If hockey were basketball (pause, deep sigh, give thanks for small blessings), Pittsburgh’s recent roster moves, including last week’s artful filching of Jarome Iginla, would make the Penguins locks for their fourth Stanley Cup, their second in the Sidney Crosby era.
But it’s not basketball, and despite the deep sigh noted above, that’s both good and bad. The good I won’t belabor, because I've listened for decades to such drivel as, “No one cares about hockey.’’ I learned long ago not to project my lack of interest, or even disdain, on others.
As for why I wish hockey were more like basketball, it’s mostly about the offense. In hoops, when the team with the ball makes a great play and/or great shot, we expect it to go in the net. The art of offense is rewarded. Nothing jacks up a crowd like teams trading chances and shots, short-, mid-, and long-range, actually leading to points. Even misses or great blocks become thrilling when framed by an expectation that good, smart, efficient offense generally leads to points.
That’s how hockey used to feel, all the way through the 1980s and into the ’90s, but it’s not that way anymore. The Bruins-Canadiens game at the Garden Wednesday night was the rare, delightful exception, with goals galore (10 in just under 60 minutes) and goaltenders (three total) unable to suck the marrow out of the entertainment.
I would say the night was good to the last drop, save for the fact that it was settled by a shootout, which, as dessert combos go, remains the tall glass of curdled milk served aside the delicious slice of carrot cake.
Count Bruins president Cam Neely, a man who grew up with an appreciation for offense (452 career goals, playoffs included), among those advocating for goalie equipment to be dialed back to realistic proportions.
“It’s striking when you see a goalie out of his gear and then all suited up with all his stuff on,’’ Neely said. “When I played, coming to the net you at least could see the goalie’s pants. Now, all you see are his pads. Maybe you see his pants, but only from the back. Not much to shoot for.’’
The NHL has been talking about a change since well before the 2004-05 lockout, but other than some nips here and tucks there, the goalies remain the most over-equipped and overly influential players in all of pro sports.
“The way I look at it, elite goalies will always be elite goalies,’’ said Neely. “If you downsize their equipment, sure, the goals will go up. So the averages will go up for the goalies, yeah, but that’s for all of them. The elite goalies will still have the best numbers.
“I’m all for player safety, but I think with all the advances in equipment and technology, the size of the equipment can come down and their risk of injury won’t increase. And we’d have more scoring.’’
Goaltenders, in combination with a brotherhood of coaches who preach defense first, last, and always, have put a stranglehold on scoring. Worse than the lack of scoring itself, however, is the lack of expectation that someone will score.
We’ve totally erased from the mind’s eye the vision of a forward blazing over the blue line and ripping home a 45-foot slapper off the wing. Gee, and I thought those new-age lightweight sticks, giving everyone at least a 90-mile-an-hour blazer, would have everyone scoring from the Zamboni shed.
Goalies catch clear, blistering slappers now with the ease of picking off a softball tossed underhand. Guy Lafleur, Bobby Hull, and “Boom Boom” Geoffrion need not apply. The crafty likes of Rick Middleton dancing in off the wing three or four times a game, cradling the puck with sleight-of-hand skill, faking the goalie to the floor, and finishing with a velvety backhand flip? Forget it. It’s rare that anyone snakes unmolested through the crowd to get to the net and, if successful, there’s barely an inch of open net for him to shoot at.
One last one from the way-back machine: How about wide-bodied John Bucyk parked at the top of the crease, puck on his stick one second, puck then nearly ripping a hole in the top of the net compliments of one of the Chief’s roof shots?
It seems every NHL forward has lost that front-of-the-net finish. No doubt fewer players can roof the puck, but overall it’s a product of the Goliath-like goalies, many of them bigger men than in years past, with large pads.
As scoring talent and success have dwindled, obviously, the totals at the top of the scoring list have grown smaller. Witness the scoring averages among the top 10 point-getters in these 10-year slices.
1971-72 — Phil Esposito led the charts with 66-67—133. The game’s top 10 scorers averaged 99.8 points apiece.
