We won't be one of those columns that waxes poetic after a long layoff. We will simply express our relief that hockey is back and get on with the show. However to those that care about that sort of thing: welcome back.
After watching the first week of the new NHL season, it's apparent there's a new hockey hybrid emerging.
While it's not like watching the high-flying '80s, it's also not like much of the goal-starved '90s either.
No, what we have here is a new species. It's Darwinism at its most illustrious. The NHL's transformation from a goal-sucking vacuum to a goalie-terrorizing machine, is truly startling. To borrow some more from Mr. Charles Darwin, it's like a donkey morphing into a giraffe in order to eat the leaves on the trees.
This NHL is now a beautiful puck-eating, goal-spewing giraffe.
Now the cynics out there will surely call this an aberration, or trend that will vanish with time. But last time I checked, Darwin was long gone and giraffes were still chewing.
Now we're not comparing Gary Bettman to Darwin, but we have to give the commissioner his due - albeit grudgingly. As much as we hate to admit it, it sure looks like Bettman got this one right.
According to the latest NHL memo, scoring was up more than 40 per cent over the first 40 games, from the same period in 2003-04. Over that span NHL games averaged 6.4 goals per contest. That's more than a two-goals-a-game shift!
To compare, that's nearly as much as during the 1991-92 season (6.62 GPG), when the San Jose Sharks became the first expansion team added since the 1979-80 season. That year the Pittsburgh Penguins scored a league-best 443 goals and Mario Lemieux won the Art Ross with 131 points in just 64 games. Could there be more Art in No. 66's future?
It seems apparent that in this Brave New NHL the goal will not be shunned like a leper, as he was in the former NHL. No longer will the shutout be exalted over the shootout, nor the goalie over the goal scorer.
The days of prizing the 20-goal scorer are gone and we're all better for it.
At least 12 players are currently on pace to score 80 or more goals. Will they? Of course not, but at least we can once again entertain the notion of a 50-goal scorer. How about 100 points? Blasphemous!
The 2003-04 season was the first non-lockout campaign without either since 1967-68, the year the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams. But back then they played just 74 games.
Whether you think the heightened scoring is the result of the obstruction crackdown and more power plays, the goalie crackdown or rule changes that have created more room for offensively-gifted players, it doesn't matter.
The main thing is that we're seeing more goals and more exciting games. It's nice to know that no lead is safe in the new NHL. In the first five days of the season, five teams won after overcoming two-goals deficits. That's a five-fold increase over the 2003-04 season.
If this continues, goalies will be valued more for their ability to keep their teams in games long enough for them to mount a comeback. Grant Fuhr stay close to your phone, your services may be required again.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
Tonight marks the return of Ilya Kovalchuk to the Atlanta Thrashers' lineup, after missing all of training camp and the first three games of the season in a contract dispute. Now the league's highest-scoring offence - the Thrashers are averaging five goals a game - just added perhaps the best pure goal scorer in the league. Kovalchuk will be paired with the NHL player of the week Marc Savard and veteran scorer Peter Bondra.
In the first financial showdown under the salary-capped NHL, it was an owner who blinked, as Kovalchuk was rewarded with a five-year, $32-million US deal. The Russian sniper, who tied Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla for the Maurice Richard Trophy with 41 goals in '03-04, is now the league's 13th highest paid player at $6.4 million a season. Here's a breakdown of the Top 13 salaries (all figures in the millions and in US funds):
|1.||Jaromir Jagr RW||NYR||$8.36|
|2.||Keith Tkachuk LW||STL||$7.6|
|-||Niklas Lidstrom D||DET||$7.6|
|-||Alexei Yashin C||NYI||$7.6|
|5.||Jarome Iginla RW||CAL||$7.0|
|6.||Mats Sundin C||TOR||$6.84|
|7.||Scott Niedermayer D||ANA||$6.75|
|-||Nikolai Khabibulin G||CHI||$6.75|
|9.||Bill Guerin RW||DAL||$6.73|
|10.||Joe Sakic C||COL||$6.664|
|11.||Joe Thornton C||BOS||$6.660|
|12.||Martin St. Louis RW||TB||$6.5|
FEARSOME POWER PLAY
Kovalchuk's return gives the Thrashers' already potent power play an even bigger weapon. The addition of the 2003-04 goal-scoring leader, along with Marian Hossa, Marc Savard, Peter Bondra and either Bobby Holik or Slava Kozlov is as intimidating as any unit in the league. Maybe with the exception of Ottawa's group of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Martin Havlat and Wade Redden or Zdeno Chara or Pittsburgh's unit of Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Ziggy Palffy, Sergei Gonchar and Mark Recchi, the Thrashers have a real chance to lead the league in power-play goals.
