"Hey, Brett, you remember back in '92 when I was one of the best players in the NHL?" "Just give me my wedge, Oates."
Whether it's a show on VH1 or a casual conversation with friends, we have a tendency to identify cultural and social shifts by decades, with each having unique characteristics. This can sometimes be the case in terms of hockey playing styles, with the 1980s in particular being renowned for a period of big offensive numbers and flippin' sweet (or flippin' ugly) jerseys.
But decades aren't always the best markers of profound socio-cultural change: Guns N Roses took "hair bands" beyond the 80s, the "trilogy" format in movies began in the late 60s but carried on long afterward, and the "hippie"/activist movements were as much a part of the early 70s as they were the mid- to late 60s. In the same way, the kind of hockey we were used to in the 80s wasn't isolated to it; the numbers suggest they carried on into the 90s, and had a distinct departure after the 1992-93 season.
Ah, the early 90s. Meat Loaf was telling me he'd do anything for love (except "that"), while Bryan Adams was taking a much easier route by saying that everything he does, he does it for me. Gabe was angrily sending back his Milli Vanilli tape for a refund, while I was getting a lot of mileage out of neon sweatshirts and those big sunglasses (you could get a pair like those for "free" by sending in UPC labels from Malt-O-Meal). I had Lisa Turtle on my mind (sorry Kelly Kapowski; turns out Screech had good taste), and Loaded Weapon 1 in the VCR.
In the NHL, the early 90s were still holding on to that 80s flavor. But then it did a curious thing. All of a sudden, the league added a warm-weather team in San Jose, only to follow that in 1992-93 by adding another warm-weather team in Tampa Bay and bringing back an old franchise in Ottawa. It was the first expansion in over a decade, and though minor in size it was the beginning of an entirely new direction for league performance.
You see, the league did another funny thing in addition to increasing the size of the league (with two more teams to come in Florida and Anaheim the following year): they expanded the season to 84 games (it had been at 80 games previously). Add that to the fact that these new teams were utterly, historically horrible, and you had a distinct offensive uptick in the waning days of goal-drunk hockey. In 1992-93, even-strength goals per game (2.44) were the highest they'd been since the 1989-90 season, power-play (1.03) and short-handed goals per game (0.15) the highest since 1987-88. Shots per game (30.98) were actually the highest since 1985-86. The total goals scored league-wide jumped by 1,200 goals (to 7,311), setting a record that wouldn't be topped until over ten years had passed and the league had added six more teams. We saw career years out of everyone and their respective mothers: Doug Gilmour put up 127 points (22 more than his previous high; he wouldn't top 111 after that), Adam Oates had 142 (27 above his previous best), Pierre Turgeon had 132 (previous best 105), and, not to be outdone, was Mario Lemieux's 69 goals and 160 points in 60 games. Phil Housley nearly had 100 points, and Rick Tocchet almost reached the exclusive 50+ goals, 100+ points, and 200+ PIM club (only members: Brendan Shanahan and Kevin Stevens) by scoring 48 and 109, and racking up 252 minutes. Brian Bradley somehow put up 40+ goals and 86 points for a 23-54-7 team whose second-leading scorer had 56 points. Eric Lindros lived up to expectations by blasting 41 goals in his rookie season and then out-hugeifying people (yeah, there are a lot of headshots in that video). Hell, even Stumpy put up 87 points!
Just as importantly, European-born, European-trained players were also setting career highs and opening eyes everywhere. My greatest memories of that season weren't of Patrick Roy and the Canadiens defeating that 30-year-old-plus former-Oiler laser show in Los Angeles, but of the goal-scoring battle between Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne. Both were incredible that year; Mogilny the talented Russian forward who just hadn't put together a full season to that point, Selanne a former 1st-rounder that had set every Finnish league on fire before laying nearly all the rookie scoring records to waste. Pavel Bure was similarly wreaking havoc, posting his first of two back-to-back 60-goal seasons in Vancouver, while young phenoms Sergei Fedorov, Jaromir Jagr, and Mats Sundin (who eclipsed 100 points for his first and only time) scored the best points-per-game of their careers to that point. As if to announce their presence, dynamic young Unified and Swedish teams would capture Olympics gold in 1992 and 1994. Game after game, they kept scoring, and with every goal they caused more and more NHL scouts to hop red-eyes across the pond.
In the same way that 1992-93 was about excess, it was also about decline. The Edmonton Oilers, only two years removed from a Stanley Cup, now had one of the worst offenses in the NHL. Their leading scorer, Petr Klima, had 48 points. Penalty minutes, which had been incredibly high in the mid- to late 1980s (~24 PIM/G) was beginning a slow decline back to the sub-20s, never (to this point) to return. It would be the last year before defensive systems began to take hold; shooting percentage dropped an entire point from 1992-93 to 1993-94 (from 11.8 to 10.8) to its lowest level in 20 years. Shooting percentage never recovered either, as it has held in the upper 9s to lower 10s ever since. Shots-for per game also never recovered; after lulling below 30.5 for a couple of years, it dropped below 30 and stayed there until 2008-09.
The fantastic results of the 1992-93 season stood on the edge of profound change in the league, to a new NHL mired in Dead Puck but also excitingly new in its infusion of foreign-trained players. If you are going to talk about eras and beginnings and ends, the 1992-93 season certainly should merit strong consideration as the "end of 1980s hockey."
On a personal note, the first substantial number of hockey cards I ever bought were Topps Premier of the 1992-93 season. I read through them all, and sorted them and memorized everything on the back, sparking my interest in numbers in hockey.
P.S. I lifted a ton of player links from hockeydb.com, so thanks for that. Also, most of the league data is taken from Gabe's page at behindthenet.ca, found here.