Hockey Notes

Some points to consider regarding high scorers

By Kevin Paul Dupont
January 2, 2011

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The NHL didn’t need an iconic baseball park to enhance the look of its Winter Classic this year. It drove its annual gold-plated marketing spike into the middle of Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, home of the NFL’s Steelers, and called leading men Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin to center ice. Just add water, chill to a freeze, and let the NBC cameras and commentators sprinkle the pixie dust over it.

Wrigley and Fenway look so, oh, leather boots and Clarence Campbell and Original Six, when the sublime new NHL talents of Sid the Kid and O.V. command the spotlight.

Crosby and Ovechkin came into last night’s game with identical career point totals of 571, each of them in fast-forward lockstep for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Think about it. No. 1 picks in their drafts, they each entered the league in October 2005 and met up last night with the same exact point total midway through their sixth season. Uh . . . just a little suspicious, isn’t it?

If these two characters sat next to each other in Mr. Healy’s high school economics class, and each recorded the exact same test score after a combined 845 questions (read: career games), wouldn’t they be called up after the bell to do a little ’splainin’? Which of the two would crack first in hopes of being spared double-secret probation?

Actually, the prolific exploits of Mssrs. Crosby and Ovechkin prompted your faithful puck chronicler to pull the slide rule from his plastic pocket liner this past week, not because of their dual 571s, but because of their point-per-game average. Entering the Winter Classic, Crosby held a slight edge, connecting at a rate of 1.39 points per game vs. Ovechkin’s 1.31.

Yes, I know, hockey and statistics. About the only thing worse is getting locked in the same room with a golf nut on New Year’s Day and listening to the shot-by-shot account of his every round the past year. Oh, tee it up.

Anyway, here’s the interesting twist to the point-per-game thing. If we go back to the 1997 draft, which Boston hockey fans forever will remember as the “Thornton draft,’’ NHL clubs have made a total of 3,518 draft picks (enough to stock almost 180 rosters, although a tiny percentage of the players were drafted more than once). Now that you know the total number of picks over those 14 drafts, what’s your guess as to the total number of players to date, including Ovechkin and Crosby, who have averaged at least a point per game?

While you think, dear reader, I’ll pause here and ponder Tiger Woods’s second loop at Augusta 2010.

OK, long enough. The answer is . . . 10. That’s it, a total of 10 out of some 3,500 draft picks. That’s about 2.5 out of every 1,000 players, and that includes three guys who actually miss the cut by the tiniest of smidges. But because it’s a new year, and being festive and generous is the order of the day, I’ve decided to include them by rounding up.

Here’s the list, stats as of Friday morning (with a huge helper from Bob Waterman at the Elias Sports Bureau):

Sidney Crosby410/5711.39
Alex Ovechkin435/5711.31
Evgeni Malkin343/4131.20
Dany Heatley626/6581.05
Nicklas Backstrom285/2941.03
Joe Thornton950/9651.02
Ilya Kovalchuk656/6611.01
Jason Spezza496/495.998
Steven Stamkos199/197.990
Pavel Datsyuk639/631.987

Now, what conclusions can we draw beyond the fact that point-per-game players just don’t grow on those trees that are no longer cut down to turn into hockey sticks?

Not sure, really, but a couple of US-centric thoughts to consider:

■There is not a single American-born player in the bunch. It’s pretty much a Canadian/Russian monopoly, with the German-born Heatley a bit of a tweener and Sweden’s Backstrom the lone Scandinavian. The twice-traded Heatley, now the recipient of a good many Jumbo Joe dishes, grew his game in Canada as a kid.

The Yanks have produced some very respectable offensive performers over the last 14 drafts, including Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, Paul Stastny (via Quebec), Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Kane, and Erik Cole, but no one in the bona fide creme-de-la-creme ranks.

Aw, shucks, maybe it’s just that American modesty and humility showing through again? The Yanks sure could use a Joe Mullen-Jeremy Roenick shot to their short pants. How did we get so incredibly boring?

