Headed into the final weekend of regular-season play, the NHL's 30 teams had scored a total of 6,625 goals. On a quick drive-by review of raw numbers, that doesn't look so bad, does it?
However, pumping up goal-scoring remains a front-burner issue in the NHL, and still is a leading chatter item among fans, some of whom are old enough to remember players flying down the wing, winding up, and blowing slappers by near-defenseless goalies. You can look it up. Those YouTube clips have not been doctored.
For the better part of five years, there has been talk of the league increasing net size, with the belief that a bigger target would lead to more goals. During the 2004-05 lockout, the league rolled out a handful of prototypes of bigger nets, some of which looked as if they had been reworked by avant-garde architect Frank Gehry (Google: Gehry, Guggenheim Bilbao). The models ranged from the basic to the bizarre, leading the goalie fraternity to size up the whole thing as nothing but a scare tactic. The league, they felt, was holding bigger nets over their heads, forcing them to acquiesce on the scaling back of equipment.
In the end, some of the goalie equipment was nipped and tucked, and here we are today, with the net opening still 24 square feet and the scoring still challenged.
Time for bigger nets? Not yet. Not before one last look at the brotherhood of Stay Puft Marshmallow goalies and their arsenal.
In about eight weeks, a nine-member committee, dubbed the Goalie Equipment Working Group, will wrestle with this age-old question: Does size really matter? Comprising four general managers and five players, the group intends to convene for one day (June 11 in Toronto) and settle once and for all what, if anything, can be done about modifying goaltender equipment, in hopes of leading to more goals and more entertaining hockey.
"Maybe some of the equipment can be squeezed smaller, or maybe there's a way of scaling it specifically to body size," said Paul Kelly, executive director of the NHL Players Association. "What we know for sure is that everyone wants to resolve this, once and for all.
"Both sides have grown tired of talking about it over and over and over. This way, we'll have the right people in the right room in hopes of ending the discussion, coming to a consensus, and moving forward."
The GMs will include two ex-goalies, Wrentham's own Garth Snow (Islanders) and Jim Rutherford (Hurricanes), and two ex-forwards, Doug Risebrough (Minnesota) and Brett Hull (Dallas), the latter of whom made a career of torturing goalies of all shapes and sizes and armor. The players will be represented by two shooters, Dany Heatley (Ottawa) and Mike Cammalleri (Los Angeles) and three goaltenders (from a group of volunteers that includes Marty Brodeur, J.S. Giguere, Rick DiPietro, Ryan Miller, Martin Gerber, and Olaf Kolzig).
Provided Hull doesn't reduce those around the table to tears, the group two days later will hand a list of recommendations to the league's Competition Committee. If the Competition Committee is in favor of the changes, they would be moved along for further approval by the NHLPA's Executive Board and the NHL's Board of Governors. All signatures could be in place and changes ratified, Kelly surmises, by the third week of June.
"And from what equipment manufacturers are telling us," said Kelly, "they would need at least six weeks to produce items specific to any changes that might be made. If we could tie this up by the end of June, that would give them two full months before the start of training camp."
What no one knows is how it will shake out around the table, especially with goalies, by profession, such a guarded lot. Whenever the subject is raised about giving ground - be it in size of shirt, thickness of pads, width of gloves - the goalies invoke their "safety" concerns. No matter that many of them are so stuffed and puffed that they could be hurled off the Hancock Tower with the greater risk to the sidewalk and passers-by than to themselves.
The league side, represented by the GMs, has made it clear it wants a change, said Kelly. As for his rank and file, including the goalies, he feels they're receptive to modifications, too. More goals, most everyone feels, will promote a more entertaining game, and more entertainment should bring more fans, and more paying customers will help grow hockey-related revenue.
With everyone sharing in the kitty in the salary-cap era, who's to argue with an inflated GAA (goals-against average) when it should guarantee a better HRR, right?
"Yes, I'd say the majority of the players are for it, including the goaltenders," said Kelly, "as long as it's done without impacting the safety of the goalies."
How radical will these changes be, if approved? No telling that, but with a loose cannon such as Hull in the room, there is at least a chance of something more radical than, say, taking more than 3 centimeters off here, a pinch of pads there.
Earlier this season, Hull talked about the need for a more imaginative, more offense-oriented game. In June, he'll have just the opportunity to pull back, take aim, and let it fly one more time. Here's hoping he nails it.
Ovechkin is all HartMembers of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, including your faithful scribe, will turn in award ballots this week, and if Alexander Ovechkin isn't a unanimous choice for the Hart (MVP), then someone will have a lot of 'splainin' to do.
A.O. hammered in two more goals Thursday night, bumping his league lead to 65, and moving ahead of Luc Robitaille as the all-time leader for most goals (one season) by a left winger. It's not only that the Capitals star scores a lot of goals (now 163 in only three years), but he scores them with an energy and verve that make him, unquestionably, the greatest entertainment attraction in the game today.
Like Bobby Orr of old, and Brett Hull, Denis Savard, and Pavel Bure of not so old, Ovechkin doesn't allow the viewer to stop watching. Even if he isn't on the ice, the anticipation of his next shift, and maybe his next running leap into the glass after he scores, is enough to keep the audience engaged.
