The irrepressible Mike Milbury believes the game he loves needs more scoring. He talked about it last week with 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Michael Felger, and he remained in “give me more’’ mode when I reached him at the start of the weekend.
“I’m just tired of the soccer scores,” said the ex-Bruin and current NBC analyst during a phone interview. “Sure, a 1-0 game can be great. The game can be played a number of ways and still be great, and that’s the beauty of hockey. But overall, give me the 5-4 game or even 4-3 game. It’s about entertainment, right?’’
The New NHL, the one that caught our eye and imagination in the wake of Lockout No. 2 in 2004-05, came out like gangbusters. With the red line removed and the accent on speed, the scoring went up, with clubs averaging 3.08 goals per game, an increase of some 20 percent over the season leading into the lockout.
We were all happy to bid adieu to the neutral zone trap, the tedious night-to-night grind, the stranglehold that defensive-minded coaches had on the game. This was only going to get better. What a gift!
No so fast, my double-runnered buddy.
Truth is, scoring dipped a fraction the next year (2.95), and a substantial fraction the next (2.78). Last season, year No. 7 of the new NHL, teams averaged 2.73 goals per game, compared with 2.57 when the game was still tractor pull sur glace in 2003-04.
The NHL is faster, and it’s unquestionably fiercer and more violent, but it is not delivering on its goal-scoring promise and hype. As of late last week, clubs were denting the net at a pace of 2.69 goals per game, a tick down from 2.71 over the same span last season.
Even with the red line removed, conniving coaches yet again have devised methods to slow the game down in the neutral zone and jam the area in front of the net (John Tortorella, take a bow).
Only the most skilled forwards can find ways to slither through the traffic in the slot, and with goalies still bulked up beyond Sasquatch standards, it is virtually impossible for even the game’s top marksmen to connect on long-range slappers. Witness: Alex Ovechkin as of Friday ranked 56th in the league with a total of five goals. The long-distance laser more likely needs to be coaxed home by a tip, crazy deflection, or a goalie’s sudden lapse into hypnotic state.
With all that in mind, I hit Milbury with a list of five easy ways to increase goal-scoring. Here are some of his thoughts:
■ Increase the net size from the current 4 by 6 feet. Not a favorite of mine, but probably the simplest, most effective change.
Milbury: “They looked at this during the last lockout, to the point where they developed prototypes, bigger nets and different designs. Hey, why not? People say it will mess the record book. Who cares? You just make note in the record book that you went to a bigger net one year, 2020 or whatever. We’ve got bigger goaltenders wearing bigger and bigger pads. So, make the nets bigger. In a perverse way, it may lead to goalies wearing smaller gear. If the net’s bigger, they’ll have to scramble more, and that should be harder if they’re all bulked up like they are now.’’
■ Substantial revision in the icing standard (i.e. whistle icing even when clubs are shorthanded, killing penalties). In fact, add a penalty for delay of game when shorthanded teams ice the puck.
Milbury: “I’m not sure I would go as far as adding a penalty. But I agree with calling the icing. Blow the whistle, don’t allow a change, and bring the puck back to the end where the penalty was being killed. Instead of a penalty, maybe allow the power-play team a free possession. So drop the puck a few feet inside the blue line, have the PK team back off, and let them attack. I’d like to see how that looks.’’
■ Shrink goaltender equipment. The league has nipped and tucked at gloves, pads, and sweaters in recent years, but we are still in the gargantuan goalie era.
Milbury: “Drives me crazy. The league’s afraid to do it. They give goalies way too much credibility on this, because the goalies say they need to be protected from the puck. How do goalies get hurt? It’s usually from collisions with other players, not because they get dinged by shots. That injury argument is a load of crap. Reduce the size of pads, gloves, all of that, and make them use what the manufacturers send them as the stuff comes out of the box.’’
■ Similar to the NBA, create a sizable “key’’ in the slot, maybe 8 feet wide by 12 feet long, and not allow any member of the defensive team to stand in there until either the puck and/or an attacking player enters the key.
Milbury: “Harry [Sinden] and I used to talk about this one a lot. Difficult to execute, but again, I’d like to see it tried. Whatever the method, however it’s accomplished, the idea to convey is a game that is defended more man-on-man instead of trapping or just jamming everyone in front of the goalie. The idea would be to force defending teams at least to be within 10-15 feet of the puck. It’s pretty easy to see the trap develop out there, isn’t it? Well, force people to go after the puck.”