■Not sure if this is linked directly to the US point, but of the 10 guys on the list, it’s not a group that emits much, shall we say, fire from the nostrils.

Ovechkin, yes, though he relies more on huge dollops of speed and strength than he does true grit (a la Mark Messier, Gordie Howe, and to a lesser extent Bryan Trottier). On the soft end of the scale, we find the likes of Spezza and Thornton.

Now, make these 10 available today as unrestricted free agents, and it’s a good bet the top four would be Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, and Stamkos, not necessarily in that order.

The takeaway here, overall, could be that these guys are hardly the meanest, toughest, roughest dudes in today’s Original 30. Yes, grit is great, but skill dominates. Could it be that too many US coaches, beginning at the youth hockey level, are still preaching toughness and smashmouth hockey when, in fact, the most accomplished offensive players usually thrive without the image of a Howe hat trick (goal, assist, fight) dancing in their helmets?

Perhaps, although the better US strikers named above are more splash than bash.

American hockey continues to make great strides, but when it comes to developing that oh-so-rare point-per-game player, the “Made in USA’’ label can’t be affixed. We remain shorthanded in superstar scoring touch. And never was that more glaring than just about a year ago when Crosby knocked the OT winner past US goalie Ryan Miller for the Olympic gold medal.

He couldn’t light their fire Surprising, though not shocking, to see Darryl Sutter booted last week as general manager of the struggling Flames. Despite that kryptonite Sutter family veneer, he established a very safe and secure environment in Calgary for the working help, his roster leading the league in home-home-on-the-range contracts (a total of 11, no-moves and no-trades included).

Perhaps that security led to complacency, which in turn led to the 52-year-old Sutter stepping down at the request of president/CEO Ken King. Sutters don’t quit; they have to be told when to stop chewing nails and brushing their teeth with a blowtorch.

Sutter made some very strong moves as GM, but his swap of Dion Phaneuf (now captain in Toronto) for a pocketful of Leafs lint last January likely sealed his fate.

Acting GM Jay Feaster, on the watch in Tampa when the Bolts won the Cup in 2004, now tries to elevate this underperforming cast to playoff contention. Not easy for a club slotted 14th in the West.

And he has to do it with Brent Sutter as coach, not to mention Duane Sutter as director of player personnel and Ron Sutter in the scouting department. Knowing Sutters, they won’t be a problem. A bigger hurdle ultimately will be finding a way for the recycled Olli Jokinen (two years, $6 million total) to produce at a true top-pivot level.

No fries with that, either No telling how wild and crazy Bruins captain Zdeno Chara was on New Year’s Eve. The Trencin tower of power might have fallen from the cliff of his monastic dietary ways and even gorged himself on a candy bar or swiped butter on his baked potato. Remember, this is a guy who, in his most decadent moments, will enjoy a glass of Japanese plum wine. The insanity! Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, in Buffalo most of last week to scout World Junior talent, recalled a trip to Ottawa when he showed up at the rink clutching a takeout bag from a fast-food chain. “Z spotted me coming through the door with it,’’ recalled Chiarelli, “and he gave me this look like, ‘Peter, what are you doing?’ Heck, I told him it wasn’t even a burger — it was a grilled chicken sandwich!’ But he wouldn’t listen. In his eyes, I was just eating junk and it wasn’t a debatable point.’’

Bump and run Jason Spezza will be out of the Senators lineup for 4-6 weeks, upward of 20 games, after Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang mashed the big guy’s right shoulder last Sunday night. A dirty hit, according to Ottawa GM Bryan Murray, one that had Spezza dumped head-first into the boards. But Letang, similar to Matt Cooke skating free after his assault of Marc Savard last March, didn’t face any supplementary discipline. “A hockey play,’’ said NHL dean of discipline Colin Campbell. All of which had Murray wondering what the league response would have been if the victim had been, say, Sidney Crosby instead of Spezza. “They would have closed the league, wouldn’t they?’’ asked Murray, with Harry Sinden-like sarcasm. We have to wonder whether the 6-foot-3-inch Spezza, like Savard, is perceived as a “little fake artist’’ in Campbell’s office.