Sidney Crosby, as he good as he is, doesn't do that. Crosby's fellow Penguin, and superb talent, Evgeni Malkin, doesn't do that. They both may get there someday soon (Malkin is my bet there to get there first). But for now, there is only one true sensational player in today's game, and it's the 22-year-old Ovechkin. Makes one wish the moniker "Magical Muscovite" hadn't been dispensed (see: Sergei Samsonov) a decade ago.
Now, for the nitpickers, it's true, the Hart Trophy is not awarded to the most exciting or sensational player. It goes to the player who is "adjudged to be the most valuable to his team."
Well, you know what? In today's game, with how difficult it remains to score, and how overcoached and tightly played the games are, a lot of guys can be considered under that lone standard. Ovechkin still wins on that alone, for how he carried the Capitals all year and especially down the stretch.
He's all of "most valuable," with the sensation and entertainment factors sort of just added value.
Etc.Schedule some mixers
David Krejci, who has filled in admirably for the injured Marc Savard on Boston's No. 1 line, never would have seen regular, if any, first-line duty this season if not for Steve Begin's cross-check to Savard's back March 22. That makes Krejci (3-6 -9 in his last seven games) a guy who made the most of his opportunity, right? Sure, but it would be a mistake to leave it there, and there might be a valuable lesson within that. Krejci is obviously skilled, maybe even gifted (read: hands) and it's equally obvious that he has to play with talented wingers for that skill to come forth. Prior to Savard's injury, Krejci barely registered in the Boston offense; his "emergence" might have come earlier had he played with better wingers, or maybe just different wingers (as he is these days, with Marco Sturm and Glen Murray). Players too easily get typecast and slotted, not just by coaches, but by management, media, and fans. Once or twice a month, no matter how a team is playing, coaches should devote a workout to rearranging all lines and defensive pairings, and find out what, if anything, is going unmined on the roster. The combination of Krejci between Sturm and Murray might have clicked two months ago. Injury is a horrible way to trigger exploration and discovery.
Not a formula for success
Most preseason appraisals of the Canucks had them hard pressed to score goals. That's nothing new, because other than Markus Naslund and the Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel), they have been strapped for scoring for the better part of a decade. Trophy goalie Roberto Luongo, in his second season with the Canucks, was supposed to mask the need for scoring. Uh-uh. Vancouver, eliminated from playoff contention Thursday night, lost six of seven on the road to elimination, and totaled only nine goals in those six losses. Luongo, meanwhile, gave up 20. A less-than-average Luongo combined with a less-than-average offense added up to a DNQ. Why is it that when a team doesn't have goaltending, the position looks like 90 percent of the equation, and when it does have it, and still doesn't win, it looks like only 50 percent?
The Hurricanes outshot the Panthers by a whopping 46-17 Friday night and had all nine power plays (2 for 9) over the 60 minutes. Final score: Panthers, 4-3, which left the 'Canes praying last night that the Panthers would do the same kind of damage in Washington and keep the Capitals from stealing their playoff spot. Florida didn't, and the 'Canes are a DNQ for a second straight season after winning the Stanley Cup. Of the 29 other teams in the league today, only Toronto has done that, first after winning the Cup in 1918 (DNQ in '19 and '20), then again after winning in 1922 (DNQ in '23 and '24).
An awesome finish to the season by ex-Bruin Jumbo Joe Thornton, and a significant wrinkle in his output down the stretch that has gone virtually unnoticed. Headed into today's season-ender at Dallas, Thornton had 10 goals and only 3 assists in his last nine games. This from a guy who, on a career basis, has scored a goal about once every three games, while chipping in with about two assists every three games. Ten years into his career, perhaps he is morphing into a scorer. Amid the current run, too, Thornton for the first time cracked the sacred turf of becoming a career point-per-game player. He now has 756 points in 753 games.
It sure looked as though Dainius Zubrus scored the go-ahead (2-1) goal vs. the Bruins last Wednesday night in New Jersey, just based on the way goalie Tim Thomas flicked the puck toward the corner after righting himself in the crease. But upon further review, using all the video replay technology at their disposal in Toronto, league bosses ruled it no goal. Fine, they couldn't rule the puck over the line, and hey, so be it. But isn't it time to wire two or three tiny snoop cameras into all 60 cages across the NHL dominion? Parents routinely spy on their nannies via cameras and laptops while at work. And the league can't track 3 inches of vulcanized rubber? All the more important in this age when goal judges have lost their seats behind the goal (what were they ever doing there?).
Ex-Bruin Tom Fitzgerald, in New Jersey Wednesday night to scout Bruins-Devils, temporarily will drop his director of player development duties with the Penguins and join their coaching staff for the playoff run. "You know, be an eye in the press box during games, work with guys at practices," said Fitzgerald. "And with a little luck, I'll be able to get home now and again, too." Fitzgerald and family still live in the Boston suburbs . . . Along with being open to discussing changes in goalie equipment, the players under new NHLPA boss Paul Kelly have informed the league they would be willing to play an 84-game regular season, provided two games are pared from the preseason. And if it helps grow revenues (via TV earnings), they've also given a preliminary OK to play games on Christmas Day . . . At the risk of alienating some very good, hard-working guys in stripes, sorry, but it was a better game with only one referee. In theory, sure, every garden should be spotless, every weed eradicated. But for those of us who have dabbled in backyard summer veggie gardens, did a few weeds take away from the taste of the tomatoes and zucchini? I'm convinced that the two-ref system, so clean and efficient in intent, was a Martha Stewart invention. And that's not a good thing.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.