By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Mike Modano makes a good point.
"We had more 100 pt seasons for players when there was clutching and grabbing!" the recently retired NHL star tweeted Wednesday.
Not quite. But close.
And trending in that direction.
In the six seasons prior to the 2004-05 lockout, players reached 100 points only eight times. In three of those seasons, including the one immediately prior to the lockout, no one reached 100 points.
In the six seasons after the lockout – and the arrival of the rule changes that opened up the game – players reached 100 points 24 times. But they did it 14 times in the two seasons after the lockout and then only 10 times in the next four seasons.
Only one player reached 100 points last season: the Vancouver Canucks' Daniel Sedin, who had 104. Only two are on pace to reach 100 points this season: the Philadelphia Flyers' Claude Giroux, who would finish with 116 in 78 games, and the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin, who would finish with 108 in 75.
Consider this, too: Giroux missed four games because of a concussion and came back with a four-point performance Wednesday night. Had his symptoms lingered even a little longer, Malkin might have been it.
The NHL’s overall action remains more entertaining than it once was, but the games are still often tight-checking and low-scoring. As he was introduced Wednesday as the new coach of the Los Angeles Kings, the NHL's lowest-scoring team, Darryl Sutter called this "a 3-2 league."
Three main reasons:
• Coaches have adapted. Teams used to clog the neutral zone. They can't do that anymore because players can't hook and hold and the red line has been removed to allow for two-line passes. So now they clog the defensive zone, trapping at their blue line and collapsing around the net, forcing shots to the outside and blocking as many pucks as possible. Defense still wins championships, which is why the high-scoring Washington Capitals changed their ways last season in an attempt to prepare for the playoffs.
• Goaltending has improved. Maybe they are facing more low-percentage shots, but there is no doubt goaltenders are bigger and better than ever before. The trend is toward larger, more athletic men who can cover more of the net. Sixteen goaltenders have played at least eight games this season and have a save percentage of .920 or better. Ten have a save percentage of at least .930. That's amazing when you consider .900 used to be the standard for competence.
• Superstars are slumping or injured. Look no further than the two biggest names to arrive post-lockout. The Capitals' Alex Ovechkin has reached 100 points four times. But he had 85 last season and is on pace for a career-low 59 this season. The Penguins' Sidney Crosby has reached 100 points four times and was on pace for 132 last season – which would have been the highest total the NHL had seen since the 1990s. But he suffered a concussion and has played only eight of a possible 67 regular-season games since.
The NHL's concussion crisis is partly a byproduct of the rule changes – allowing bigger, stronger players to move faster and collide harder, forcing defenders to hit instead of obstruct, at a time when medical science has improved and awareness has increased.
So just keep in mind the law of unintended consequences when we inevitably go back to brainstorming ways to increase scoring. (Smaller goalie equipment? Bigger nets? No offsides?) And remember, whenever the league finds a way to move forward offensively, the coaches will work on ways to catch up.
You can't blame coaches for doing whatever it takes to win. It's their job, and they're under more pressure than ever before in the post-lockout era, too. There have been six coaching changes already this season – representing 20 percent of the NHL.
The salary cap has created parity when it comes to players, and the bonus point for overtime losses has created less separation in the standings. Anything can happen. That raises expectations for everyone.
But it can't happen for everyone. Fourteen teams won't make the playoffs. Some teams have to lose, and when they do and want to make changes, they find the cap makes it more difficult to make trades because of financial considerations, especially early in the season. So they fire their coaches.
"Everybody in today's NHL – owners and management – thinks they have a team that can make the playoffs and win the Cup," said Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, "and I hate to break the news to them, but for lots of teams, it's not true."
A coaching change can make the difference under the right circumstances. Dan Bylsma took over the Penguins in February of 2009 and led them to the Cup. Peter Laviolette took over the Flyers in December of 2009 and led them to the Cup final. Ken Hitchcock took over the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 7, and they have gone 13-3-4 since.
