 season. It was the only time Richard broke 50 goals, even with more games played in future seasons. It was an unheard-of mark at the time. And it lasted for quite some time. No one since then scored 50 in a season until Bernie Geoffrion did it for Montreal in 1960-61 season. (Aside: The other 4 of those 5 seasons in the 60s were all by Bobby Hull.) It took until the 1980-81 season for Mike Bossy to become the second NHL player to put up 50 in 50. Only Cam Neely managed to reach 50 goals and play fewer than 50 games in a season: he played in 49 games in 1993-94. The goal-per game season average of 1 was not touched until Gretzky did it with his mind-boggling, record setting 92-goal season in 1981-82 (1.15 goals per game, another NHL record – which lasted all of two seasons). As Richard did it first, he was appropriately named for the trophy awarded to the league’s leading goal scorer.

Still, as you can see from the chart, since the Dead Puck Era began in the mid-1990s, goaltenders became significantly better than just dudes in pads reacting to shots, and teams started being more system-minded in terms of how to attack and defense, the number of 50-goal seasons have dropped considerbly. Which, again, means anyone who breaks the 50-goal mark even once in recent decades did something remarkable. Which also is the main argument behind “Ovechkin is the best goal scorer ever,” since he broke the mark as many times as Bossy and Gretzky so far and could possibly do it again. I kind of get it but also do not agree with. But enough of background and me selling you on the idea that a 50-goal season these days should absolutely be celebrated. What does it take to score that many based on the 200 other times its happened in NHL history?

What Does it Take to Get to 50?

These are not so much rules as there may be some exceptions. For the most part, a skater – a forward, really – would need to follow to get to score #50 in a NHL season.

You need to be a forward. Goalies do not score goals. Defensemen just do not get to the net close enough regularly for shots to become goals. In the history of the NHL, there have been only three times for a defenseman to score at least 40 goals: Bobby Orr in 1974-75 with 46 and Paul Coffey who scored 40 in 1983-84 and 48 in 1985-86. Unless the game gets supremely more offensive like it was in the 1980s, I would not expect a defenseman to come close anytime soon. After all, there has been only one season where a defenseman scored more than 30 since 2000: Mike Green in 2008-09 with 31. Cale Makar should take that down first before aiming higher.

You need a full NHL season. There have been 80-game seasons, 82-game seasons (the current situation), and a handful of 84-game seasons. Lockout-shortened, pandemic-shortened, and otherwise shorter seasons make it all but impossible for 50-goal seasons to happen. A more full season of 82 (or more) games is pretty much required to get to the mark.

You need to play the vast majority of the season, if not all of it. Outside of Richard’s 50-in-50 and Neely’s 50-in-49, everyone else who ever scored 50 or more goals in a season played at least 60 games. And there have been only 16 seasons where someone did it while playing less than 70 games. In other words, a player needs to play in as many as games as possible to get the opportunity to score. The average number of games played across the 200 seasons was 77.45 games, so that tracks. If the NHL wants to get a couple more 50-goal seasons (and 100-point seasons) to happen then they could bring back the 84-game seasons from 1992-93 and 1993-94 where 11 of them happened.

You need to play a lot in those games. The NHL did not record ice time data until the 1997-98 season. Out of the 36 times where someone scored 50+ since that season, all but three players averaged fewer than 20 minutes of ice time per game. The exceptions were Jonathan Cheechoo, who just missed it with 19:57 in the 2005-06 season; Milan Hejduk, who also just missed it in 2002-03 with 19:50; and Chris Kreider last season with an 18:44. Everyone else averaged 20 and often much more than that. This makes sense as more shifts means more opportunities to attack which means more opportunities to score. For what its worth, there were five times where the 50+ goal scorer averaged more than a staggering 23 minutes per game: Pavel Bure in 1999-2000 and 2000-01; Jagr in 2000-01; Joe Sakic in 2000-01; and Ovechkin in 2008-09.

You need to be consistent in your scoring. The mathematical average goals per game rate to reach 50 goals in an 82-game season is .6097. This has been achieved exactly eight times in NHL history. The only time someone put up a lower rate was when Jeremy Roenick did it in an 84-game 1992-93 season. In order to hit this kind of average, the scoring needs to be frequent. Multiple-goal games absolutely help deal with those nights where nothing is going to go in the net. However, an extended scoring slump can all but ruin a shot at 50 or more goals. The majority of 50+ goal seasons have goal-per-game rates range from 0.61 to 0.75. The average among all 200 seasons was 0.723 goals per game. Anything dramatically higher is, well, astonishing.

