Goals per game in the NLL

When hearing someone describe the NLL to a non-lacrosse person, you tend to hear the same things over and over:

  • played in a hockey rink with the ice covered with artificial turf
  • similar rules to hockey, but with the shot clock and over-and-back rules of basketball
  • high-scoring, average of about 25 goals per game

But how accurate is that “25 goals per game” number? On the surface, it seems about right – games like 14-10 or 13-12 are pretty typical, 18-15 is a little on the high side, and 11-7 is a little low. But if we actually crunch the numbers, what do we find?

Amazingly, we find that this number is almost exactly correct. Taking into account the 1,633 games (regular season and playoffs) from 1987 up to and including the 2012 season, the average number of goals scored per game is 24.99. But the breakdown by season is surprising:


The first ten years or so were pretty unpredictable, ranging from 22.6 in 1990 to 29.1 only two years later. The extremes: the highest scoring season was 1992, when 29.1 goals were scored per game. 2011 was the lowest scoring season, with an average of only 21.7 goals per game. The first six seasons were interesting – two seasons in the mid 27’s, two low-scoring seasons of 24 and 22, then the two highest ever, 28.2 and 29.1.

The obvious trend is that from 2000 until 2011, the number of goals scored dropped pretty steadily, from 28.2 in 2000 to a low of 21.7 in 2011. The NLL increased the width of the nets from 4’6″ to 4’9″ in 2002, and one of the first games of the 2002 season featured the Montreal Express defeating the Calgary Roughnecks 32-17. Fans wondered if that would be the norm with the new nets, but in the end it made little difference; the average actually dropped about half a goal from 2001 to 2002, and then down over a full goal the next year as goalies adapted. However in 2012, a number of rule changes were made in an attempt to speed up the game, and seemed to have the (possibly unintentional) effect of increasing scoring as well. After the lowest-scoring season ever in 2011, scoring rebounded in 2012, jumping 2½ goals per game to 24.2.

Why did the rule changes increase goal scoring? Here’s why:

  • The 8 second rule (instead of 10), the “immediately drop the ball on possession changes” rule, and the fast starts all meant that there were more transition chances, and many of those were converted.
  • In addition, the faster the transition, the more likely that an offensive player will get stuck on the floor playing D, and some offensive players are just not the two-way players of old. They’re not all as skilled at their own end of the floor as at they are the other end, and so playing five top offensive players against four defenders and one O guy playing D gives the offense a bit of an advantage.
  • Defenders were also forced to give up their longer 46″ sticks for 42″ sticks, obviously making it harder for them to stop the John Grants and Dan Dawsons of the league.
  • Finally, on a five-minute power play, three goals are now required to allow the penalized player out of the box instead of two. I don’t think this rule came into effect all that often, but it did mean that some 5-on-4’s lasted longer in 2012 than they would have in 2011.

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