"I think it'll be even more intimidating for the guy who's sitting in the box," Thrashers' coach Bob Hartley told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He doesn't want to have to go back to the bench (after a goal).
"Our power play could be one of our best tools against (physical) intimidation. If a team wants to try to run us out of their building -- like in Washington, we scored on the first four power plays. That sends a message: If you want to be stupid, it could be a long night."
The Thrashers scored eight times with the advantage against the Caps and outscored them 15-3 overall in their home-at-home series. According to the Journal-Constitution, 27 per cent of all goals were scored on the power play in '03-04, but through the first six days of this season, 37 per cent of the goals (114 of 308) were power plays. By comparison 53 per cent of the Thrashers' goals so far have come with an extra attacker.
With two thirds of all shutouts registered through the first 53 games, Florida Panthers' goalie Roberto Luongo seems unfazed by the scoring outburst. And while the Panthers have managed just eight goals through their first four games (two were empty-netters), Luongo was able to manufacture three wins to put his club in first place in the Southeast Division. It's hard to imagine why the Panthers decided to play hardball with Luongo in the offseason, tendering him an insulting one-year, $1.8 million offer which ultimately ended up in arbitration, where Luongo was awarded a one-year deal worth $3.2 million. While that is nearly twice as much, the Panthers have to be laughing now. If the Panthers scoring problems persist through the season and Luongo faces an increased workload due to an increase in power plays, the goaltender should be a shoo-in as league MVP. Luongo watched the Panthers give his raise to veteran pluggers Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk and then watched the Panthers lose out on signing any free-agent scorers, but he still goes about his business.
Some have conjectured that Luongo's play may be contributing to the Panthers low-scoring ways, as the offence knows two goals may be enough to win most games.
"That's probably why we're winning the way we are," Nieuwendyk told the MIami Herald. "When you have goaltending like we have, you can afford to be stingy defensively and not take too many chances offensively. When you get down two or three, then you have to open things up, and that leaves you vulnerable for more bad habits. He gives us a chance to win every night, and that's a real good cushion to have."
After hearing for the last several seasons of how old they are and how they have crapped out at the draft table, the Toronto Maple Leafs must have been pleased to see their first win of the year come as a result of some key contributions from youngsters Kyle Wellwood, Matt Stajan, Alex Steen and Mikael Tellqvist. Wellwood, who scores some of the prettiest goals you'll see anywhere, got his first in his brief three-game NHL career, as he took a great feed from friend Stajan and roofed it over Philadelphia Flyers' goalie Robert Esche. Steen drew the other assist and for the game the line had three points, five shots and was a plus-4. Leafs' head coach Pat Quinn, who is known for his reticence to give rookies much in the way of playing time, shocked everyone by having Steen and Stajan as his main penalty-killing tandem. He also had Wellwood on the first power-play squad. The 26-year-old Tellqvist had his best game in nets for the Leafs, since first breaking into the NHL in the 2002-03 season. The Sundbyberg, Sweden native stopped 31 of 33 Flyers' shots, including some superb saves in close on Brian Savage and rookie Jeff Carter and on defenceman Kim Johnsson's 20-footer. Tellqvist couldn't be faulted on either of the Flyer goals, as Mike Knuble was left untouched on his redirect and Simon Gagne scored with Tellqvist on all fours, after a mad scramble where the Leafs defencemen failed to clear the puck after numerous attempts. Alexander Khavanov was the main culprit on both goals against... Tampa Bay Lightning head coach John Tortorella is concerned his club is attempting too many long passes in hopes of getting a breakaway goal. As a result the defending Stanley Cup champs have scored just nine goals in four games and only four since their opening-night 5-2 win over Carolina. "I think the new rules have played with the minds of some of our players, especially our offensive people," Tortorella told the Tampa Bay Tribune. "... they think, 'I have to make that long pass.' To me it turns into more turnovers than helping you offensively trying to force that long pass." The home-run passes have a fairly low success rate and have resulted in some costly turnovers so far for the Lightning. "The only thing that I think giving us problems is the no red line," Cup MVP Brad Richards told the Tribune. "We were a good team because we supported each other all over the ice. We have to get back to making a bunch of four-foot passes instead of the 20-foot passes that are going to be intercepted 90 percent of the time."