As I was contemplating Joe Sakic's retirement and reflecting back on his stellar career, the thought process led me to consider one of his defining traits --a lightning-quick release. Sakic's shot of choice was the wrist shot, a bit of a throwback option when considered in the context of today's game of well-timed, one-time slapshots fueled by the flexion of carbon fiber sticks.
The puck-pounding shooters are typically wingers or defensemen, whereas scoring centermen of Sakic's ilk are quick-hands players that set up wingers and possess the ability to score prolifically in their own right. From past generations I recall Gil Perreault or Marcel Dionne, or the dual threat down the middle of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier for the '80's Oilers, and the incomparable Mario Lemieux for the Penguins. Those players were playmakers -- just ask wingers Rene Robert, Charlie Simmer, Gerard Gallant, Dave Lumley and Warren Young -- but were scoring threats themselves with quick-release wristers.
Two of Sakic's peers -- Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk -- fall into that category as well. All three were pivots that could put the puck in the net, yet they were also equal parts puck distributors. With all three recently retired, it got me to musing about today's top scoring threats in the middle among the younger players. Who are the pure scoring pivots that don't sacrifice on assists to get their goals? Are there any pure shooters in today's game to carry the mantle in the middle of legitimate threats to score from distance?
That last qualifier is an important distinction when considering a Sakic-type threat versus, say, a Sidney Crosby-dynamo who scores his goals through hard work and persistence in getting to the net rather than looking off a defender, getting to a spot and ripping a shot past the goaltender. Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin is more of a shoot-to-score threat on the rush in the vein of Sakic. In comparing Malkin to Crosby, just look where the two play on the power play -- Crosby down low as a passer and quick-to-the-net option from close range and Malkin out high as a shooting presence, mostly as a one-timer counterpoint to Crosby.
But there are examples of centermen with tremendous wrist shots in today's game, beginning with the Philadelphia's Jeff Carter and Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf. Carter led all centerman with 46 tallies this year and Getzlaf posted his third straight 20-plus-goal campaign. Carter again had more goals than assists, which is a bit atypical for a centerman, but it worked for Nieuwendyk, who ended his illustrious career with more goals (564) than assists (562) and did so eight times in his 20 seasons. Getzlaf, meanwhile, tied for sixth in league scoring with 91 points (25-66-91). Whereas Carter is a shooter first, Getzlaf is more in the mold of a big man in the middle, drawing defenders and dishing to teammates.
All are exciting young players, but is there a next Joe Sakic-type in the mix -- a centerman feared equally for his shooting skills and his passing prowess? The best bet is Jonathan Toews, captain of the Blackhawks and 2008 Calder Trophy winner. His game, scoring totals and leadership qualities certainly make him a good prototype prospect. The fact that he wears number 19 -- Sakic's number that the Avalanche will retire on opening night -- as a tribute to his idol is an intriguing similarity on its own. From Toews to Sakic to Yzerman to Bryan Trottier, the man Yzerman was recognizing when he chose that number for himself with the Red Wings, these centermen are rare dual threats who share more than a number.
Trottier is an appropriate player to end on when considering double-duty scoring from the middle. Trottier to Mike Bossy -- talk about a quick release -- was the legendary combination that led the Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cups to begin the 1980's. Maybe Bossy's success as a scorer automatically makes us remember Trottier as a premium playmaker first. Don't discount his scoring, though; Trottier amassed more than 500 goals, reaching the 30-goal plateau 11 times. He was truly a scoring-playmaking pivot for the ages.
And the Islanders hope that first-overall pick John Tavares is their Trottier of today. He won't wear No. 19 because the Isles retired Trottier's number in 2001, but if Tavares shoots and passes like the premier dual threats of yesteryear, then number 91 will do just fine.