The Year of the Headshot will not go down as a fabulous hockey season, at least by most metrics.
Midway thought the final week of an NHL campaign in which blindside hits left us as dizzy as the success of the wards-of-the-state Coyotes, there still is no 50 goal-scorer and only three 100-point men. The playoff slots have been decided in the Western Conference and the turtle race for the last three Eastern spots has been a joke. (Since 2003-04, no playoff team has had fewer than 90 points. The East could have as many as three.)
Our guess is that 2009-10 will look better in an historical context than it has in real time -- this season likely will be the dividing line of a seismic generational shift with the emergence of Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos and a host of brilliant young defensemen -- but hindsight is better than our foresight, as you will soon see.
Anyway, here's a free-form list of highs and lows from October to early April, a season in shorthand:
• Biggest bargain: Maxim Afinogenov, RW, Atlanta. During a phone conversation with Lindy Ruff in the fall of 1999, the Buffalo coach said, "I think we've found our Pavel Bure." He was right, in a way. For 170 or so feet, Afinogenov sometimes looked like a version of the Russian Rocket. But he never seemed able to master the rest of the real estate -- those tricky scoring areas near the goal where he'd morph into Roberto (Hands of Stone) Duran. Afinogenov's 24 goals this season for Atlanta aren't exactly Bure-esque, but they do mark a career high. For a one-year commitment of $800,000, the Thrashers got more than their money's worth.
• Oddest contract: Matt Stajan, C, Calgary. In a pre-trade deadline effort to shake up the Flames, general manager Darryl Sutter shipped defenseman Dion Phaneuf to Toronto and imported four Maple Leafs. Acquiring players who made up roughly a fifth of the worst team in its conference was problematic by definition, but quickly re-upping Stajan for four years and $14 million was mind-blowing. Maybe Sutter really liked Stajan. You know -- decent passer, upgrade at center, all that. But the GM should have been chary of a player who will never fill the role of a No. 1 on a good team or be an ideal complement to star winger Jarome Iginla. Cap room is king in the new NHL; the Flames squandered a chunk of it on a player who is not a difference-maker.
• Worst coaching decision: Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, Team Sweden. So many possibilities -- Slava Bykov's deer-in-headlights act behind Team Russia's bench against Canada, Vancouver's Alain Vigneault allowing Roberto Luongo to stay in for eight goals against Los Angeles, fill in your own favorite team's blank -- and so little space. But Gustafsson, who coached Sweden's gold medal team in 2006, lost his ever-loving Scandinavian mind in the quarterfinal loss to Slovakia.
Forget his playing Henrik and Daniel Sedin a mere eight minutes in the first two periods against the Slovaks. That's chump change compared to what happened with a minute left and the Swedes down by a goal. Pulling Henrik Lundqvist for an extra attacker, the coach sent Sami Pahlsson over the boards. With an array of exceptional offensive talent available, Gustafsson apparently was guessing that the hot stick belonged to a Blue Jackets checker who has scored 34 goals since the lockout. Maybe the coach was praying for a Max Talbot moment. (Michel Therrien used Talbot as the extra attacker in Game 5 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, getting a goal from the unheralded Penguin center with 35 seconds left and prolonging the series.)
Under the circumstances, Gustafsson's was an all-time low percentage play. On the Fly recently asked Washington's Nicklas Backstrom what his coach might have been thinking. "I don't know," he said. "I ask myself that same question every day."
There have been two European head coaches in the NHL: Ivan Hlinka and Alpo Suhonen. After Vancouver 2010, it might be another decade before any team hires another one. Phoenix assistant Ulf Samuelsson, a Swede, is the only Euro with a chance, but all his coaching has been done in North America.
• Biggest surprise team: Colorado Avalanche. The Coyotes were a bigger and better story given the ownership/dollar-sign drama that surrounded the franchise, but Colorado's ascent to the playoffs was even more staggering. Phoenix actually showed something last season -- it was fifth at the All-Star break -- before it crashed. In stockpiling some battle-hardened and marked-down veterans, GM Don Maloney was at least giving new coach Dave Tippett, a Jack Adams lock, a chance. Colorado looked like it hadn't bottomed out yet. But credit new GM Greg Sherman and rookie coach Joe Sacco for establishing what might be a new paradigm for a turnaround: get young players who can score a little and give them ice time. Winger Chris Stewart and rookies Matt Duchene and T.J. Galiardi filled the roles. Certainly the plan worked better than defense-first Calgary's. The Flames scored 37 fewer goals than the Avs, about a half-goal per game less.