Wind beneath the Wings Before exiting the Red Wings lineup late in the week with an upper-body injury, ex-Boston College winger Patrick Eaves notched his first career hat trick Wednesday in Dallas. Coach Mike Babcock kidded that perhaps Eaves caused the injury because “he raised his arms so many times’’ celebrating goals. Eaves, of course, was acquired by the Bruins in the summer of 2009, but only as a means to lower payroll (via buyout), allowing Chiarelli to acquire short-lived point man Derek Morris. Eaves now is thriving with the Winged Wheels, who rely on his legs and smarts for the penalty kill. Impressive how the Wings get valuable juice out of guys, including, to name a few: Larry Murphy, Dan Cleary, Brad Stuart, and Eaves. Murphy, all but hooted out of Toronto late in the ’96-97 season, was a key component of the Detroit Cup wins in ’97 and ’98. “Rising tide lifts all ships,’’ Murphy has said time and again. True, surrounding talent helps immensely, but the Wings have a great organizational eye for slotting players into roles in which they can thrive. Eaves, 26, has the game and sensibility for a long run in Hockeytown.

Going nowhere Nice trip to New Jersey for the Leafs. Following their win at the Rock last Sunday night, with only some 2,500 in the building because of the East Coast blizzard, the Leafs endured a four-hour bus ride back to their hotel in Short Hills (normally a 20-minute jaunt). Some of the boys jumped out in street shoes to help push the bus when it was stuck in snow. The following day, the Leafs sat in their plane for four hours before learning it would not be cleared for takeoff. They finally flew back Tuesday, only to fall that night to the Hurricanes. That was followed two nights later by another loss at home to the Blue Jackets.

This line from Leafs coach Ron Wilson, which must not have played well to the ear of Devils boss Lou Lamoriello: “I don’t know how many fans actually come to their games anyway — so it doesn’t matter.’’

True, the Prudential Center looked all but empty with only some 2,500 fans in it (including a fair percentage of Torontonians), but that’s Rock salt to the wound.

Loose pucks Cleary, by the way, exited the Wings lineup last week with a fractured left ankle, felled by Stuart’s friendly fire in last Sunday’s 4-1 win over the Wild. Cleary, who might miss up to six weeks, led the Wings in goals (16) upon his exit. A guy, by the way, who many figured was washed up at 25 when he went to Sweden during the 2004-05 lockout . . . Scuttlebutt continues that Zach Parise, a restricted free agent as of July 1, has no aspirations to remain in New Jersey. If that’s the case, he might force the Devils to deal him as an RFA, a situation similar to Phil Kessel’s move to Toronto in September 2009. Lamoriello might be able to land three first-round picks, a roster player, and a prospect for Parise, who remains shelved after early season knee surgery . . . Wild prospect Jason Zucker, a key member of Team USA at the World Juniors, developed his game in part on the roller rink built in back of the family home in Las Vegas. Zucker’s father has served in recent years as director of construction on a number of Station Casino properties. Bruins center Patrice Bergeron had a similar setup installed at his home in the outskirts of Quebec City, and a number of his NHL buds routinely swing by to fire pucks for a few hours . . . Predators forward Jordin Tootoo voluntarily entered the league’s substance abuse and behavioral program last week, prompting Nashville quickly to snatch Marek Svatos off waivers. The move came only hours after Svatos signed a one-year, $800,000 deal with the Blues, the ex-Avalanche winger not finding his KHL tour with Omsk Avangard to his liking. Part of returning from Europe means entering the waiver process, which is what allowed the Predators to pluck him. The Bruins kicked the tires on Svatos at last spring’s trade deadline.

Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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