As a quick aside: the highest goal per game rate ever in a season was not Gretzky’s 92-goal season in 1981-82. It was when Gretzky put up 87 goals in 74 games in 1983-84 for a rate of 1.176. The closest anyone came to either mark was Mario Lemieux in 1992-93 when he put up a very nice 69 goals in 60 games.

You, more than likely, need to stay on one team. Out of all 200 seasons, there have been only two where the player exceeded 50 or more goals and played for two teams that season. Craig Simpson did it with Pittsburgh and Edmonton in 1987-88. Dave Andreychuk did it with Buffalo and Toronto in 1992-93. Both seasons were in the hey-day of 50+ goal seasons where, while impressive, it was not uncommon for that level of production to happen. Therefore, it was likely more possible to make a deal happen involving one. More possible still made it a rare case, though. After all, what team would move someone on pace for 50+ goals?

You need to produce at even strength. The most common situation in hockey games is the most common place where goals will be scored. Is the power play important to get to 50? Yes. However, there have been only 8 times out of 200 where the player scored more power play goals than even strength goals: Lemieux in 1995-96; Brett Hull in 1992-93; Michel Goulet in 1985-86; Ilya Kovalchuk in 2005-06; Tim Kerr in 1985-86; Kreider last season; Andreychuk in 1992-93; and Nieuwendyk in 1987-88. If you want to get to this mark, you need to light it up in 5-on-5 and 4-on-4 (and 3-on-3) situations. The average among all 200 seasons for even strength goals is 36.17.

Likewise, the majority of these 50+ goal scorers (119 to be exact) scored at least 100 points in their seasons. No one finished below 71 points with a 50 goal season in NHL history. Being able to score this many often means being able to help one’s teammates also score. Rather than take all the shots on a line, they can and have contributed to the team game. So the production is not just self-production.

Similarly (and this applies to the next two points), it would also help if the player’s team had at least some good players to help facilitate the offense. Not that a 50+ goal scorer automatically means a team is good enough to make the playoffs. However, the would-be 50+ goal scorer would ideally have some good players to help facilitate the attack. Whether that is a line, a power play unit, someone who just keeps finding the would-be scorer for shots and goals. Teamwork can help make the 50+ goal dream work.

You pretty much need a functional power play and need to be a major player on it. Remember Alex’s post close to a month ago about whether the Devils would have someone score at least 10 power play goals next season? While it is rare for a player to score more on the power play than at even strength in a season and reach 50; it is also rare for a player to score fewer than 10 PPGs and reach that mark. It has only happened 13 times and the fewest PPGs scored in a 50 goal season was when Reggie Leach put in 5 in 1979-80. The average amount of power play goals across all 200 seasons is 17.55. Obviously, more does help. But in general, the player needs to convert more than a handful of man advantages to get there. This means the team’s power play has to be effective and the team has to be effective to get onto the power play.

(Aside: Shorthanded goals help but just over half of these 200 seasons had one or zero shorthanded goals. I would not rely on it that much. The most SHGs by any one of these 200 seasons: Lemieux with 13 of them in 1988-89. He scored 85 that season so the shorties were just icing on the 50+ goal cake.)

Do you need to shooting the puck a lot or finish well? You need to do both, really. Outside of Richard, there are shot totals for the other 199 seasons. The average is 302.79 shots on net with an average shooting percentage of 18.98%. These two stats go hand-in-hand. Shooting a ton means there’s more allowance for a lower, less-extreme shooting percentage. Shooting a low amount means those shots better count. Let’s look at the extremes of both to get a sense of the situation. The fewest shots taken was by Charlie Simmer with just 171 shots on net. His ridiculous 1980-81 season where he scored 56 goals in 65 games for a shooting percentage of approximately 32.8%. Imagine, nearly every third shot went in the net that season. The most shots taken was by Phil Esposito (you thought Ovechkin?) with 550 in the 1970-71 season. Espo scored 76 goals so he managed the feat with a more reasonable 13.8%. Ovechkin can claim reaching this mark with the lowest shooting percentage of 10.6% in the 2007-08 season where he scored 56 out of 528 shots.

The larger point is that the player ideally needs to shoot a lot to give himself more opportunities to score but do successfully at a high enough rate to get to 50. The Esposito-Ovechkin approach of bombing away until the pucks go in does have merit. I would argue it is easier to try than, say, shooting over 30% in a season – something Simmer and Craig Simpson only did once each.