■ Finally, either reduce the goalie’s stick to the size used by defensemen and forwards, or, considering the league won’t reduce pads, gloves, and sweaters, don’t allow the goalie to use any stick. Be it a smaller stick or no stick at all, it would create much more chaos and action in front of the net. Goalies would have less ability to deflect shots to corners and rebounds would be plentiful.
Milbury: “It’s an interesting concept and I wouldn’t have any trouble trying it. It’s all about having more fun. If the scoring goes up, everyone wins by it, except the goalies. And you know what? Too bad for them.’’
Ruff’s firing end of an era
Hard to imagine the Sabres without Lindy Ruff behind the bench. Ruff, a Buffalo staple since the start of the steel business, was sent packing last Wednesday after his squad was edged, 2-1, the night before by visiting Winnipeg.
“A tipping point,’’ was how Sabres general manager Darcy Regier described the loss to the Jets.
Ruff, who turned 53 last Sunday, was hired as the Sabres coach in July 1997, about a month after the Bruins selected Joe Thornton No. 1 in the amateur draft. Any Boston fan knows that’s a long, long, long 15-plus years.
Booing inside the First Niagara Center, prevalent during the Bruins’ stop there just a few nights earlier, evidently hit home with new owner Terry Pegula during the Winnipeg loss. The fracking billionaire finally learned that the NHL is just another business, which should have been underscored in bold type when he was forced to keep his doors closed until the lockout finally came to a close in the wee hours of Jan. 6.
Following the loss to the Jets, a tired-looking Ruff, when asked about the booing, told the media, “I’m embarrassed. I totally understand it.’’ As for his underperforming team, he added, “I have a hard time understanding it.’’
In a sign of the times, the Sabres first put out word of the firing on their Twitter account. There is nothing faster, at least not yet, but tweet alerts are not without peril. There have been a number of high-profile hacking episodes, recently including Burger King and Jeep within days of each other. Had, say, the Sabres simultaneously posted the same news nugget on their home page, then the tweet could have included a link to it as confirmation.
Long gone are the days when a club’s public relations professional would contact beat reporters to dial them into the breaking news. C’est la tweet vie.
Ruff won’t be long on the unemployment line, unless he opts to take a well-deserved, and perhaps equally needed, rest. He is a solid coach, and if not for that, shall we say, quirky Brett Hull tippy-toe goal in the 1999 finals, he might have a Stanley Cup on his résumé.
While Ruff was on the job, there were no fewer than 170 coaching changes leaguewide, each team flipping its bench boss upward of six times during his tenure. Here in the Hub of Hockey, we saw Pat Burns, Mike Keenan, Robbie Ftorek, Mike Sullivan, and Dave Lewis all get the gate in that span.
As crazy as it might sound today, Claude Julien would have been on the exit list, too, if not for that Game 7 win over the Habs in the 2011 quarterfinal round of the playoffs.
The coaching margin for error is skate-lace slim.
Ron Rolston, brother of ex-Bruin Brian Rolston, took over the Sabres bench Thursday night and was anointed with a 3-1 loss to Toronto. Regier introduced Rolston with the interim tag, no doubt because Pegula, dealt his reality slap, now will assess Regier’s ability to orchestrate a turnaround. In other words, Regier is now officially on the clock.
The Sabres missed the playoffs three of the last five seasons. If Rolston can’t find a spark, Regier is likely gone at the end of the season, if not sooner.
No place for Hansen’s hit
Ugly, cheap blow Tuesday night, with Canucks forward Jannik Hansen delivering an intentional forearm to the back of the head of the Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa. Hossa, who needed months to recover from RaffiTorres’s playoff assault, went down in a heap near the Blackhawks bench — about the same spot where Torres nailed him — and did not return.
NHL dean of discipline Brendan Shanahan slapped Hansen with a one-game suspension, saying he delivered a “sharp, careless, and reckless forearm.’’
Hansen’s lack of priors no doubt led to some leniency. The read here was that it was worth 2-3 games, minimum.
The knuckle-draggers out there who insist fighting should remain in hockey often say that it prevents such cheap stuff. Simply not true. The only thing that discourages such assaults is a good referee with a good whistle.