But if your team is bad enough to lead to a coaching change, your problems probably run deeper. Two teams made in-season coaching changes last year – the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils – and neither made the playoffs, despite an especially epic second-half run by the Devils.
Of the six teams that have made coaching changes this season, how many will make the playoffs? Maybe half. The Blues probably will, sitting sixth in the West, but the other five have gone a combined 11-25-7 since firing their coaches.
The Capitals and Kings seem to have the next-best chances. The Caps have gone 5-5-0 under Dale Hunter and sit ninth in the East, one point out of eighth. They should make it. The Kings went 2-2-0 under interim John Stevens. Sutter takes over a team that sits 11th in the West, five points out of eighth, but one that is getting Mike Richards back from a concussion and has the skill to score at a better pace.
The Montreal Canadiens aren't that far off, 12th in the East, only three points out of eighth. But Randy Cunneyworth has gone 0-3-0, has a Rosetta Stone on his back because of the French language issue and has been essentially declared a lame duck by his owner.
The Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks … well, good luck. Kirk Muller has gone 2-6-2 with the 'Canes and they sit last in the East, 10 points out of eighth. Bruce Boudreau has gone 2-6-1 with the Ducks and they’re 14th in the West, a whopping 16 points out of eighth.
The NHL standings can be the opposite of a side mirror: Sometimes objects aren't as close as they appear.
"Until you've been there and you know how good you have to be to win the Cup," Babcock said, "you don't realize how far you are away."
In a sense, it's hard to criticize Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi. He sent winger Wayne Simmonds to Philadelphia as part of last summer’s trade for Richards, who has been perhaps the only King producing up to his potential. Lombardi had no choice but to trade winger Ryan Smyth, who forced his way to the Edmonton Oilers. He let center Michal Handzus leave via free agency after he had already acquired Richards, giving the Kings a strong lineup at center with Richards, Anze Kopitar and Jarrett Stoll.
But the Kings badly miss the net-front presence that Simmonds, Smyth and Handzus provided, and Lombardi has not replaced it. He is hoping Sutter can inject some passion into the Kings – getting them to go to the hard areas with an attitude. But I'm not sure any coach could make the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Dustin Penner play as big as he looks.
Simmonds is the biggest loss. Handzus has three goals for the San Jose Sharks at age 34. Smyth has 12 goals for the Oilers, but he's 35. Simmonds is 23 and has 10 goals, on his way to eclipsing the career-high of 16 he set with the Kings in 2009-10. He has six goals in his past nine games.
It's interesting to go back now and read my notes from Oct. 15, when the Kings were off to a good start and visiting Philadelphia. Former coach Terry Murray said Handzus had been one of the best net-front players in the league and a mentor to Simmonds.
"Simmer's having an impact on the Flyers right now," Murray said then. "He's good in front of the net because he loves that kind of a game. He's going to play in the trenches, and the Flyers have always liked players who play that kind of style."
I caught up with Handzus not long after that. A former Flyer himself, his eyes lit up talking about Simmonds, his physical style of play and Philly.
"I know they will love him there," Handzus said. "He's a hard-working guy who's got skills. He's finishing the checks. He's strong on the puck. He's playing in the corners. He's always playing the way Philly used to play."
He's playing the way L.A. needs to play now.
One of the biggest things to watch in L.A. will be how Sutter handles defenseman Drew Doughty.
After posting 59 points in 2009-10, Doughty entered last season as the trendy pick to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman, even though he was only 20 years old. But he was limited to 40 points last season. And though the Kings paid him for his Norris potential – giving him an eight-year, $56 million deal after he sat out of training camp as a restricted free agent – he has only 10 points this season, on pace for only 27 in 77 games.
Teams aren't stupid. They adjusted to Doughty, and now he has to adjust to them if he is to spark the Kings' offense.
