August 29, 2005
Great shootout mystery
By AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun
One of the mysteries that will unfold over the course of the National Hockey League season is the impact of the shootout.
As often is the case with a new rule, studying other leagues provides no insight because the NHL players are so much more talented than any others in the world.
That's why the impact of the removal of the red line for off-side calls is another area of uncertainty. The fact that players in college or in the minors haven't utilized it to the fullest is irrelevant. If those players could make 100-foot tape-to-tape passes, they'd be in the NHL. They can't, so they aren't. And they don't try long passes.
Similarly, who knows what to expect when the premier NHL snipers are turned loose in shootouts? In the past, goalies have tended to do well on penalty shots, but those occur only rarely. What will happen when a goalie faces a shootout every three or four games?
For starters, the rate of success will increase. Most NHL goalies are creatures of habit. They approach penalty shots in a specific way, and in the past nobody bothered studying their tendencies. The circumstance simply was too unusual.
That will change. Take a goalie like Dominik Hasek as an example. He likes to charge out of the net as the shooter approaches the puck. Then he backs up at a steady rate as the shooter closes.
Therefore, in a shootout situation, the snipers might try to move him out of his comfort zone. They could advance quickly from the red line to the blue line, then slow right down. This would make Hasek change his speed and perhaps even come to a stop. Then, when the shooter gets within firing range, Hasek would be flat-footed.
But whoever the goalie might be, it's likely that the shooters will vary their approach. For the most part, they have tended to pick up the puck and head straight for the net.
This season, it's likely that some of them will opt for the great circle route, swinging wide and then coming in from the side. As long as their progress always is toward the net, this is legal.
The move has the effect of making the goalie move from side to side, rather than just straight back, and when that happens there's always the possibility that he might lose his bearings just a bit and, in the process, leave an opening that can be exploited.
It's also possible that shootout specialists might emerge. On most teams, there is a player who excels in penalty-shot situations and it's not always a guy who is among the team's top scorers.
If the coach hasn't identified the player in question, the goaltender certainly has, and all it takes is a quick word in the coach's ear to give this guy an opportunity.
The goalies will study the tendencies of the players they're likely to face in a shootout but if a surprise shooter is placed on the list, the goalie will be at a disadvantage.
From the goaltenders' point of view, all this is just another source of stress in what already is one if the most stress-inducing jobs in sport.
Mobility will be at a premium because no matter how accurate the shooter might be, the better positioned the goalie is, the smaller the target area will be.
It could have been worse. The original proposals for this season called for an elimination of the point awarded to a team that emerges with a tie after 60 minutes. However, a number of weaker teams, fearful of losing a hard-earned point, lobbied against the concept and got it killed.
Now, the designated-shooters will be going only for a bonus point. But in a 30-team league, one lonely point can make the difference between a playoff spot and an early vacation.
It's a whole new opportunity for the snipers to make a difference and they'll be doing everything within their power to make the most of it.