... Lighting hasn't yet struck for veteran goalie Sean Burke, who has yet to dress for his new club, after inking a two-year deal during the summer. So far John Grahame has made every start for Tampa, but Burke isn't about to turn it into a goaltending controversy. "I can't say that I would do anything differently as a coach," Burke told the Tampa Tribune. "You have to go, if you have a guy playing well, you have to play him, that's the way it is... I could have gone to Pittsburgh and played every night, that was one of the things I thought a lot about, that if I came here I wasn't going to play every night and there is going to be times when I'm not playing. How was that going to sit with me and how was I going to handle it. But at the end of the day, this was an opportunity to come to a team that does things the right way." No doubt Tortorella will try to get Burke in a game this week, as the Lightning play at home against Buffalo on Thursday and then go on the road to Pittsburgh on Friday and Washington on Saturday. "I know Burkey is (ticked) off now," Tortorella said. "He wants to play. (But) I think Burkey is (ticked) off in the right way."... Despite a hot start to the season, Washington captain Jeff Halpern (0-4-4) plans to skip the Capitals game tonight in Raleigh against the Hurricanes. You see Halpern is Jewish and Yom Kippur - the Jewish faith's holiest day - begins tonight at sundown. In his previous five seasons Halpern was spared any potential conflict by the NHL schedule makers, but that streak will end. "I don't think there's any question what I should do," Halpern, who will be at his family's home in Potomac, Md., told the Washington Post. "I wish we didn't have a game. But it's too important to me, my family and the community that has supported me, not to participate. I'm not the most religious person in the world, but this is something my family has always observed."... The last time Alexander Ovechkin was in Carolina, he was being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NHL draft. Ovechkin, a 20-year-old rookie, returns to Raleigh today as the Capitals' leading scorer. The left winger from Moscow has five points in his first four NHL games. He has three goals and two assists and has been the best player on a revamped Washington roster... Defenceman Frantisek Kaberle has become the forgotten man in Carolina, after signing with the Hurricanes as a free agent in the summer of 2004. His $1.29 million salary makes him the Canes fourth-highest paid defender, but so far he has been a healthy scratch for the first three games. "Of course, I expected to be in the lineup," Kaberle told the Raleigh News & Observer. "Maybe with a new club it takes time to get used to each other." Canes general manager Jim Rutherford brought in the 31-year-old Czech to boost the team's power play, but so far coach Peter Laviolette has gone with former Calgary Flames veteran Mike Commodore and Andrew Hutchinson as his sixth and seventh defencemen. The Canes have yet to score on the power play, going 0-for-15. Kaberle practiced with the power play on Tuesday and could play against the Capitals. Two of Kaberle's three goals and 16 of his 26 assists in 2003-04 came on the power play. "Some people have earned a spot early on, based on what they did in exhibition," Laviolette told the News & Observer. "Things will change. Frank's going to get an opportunity."... Rookie Cam Ward will make his third straight start in goal with No. 1 goalie Martin Gerber's injury status still uncertain. Gerber injured his hip in the season opener at Tampa Bay on Oct. 5 and hasn't played since. "I'm not sure what's going on with Marty," Laviolette told the News & Observer. "He's still not even on the ice." Gerber did not practice Tuesday. Rookie Kevin Nastiuk remains with the team as Ward's backup.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"He reminds me of Guy Lafleur when he was young. He'd come to training camp with a pack of cigarettes and he'd finish first in the (fitness) testing."
-- Thrashers coach Bob Hartley, comparing Ilya Kovalchuk's first day of practice to the former Montreal Canadiens great.