1981-82 — Wayne Gretzky led the charts with 92-120—212. The top 10 scorers averaged 132.5 points.
1991-92 — Mario Lemieux led the charts with 44-87—131. The top 10 scorers averaged 110.5 points.
2001-02 — Jarome Iginla led the charts with 52-44—96. The top 10 scorers averaged 81.9 points.
2011-12 — Evgeni Malkin led the charts with 50-59—109. The top 10 scorers averaged 86.9 points.
What we’re watching today is production dialed back to the late 1960s — the years bridging the Original Six and expansion.
In 1966-67, the last year of the six-team league, the NHL’s top 10 scorers, paced by Chicago’s Stan Mikita (97 points), averaged 65.7 points in a 70-game season. A year later, in the 12-team NHL, the average jumped to 76.3. And in 1968-69, with Esposito leading the way with 49-77—126, the game’s top 10 scorers averaged 93.5 points.
Scoring today is achieved more through systems, serendipity, and error than skill. A slapshot isn’t going in the net unless tipped or deflected. If someone dances in from the wing, turns a defenseman inside-out, it’s because a blue liner fell or there was a bad line change. Rarely is anyone at the top of the crease to attempt a roof shot because defenses have collapsed to the point that it sometimes looks as if three netminders are tending the store.
The Penguins now have the best team in the East, beyond question, especially with the acquisitions of Iginla and the gritty Brenden Morrow up front. They might have been that anyway with the talented likes of Crosby and Malkin leading their offense.
But before we award them the Stanley Cup with a month to go in the regular season, let’s remember that, unlike basketball, offensive talent doesn’t guarantee points. Goaltending and defensive-minded coaches, the game’s great anti-entertainment factors, can turn a prohibitive favorite into an also-ran in a mere five or six games of a first-round series.
Be that good or bad, it’s the state of the art in today’s NHL. No amount of deadline dealing can change that.
LIGHTING A FIRE
Neely made anger work
For all his skill and strength, Cam Neely’s most valuable asset may have been his emotion. When he played with an angry edge, he exuded a ferocity that translated into space on the ice and points on the scoreboard.
“It’s hard to work up that kind of anger before a game,’’ recalled Neely last week. “It might be there if, say, you had something carry over from a recent game. And then it’s, ‘OK, it’s this [expletive] guy again . . . here we go.’ And then you’re right into it.
“But generally, it’s something you had to play your way into, and I tried to do that as soon as possible each night.’’
His preferred method, said Neely, was on the attack in the offensive end. If his center had the puck and there was no direct route to the net, Neely’s standing request would be for the pivot to toss the puck into his corner.
“Then go after the puck, battle,’’ said Neely. “That got me right into it. I was engaged, and I think that’s what you’re talking about when you say ‘playing angry.’ Whatever it is that gets you into it, your level of engagement, do that as soon as impossible.’’
Boston’s two biggest wingers, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, can summon valuable anger, but both have played most of this season on a very low flame. That lack of physical and emotional engagement, in part, is why the Bruins’ offense has sputtered.
Lucic scored Monday vs. Toronto, ending a career-long 15-game scoring drought. Horton connected two nights later vs. the Habs, but he had scored only once in his previous 14 games.
Neely, making clear that none of his remarks should be interpreted as reflecting on the play of any Boston players, said that his method of summoning the fire might be harder in today’s game.
“That concern of, ‘What if I’m called for hitting a guy in the numbers?’ How can that not be in the back of everyone’s head?’’ he said. “So I smack a guy into the boards and I get suspended. It costs me. It costs my team. I didn’t have any of that to worry about when I played.’’
Neely, though not a dirty hitter in his time, figures his hitting would have left him vulnerable to penalties today because opponents sometimes turn toward the boards (thus exposing their numbers) just prior to contact. The hit, though not delivered with malice, or illegally, can be deemed worthy of ejection and supplemental discipline.
But in most cases, the Hall of Fame right winger said, anger worked for him.
“Whatever it is,’’ he said, “you have to find a way to maximize your asset.