Left winger Mathieu Darche, not invited back to Montreal after three years with the Habs, called it a career last week, and announced his retirement in the Twitterverse: “Time to make it official! Moving on to second career.’’ Darche, 36, included a picture of two hockey skates hanging on a wall, a nice artistic touch. He graduated from McGill in 2000 and spent most of the next 12 years in the minors. He finished with an NHL line of 250 games, 30-42—72. Lots of career options, no doubt many in hockey, in part because Darche is fluent in both French and English.
Brian Burke, dismissed as Maple Leafs GM upon the end of the lockout, reconnected with Anaheim last week as a scout. Prior to taking the Leafs job, Burke was the Ducks GM, directing them to the Cup in 2007. Technically, he was still an adviser/consultant in Toronto, but that role made little sense, given his abrupt dismissal and the fact that the new GM, Dave Nonis, was his hand-picked assistant. Burke will continue to live in Toronto, and no doubt will be on the short lists of the inevitable 3-5 GM openings in the offseason. Meanwhile, the Leafs are winning with the team that took Burke years to construct. Among the keys: the James van Riemsdyk acquisition that Burke pulled off last June in the Luke Schenn swap with Philadelphia. Entering Saturday, JVR had 11 goals, tied for second in the league with the likes of superstar Steven Stamkos.
Even with a healthy Rick Nash, I’m not sure the Rangers are the real deal. For the style John Tortorella demands, the likes of Nash, Marian Gaborik, and Brad Richards aren’t wastes, but they’re huge tickets in a system that lesser talents could execute with near-equal effectiveness.
More bad news Thursday night for the Senators, who lost netminder Craig Anderson to a twisted ankle in a collision with Bay Stater Chris Kreider. Anderson could be out a week or more, joining fellow big guns Jason Spezza (back surgery) and Erik Karlsson (surgery to repair a torn Achilles’ tendon). The Senators were a league-worst 9-34-5 in the 48-game season of 1994-95, which led them to Bryan Berard as the No. 1 overall pick in the ’95 draft. At the rate they are losing bodies, they could be first in line at the draft pay window again. Anderson, briefly on the Boston roster in January 2006, has been sensational with eight wins and was second in the league in GAA (1.49) and first in save percentage (.952) entering Saturday. Ex-Maine standout Ben Bishop, all 6 feet 7 inches of him, may get the bulk of the work in Anderson’s absence, but he could be trumped by AHL standout Robin Lehner (no pipsqueak at 6-4, 220).
The Bruins schedule kicks into overdrive beginning Sunday with a 3 p.m. matinee in Sunrise, Fla., followed by a visit to Long Island (Tuesday), then Garden dates with Ottawa (Thursday), Tampa (Saturday), and Montreal (next Sunday). A total of five games in eight days. A test especially for a 19-year-old kid like Dougie Hamilton, whose playing pace in junior, though hectic, was never this grueling . . . Thirty-three years ago last week, a whole lot of good fell out of the sky in Lake Placid. Much like America’s lunar landings of the ’60s and ’70s, Team USA’s gold in 1980 seems an even more amazing feat now . . . Sabres owner TerryPegula put out a statement to bid Lindy Ruff farewell: “His qualities have made this decision very difficult. I personally want Lindy to know that he can consider me a friend always.’’ GM Darcy Regier, in a conference call, noted that coaching legend Scotty Bowman described Ruff as “Al Arbour with a sense of humor.’’ Arbour, behind the bench for the Islanders’ four Cups (1980-83), actually has always had a very good, though understated, sense of humor. In fact, many would say it’s better than Bowman’s . . . Ryan Bourque, younger brother of Boston’s Chris Bourque, remains in AHL Hartford, trying to work his way up the Ranger food chain. Ryan was chosen 80th overall by the Blueshirts in 2009, played two seasons of junior for Patrick Roy’s Quebec Remparts, then turned pro last season. He is slightly smaller than Chris, and thus far has been challenged to score at the next level, but he keeps plugging. During an interview with radio host Dave Goucher last week, Chris noted that he and his brother seek the guidance of their old man, the legendary Ray Bourque, but that he can’t necessarily relate to their struggle. “Because he never played in the minors,’’ said Chris . . . The last time the Sabres fired a coach during a season was when Rick Dudley was shown the door Dec. 12, 1991. Now Dudley is helping guide yet another turnaround, this time as one of GM Marc Bergevin’s top lieutenants in Montreal. Dudley should be on Pegula’s call list if the Sabres change GMs.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.