You probably should be at least have a positive impact for the team in 5-on-5 situations. As 50-goal seasons have not happened a lot after 2007-08 (19 out of 200, to be exact) there is not a lot of 5-on-5 data to compare among the 50-goal scorers. Based on the players who did it though, it is clear that their team has been very good in 5-on-5 play when they have been on the ice. Looking at data from Natural Stat Trick, this is true in the case of all of Alex Ovechkin’s career, Kreider’s 2021-22, Matthews’ 2021-22, Draisaitl’s 2018-19 and 2021-22, Stamkos in 2009-10 and 2011-12, Evgeni Malkin in 2011-12, Crosby in 2009-10, and Jarome Iginla in 2007-08. The exceptions are Corey Perry in 2010-11 and Ilya Kovalchuk in 2007-08. Those two exceptions prove it is possible to be on a not so good 5-on-5 team and score 50+ or not be so good in 5-on-5 play themselves and score 50 or more. However, 17 of the 19 seasons featured favorable percentages in the run of play suggest strongly that the player has to be at least not bad in 5-on-5 and, ideally, help them excel. Ovechkin’s stats in particular are impressive.

You also need it all to come together and get some more breaks than you may think. Even if you play the whole season, stay on one team, that team has some good players, the power play is functional, the even strength scoring is prolific, the shooting is prolific, the shooting percentage is high enough, and the 5-on-5 play may be good, then you may get to a season of someone scoring 50 or more goals. Key word is may. You can have a lot of those things happen and 50 still is not reached. Consider the franchise leader for goals in a season: Brian Gionta.

Brian Gionta’s Ridiculous 2005-06 Season of 48 Goals

The first time a player in the franchise’s history scored more than 40 goals in a season was when Wilf Paiement did it for Colorado back in the 1976-77 season. Pat Verbeek became the second and set the franchise record for goals in a season in the 1987-88 season with 46 goals in 73 games. Others cracked 40 goals and John MacLean came close in 1990-91 to match Verbeek. But the record stood for over 15 years. Then Brian Gionta emerged in the 2005-06 season.

With Patrik Elias recovering from Hepatitis A, the Devils’ offense was missing a key figure. Zach Parise was a rookie with a bright future, but he was not quite there yet. Jamie Langenbrunner, Sergei Brylin, and John Madden were very good players at that time, but hardly players to rely on for an offense. Alexander Mogilny returned but his hip issues would limit his performances in what would be his final season of pro hockey. However, two players would hit the ground running in terms of lighting the lamp and filling the box score: Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta.

Both Gomez and Gionta would set career highs in both goals and points in 2005-06. As the Devils team scored just 224 goals (233 minus 9 shootout wins) and had a power play conversion rate around the league average (with just 78 PPGs), that team needed that level of production from those two. In the case of Gionta, his season started off with a bang of two goals and three points against Pittsburgh on October 5, 2005. The goals would come in bunches from then to the end of the season on April 18, 2006.

In total, Gionta would score at least one goal in 38 out of 82 games that season. What helped him stay on pace for a high goal scoring season is that he put up braces (two goals) in 10 of those 38 games. When those happened, he could afford to have a game or two of not scoring a goal. As it turned out, that did happen a little more often than I recalled. Gionta’s longest stretch without a goal that season was four games long – which happened twice. But those would be bracketed by plenty of goals. Before a 4-game stretch in October, he scored 2 on Pittsburgh and then 4 over the three games after those four games. A four-game goalless streak going into early December happened after a five-game goal streak (6 in 5 games) and he scored back-to-back after that streak.

While the Devils’ power play did not score a whole lot of power play goals or have a high conversion rate, Gionta was often the one making it happen when it did strike. Gionta put up a massive 24 PPGs in 2005-06. This put him in a tie with Jonathan Cheechoo and Jaromir Jagr for second most in the NHL, one ahead of Dany Heatley, and three behind PPG-leader Ilya Kovalchuk. (Note: Those four players reached 50 or more goals. Not Gionta, though.) Gionta was responsible for over 30% of all of the Devils’ power play goals in 2005-06. That’s utterly remarkable.

It would only get more remarkable when Elias returned. Elias returned to the lineup on January 3, 2006. It did not take too long for Elias to be lined up with Gionta and Gomez. They were an absolute force together. They were given the name of the EGG Line, given their last names. They cracked opposition defenses. They poached pucks. They put pucks past goalies over easy at times. Opposition coaches had their gameplans scrambled. Gomez and Gionta were already quite productive in the 2005 portion of the season. After all, Gionta’s highest goal-scoring month in that season was in November with 11 goals and 17 points in 13 games.