“Everyone has different skills and you have to use them. That early contact got me into it. It’s not human nature to go around hitting guys, right?
“And the season we play, 82 games, it’s hard to do that every night and then in the playoffs, too. It’s mentally difficult, but you just have to make up your mind, ‘OK, I have to bring it.’ ’’
The Wall call, before its time
Sorry to learn of the passing last week of D. Leo Monahan, long known in the Hub for his newspaper writing, including decades of hockey stories that led to his being honored as an Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award Winner at the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1986.
In the late 1970s, when I joined the Boston Herald American sports staff, Monahan was named a general sports columnist, with Larry Claflin shifted to the Bruins beat for a brief term before the baton was passed my way.
I was assigned desk duty one night, circa 1978-80 when Monahan, all excited, turned in his exclusive from Fenway Park.
“Boys, I’ve got this alone!’’ Monahan said, handing over his four sheets of typewritten copy. “The Red Sox are going to put seats on top of the left-field wall. No one at the Globe’s got that. Put it across the top!’’
Just a kid on the desk, I kept quiet, watching with keen interest the rolled eyes and dancing eyebrows of my fellow copy readers. The general consensus on the rim: fat chance.
Of course, well over 20 years later, the Monster seats were reality, instantly becoming perhaps the most coveted seat in Major League Baseball. Monahan could rightly claim that he had it all alone. Nothing he liked more.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has until Wednesday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline to improve his sputtering squad. If Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton can perk up, they are capable of supplying whatever offense Jarome Iginla might have generated. Otherwise, with Doug Hamilton’s puck moving and point production still in the development stages, the best fix to the offense could be a point producer on the back end, someone like Brian Campbell in Florida, Dan Boyle in San Jose, or Mark Streit with the Islanders. Combined age: 104-plus. Headed into Saturday, the three were a combined 17-36—53 and a minus-33. Campbell, the youngest of the trio (age 33), has been the most productive of the bunch, tied for seventh among all blue liners with 7-14—21. However, he has three more years on his deal at an outrageous $7.14 million per. Streit will be an unrestricted free agent in July, his $4.1 million cap hit about to expire. And Boyle, the oldest at 36, has one more year left at $6.67 million. All of which underscores, again, the prime money paid to back liners who can wheel and shoot.
Because of the muted offense in today’s game, it’s hard for a star to dominate the stage the way Tiger Woods is starting to do once again in golf (granted, there is no one like Woods on any stage). Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux dominated in their times. Alex Ovechkin flirted with it. The closest right now are Sidney Crosby and Lightning star Steven Stamkos. Interesting to see if either one can be the face of the game.
Sabres getting closer
The Sabres, who host the Bruins Sunday night, were 3-1-1 in their five games prior to facing the Capitals on Saturday. Of their 13 games this month, 11 were settled by one goal, and they had a respectable four wins in those games. The approach isn’t that much different under Ron Rolston than it was under Lindy Ruff (canned after a 6-10-1 start), but finishing on top in some of the one-goal games has translated into 7-6-4 record under Rolston and the possibility of picking off the No. 8 seed in the East.
As speculated here Friday, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman will not trade Martin St. Louis, noting to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun that the team is in transition after the turfing of coach Guy Boucher and that St. Louis remains among the game’s best players. Two solid points. St. Louis is a unique product and would have improved the Bruins’ even-strength game and power play.
Crosby, by the way, is all but a lock for MVP. With 56 points in his first 35 games, he’s on a pace that would bring 131 points over 82 games — about 10 percent over the career-high 120 he posted in his sophomore (2006-07) season . . . Stamkos is on a pace to score 35 goals in this 48-game season. In 2011-12, an 82-game season, only 16 NHLers scored more than 33 goals . . . Another very quiet visit to the Garden Monday by Phil Kessel, but the ex-Bruin entering Saturday ranked T-14 in league scoring with 10-24—34. Rumors of his being traded by Toronto have died down. Funny how a playoff seed will do that. But it would not be a shock if he were wearing a different sweater by Wednesday night.