• Most disappointing team: Edmonton Oilers.Pat Quinn and associate coach Tom Renney didn't suddenly lose 50 points off their coaching IQs, but the stagnation of the young Oilers is disconcerting. Sam Gagner, Patrick O'Sullivan (a green jacket-worthy minus-36) and Andrew Cogliano, who struggles to create his own ice, look like they have regressed. There is some reason for optimism in the erstwhile City of Champions, given the potential of their past two No. 1 draft choices -- Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson -- and the possibility of the first overall pick in June, but the Oilers are years away from Cup contention. That's assuming they ever get there.
Futility can lead to championships in some cases. (See Pittsburgh and maybe Washington, which restocked with high draft picks.) But the formula does not come with a money-back guarantee. (See Florida and the New York Islanders.)
• Best picture: Alex Ovechkin, Team Russia, hitting Jaromir Jagr. In this marvelous shot taken by SI's Robert Beck, you can see the loose puck in the frame. That's the hockey point of the photo. As impressive as the seismic nature of the check, Russia was able to convert that turnover directly into a goal.
• Worst picture: Shirtless Blackhawks in a limousine.John Madden and Kris Versteeg, you get a pass. Patrick Kane, not you. The summer started with you and a cousin getting into a beef with a Buffalo taxi driver over a tip. The contrite young man in the sharp suit who was trotted out prior to the start of Team USA's Olympic orientation camp must have been the doppelganger of the revelerwho was showing off his pecs to the ladies in that Vancouver limo. We get it, Patrick: you're a kid who likes the life. But we're guessing you probably don't want to embarrass an employer who has a lot invested in you, financially and emotionally.
• Quirkiest idea: Charles Wang, owner, Islanders. The man is a font of ideas, just not many good ones. He floated an expanded playoff format in which the top seven teams in a conference automatically qualify while Teams 8 through 15 wrestle it out in a play-in tournament. You just don't get mediocrity on display like this every day. The Arkansas-Pine Bluff System, as we like to think of it, would render the 82-game season meaningless, further diluting the product -- even the dodgy one owned by Wang. When more than 50 per cent of the league makes the playoffs, that's quite sufficient. No reprieve for bottom dwellers.
• Best idea: Brian Burke, GM, Toronto. Like most of his colleagues, Burke was a stride behind the play on the issue of headshots. (Mike Richards' blindsiding David Booth changed some GM's minds, but public outcry over Matt Cooke's hit spurred the rule modifications.) But Burke's "bear hug" is brilliant. Instead of hitting an opponent near the boards, a player would be able to briefly "bear hug" the man and ride him as momentum carried them both towards the wall, a safer play that should eliminate some of the checks like the one that basically cost Boston's Patrice Bergeron the 2007-08 season.
• Worst prediction: On the Fly, Norris Trophy. While the end-of-season ballots have not arrived yet, we are guessing that our preseason pick, Calgary's Jay Bouwmeester, will finish far down the track -- if he even gets on the track with a single top five vote from any member of the Pro Hockey Writers Association.
On the other hand, we are less red-faced for touting Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson as the Calder-winner. After early-season heart troubles, The Monster settled in. Boston's Tuukka Rask and Detroit's Jimmy Howard were more successful rookie goalies, but Gustavsson is part of the core of a team that should be on the playoff bubble in 2010-11. We also don't hide from our prediction that Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis will be among the leading Hart Trophy finishers. He stands tied for fifth with 90 points. Not that it matters in Canada now -- you can't do better than a gold medal -- but St. Louis would have been a splendid fit on the Olympic team.
• Worst comment: On the Fly, Olympics. After Team Canada goaltender Martin Brodeur played poorly in the round-robin loss to Team USA, we noted that he looked like a goalie past his expiration date and urged coach Mike Babcock to switch to Roberto Luongo. While Brodeur did lose the job, he did not deserve the barbs. He's among the best goalies in NHL history, the career leader with 600 wins and 110 shutouts, and so adept at handling the puck that the league basically invented the trapezoid to punish him. We apologize for being unfair to an all-timer. And when we see him in person, we will apologize face to face.
• Oddest power play: Bob Gainey, ex-Montreal GM. Gainey walked away in early February, just prior to the Olympic break and less than a month from the trade deadline. If he had waited until the summer to resign, he would have given new owner Geoff Molson at least time to consider some other candidates. (Dave Nonis? Steve Yzerman? Spare us team president Pierre Boivin's piety that a French-speaker is needed for the job. You can debate that necessity of particular linguistic qualification for the Canadiens coach, not the GM.)
Given the timing, the Molson group had no choice but an orderly succession, which essentially meant that Gainey was passing the job to assistant GM Pierre Gauthier. Considering Gauthier's seniority and previous GM experience, it would have been insulting to slap him with an interim tag. Gainey not might have landed the free agents he wanted during his tenure, but this time he got his man.