From Elias’ return, though, the unit just kept putting up numbers. Gionta kept putting up goals in bunches and got crazy hot along with the rest of the team down the stretch of the season. In the team’s final 15 games of the season, Gionta scored 12 goals and 25 points – ending it with a 2-goal night in Montreal for his tenth brace of the season. (Aside: That night in Montreal was impressive as the Devils made a three-goal comeback to win the game and take the Atlantic Division over Philly and Our Hated Rivals, who all played that night.) The Devils were on fire and would go on to memorably sweep Our Hated Rivals in the subsequent playoff series.

Alas, this would put him at just 48 goals. So what went wrong? Gionta finished 15th in the NHL with 291 shots, so he certainly shot the puck a lot. Gionta had an equally-hot Gomez with him for the season; when Elias was added in, the trio was nuclear hot. While the Devils’ power play as a whole was not impressive, Gionta was among league leaders in PPGs. Gionta scored on 16.49% of his shots, which was a career high for Gionta. This season was in 2005-06 so it was just before the 5-on-5 stats that came in 2007-08. I would not be surprised if it was good given how well Gionta did in 5-on-5 in 2007-08 and 2008-09, his last two seasons with New Jersey.

Unfortunately, those goals in bunches just did not happen enough times in the 2005 portion of the season. After that two-goal season opener against the Pens, Gionta scored just three more goals in October. In December, Gionta did score back-to-back to end a four-game drought. Then he had a three-game drought. Scored against Our Hated Rivals and then had another three-game drought before a brace against the Capitals on December 28. That’s a total of 5 goals for December and 9 games without a goal. Harsh as this seems, but the consistency was not quite enough for a 50-goal scorer. So Gionta’s total and the franchise record was set at 48. Were he able to finish a bit more often (notably at even strength as Gionta had 23), then he would have been able to reach 50 and even exceed it by a few. I know that a goal per game rate of 0.585 is really, really good. But, again, the 50-goal mark demands more and it is not an easy thing to meet.

Do the Devils Have Anyone Now with 50 Goal Potential?

In my opinion, no. There are other things that have to happen first before I start reasonably expecting someone on the current roster to set a franchise record for goals in a season.

  1. Have a functional power play. While one can reach 50 goals without a lot of PPGs, it is not common in NHL history. Not being able to convert those man advantages makes it harder to rack up a high goal total. Make it happen as soon as possible, Andrew Brunette. Save us from the depths of the Mark Recchi Power Play Experience.
  2. Have someone reach 40 goals first or at least score over 30 more than just once. There have been just 9 seasons in Devils history (and 1 Rockies season) where someone scored at least 40 in a season. The last time it happened was when Zach Parise put up 45 goals and 94 points (and got a lot of MVP chants at the Rock) back in 2008-09. Could someone on the roster just blow up for 2022-23 or in the future and just score a boatload of goals? Sure. That’s essentially what Gionta and Parise did. But to expect it? I do not think so.
  3. Have someone shoot the puck at least 3.5 shots per game for a full season. You need to a shoot a lot and do it for the vast majority of the season in order to increase the odds for a high-scoring season. Only one Devil has met and exceeded that rate since 2017-18: Taylor Hall with 278 shots in 76 games. (Aside: Hall had 39 goals that season. So close to 40.) The second most shots taken since then: Kyle Palmieri putting up 224 in 74 games in 2018-19. This is not going to be enough for a lot of goals to be scored. Either someone has to create a lot of shots (Jack Hughes may do this; he shot the puck 3.3 times per game on average last season) and do it for 75+ games (Hughes has to do this too).

Until those three things happen or come close to happen, I do not think it is reasonable to think it will happen in New Jersey anytime soon. But, hey, if Jack Hughes or Jesper Bratt or Alexander Holtz or Future Player To Be Determined wants to prove me wrong within the next few decades, then I will absolutely be there for it.

Your Take

I would love to see it happen for the Devils one day. I just do not see it knowing what happened in the other 200 individual seasons where a NHL player did break 50 goals and how Brian Gionta came so close yet so far to that notable number. Now I put the question to you. What do you think it takes to reach 50 goals? Is there something among the past 200 individual seasons where a 50+ goal season happened that I missed that someone would need to do to reach it? How crushing was it knowing Gionta was so close yet so far to 50 in 2005-06? Or that no one has scored 40+ goals for the Devils since 2008-09? Are you more positive about someone on the current roster (or system) reaching 50 or more goals for the Devils one day in the future? If so, who and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about 50+ goal scorers in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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