SUN Hockey Pool

NHL must focus on scoring

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:14 AM ET

When the National Hockey League's general managers meet in Detroit on Thursday, they intend to find ways to improve the game.

But first, they must reach a consensus on a fundamental question. Namely, what is their primary aim?

To be more specific, do they want to increase the number of goals, or merely the number of chances to score them?

It's a debate that, at the moment, is raging within the various levels of the NHL. Right at the top, commissioner Gary Bettman has made it clear that his primary concern is to increase the number of scoring chances. If that happens, he has said, the fans will be entertained.

As he sees it, it is the structure of the game that provides the entertainment, and not necessarily the result.

But many GMs feel that the game needs more scoring. They suggest that Bettman's approach -- not surprisingly -- indicates a basketball mindset.

In basketball, flash and panache create much of the spectacle. Scoring is so common that even though it has slipped a bit recently, its resurrection is not really an issue.

A player going in alone for an easy dunk is expected to make a performance of it -- a couple of half gainers and a somersault never do any harm -- in order to please the crowd. The fact that points are scored is secondary.

But in hockey, a goal is an important event. Even in the golden pre-Bettman era, that was the case. If the general managers allow Bettman to get away with his chances-not-goals solution, they will be shirking their responsibility.

First of all, as anyone who was once a basketball executive should know, perception has a lot to do with the success of any sport. The NHL GMs intend to alter the rules radically because they want to win back fans who have been lost.

If those potential fans were to look at the scores in the paper and see the usual parade of 1-0 and 2-1 games, they're going to think that nothing has changed.

Don't forget that for the most part, these people are happy with whatever sport they have adopted. They're not likely to be surfing the networks in a quest to find a better sport.

They have to learn from the headlines, the major sports stories and the highlight reels that scoring is back in hockey. The picture in the paper has to show the puck in the net, not the goalie making an in-close save. The highlight reels have to show goals, not thwarted opportunities.

The reason that the chances-not-goals theory gets league support is that it is easier to implement than the real solution. For instance, is there a fan anywhere who does not think that goalie equipment is too large? Yet for more than a decade, the league has been unable to stop the promiscuous proliferation of padding.

It is so painfully obvious that you'd like to whack their foreheads against the screen and shout. "Look at that! There's no opening for the puck-carrier to shoot at!"

LAWYERS DECIDE

But the guys who have the final say are lawyers and, as John LeCarre wrote in Single and Single, "The more self-evident a fact might appear to the layman, the more vigorously must the conscientious lawyer contest it."

If you think like a lawyer, you find it extremely difficult to codify a rule that works for goalies of all sizes. Therefore, you try to dodge the issue and con people into thinking that it's not the scoring that matters, it's the scoring chances.

Even some players have been deluded. Martin Brodeur, for instance, has said the game needs chances, not scoring.

But let's face it. While Brodeur is a wonderful guy, the last person you want dictating the future of the game is a goalie -- especially a goalie for the New Jersey Devils, the most boring team on the planet over the last decade.

When the GMs attack the fundamental question this week -- as they will be asked to do -- it is imperative that they see through the smokescreen. The game needs scoring, not just scoring chances.


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