"Whether it's on the power play or 5-on-5, it kind of seems like there's a guy just glued to me at all times," Doughty said. "It's frustrating I'm not getting the points I used to, but at the same time, in order to be a good player in this league, I've got to find ways to get around that and find different ways to get pucks to the net and make offensive plays."
Stevens, who slides back to assistant coach under Sutter, said he studied Doughty's 59-point season and was "amazed" how few of Doughty's points came off the rush. Most came at the blue line. So at least before Sutter arrived, the Kings' coaches were telling Doughty to keep his head up, use deceptive moves to throw off opposing forwards, and find lanes to get the puck to the net. But they also were telling Doughty and Jack Johnson to join the rush more often.
"It's not playing with risks," Stevens said. "It's just moving up behind the play and not resting behind the puck. We use the term with him and Jack, we want them 'water skiing.' When the boat moves, you've got to stay close to it. He's such a dynamic player, when he gets up on the rush, he really creates problems for the other team."
Doughty said he had more scoring chances during a recent 10-game stretch than he did all of last season. He just wasn't finishing.
"I just need to bear down and put them in the net," Doughty said. "My coaches are really harping on me to be the fourth guy on the breakout, if I can beat my forward up the ice and make it a 4-on-3 or whatever the case may be. That's how teams are playing these days. Their defensemen are jumping up into the play, and they're creating chances with that pull-up and giving it to the ‘D’ for the shot."
1. Boston Bruins: The defending Stanley Cup champs are on such a roll that losing captain Zdeno Chara to injury or power forward Milan Lucic to a suspension couldn't stop them. They have won five straight games and are 19-2-1 in their past 22 outings.
2. Philadelphia Flyers: GM Paul Holmgren is looking like a genius. Not only is Simmonds scoring, but Jakub Voracek, whom Holmgren acquired from Columbus in the Jeff Carter deal, plays in all situations and leads Philly forwards in average ice time (18:29).
3. Chicago Blackhawks: The big guns are scoring. Jonathan Toews is tied for the league lead in goals with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos (20). Marian Hossa (38), Toews (37) and Patrick Sharp (36) are all among the top 10 in scoring, and Patrick Kane (33) isn't far behind.
4. New York Rangers: With 19 goals, Marian Gaborik is one off the league lead and only three off his disappointing total of 22 last season. He's on pace for 50, which would be a career high. He has four goals in his past two games; more importantly, he has been consistent. His longest drought this season was only four games.
5. Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks are on a 12-2-1 run. Their stars are playing like stars, and their secondary players are showing improvement. With 19 points, Jannik Hansen needs only 10 to match his output from last season.
6. Detroit Red Wings: Look who is tied for the league lead in plus/minus: Ian White, at plus-22 in 29 games. He was a minus-10 in 16 games with the Calgary Flames last season, who traded him to the Hurricanes, who traded him to the Sharks. But he signed with the Wings as a free agent and is now paired with none other than Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time Norris winner. That helps.
25. Montreal Canadiens: What a mess. Brian Gionta,Scott Gomez and Andrei Markov remain out. Mike Cammalleri and Max Pacioretty are slumping. P.K. Subban is minus-4 in his past two games. Oh, and the interim coach still doesn't speak French.
26. Tampa Bay Lightning: Speaking of messes, the Bolts just suffered a 7-2 loss in San Jose. The defense and goaltending have been abysmal. Note that it was right after last season's holiday roster freeze that GM Steve Yzerman acquired goaltender Dwayne Roloson.
27. New York Islanders: The Isles have won two straight and five of their last seven on the road, a promising sign for a team trying to climb back into the playoff picture in the East.
28. Carolina Hurricanes: Captain Eric Staal seemed better after the coaching change, with nine points in his first seven games under Muller. But Staal hasn't looked any better than he did under Paul Maurice lately. No points and minus-3 in his past three contests.
29. Anaheim Ducks: If not for the ageless Teemu Selanne, there would be nothing to smile about in Anaheim. The 41-year-old Finn is on a nine-game scoring streak and his 35 points are tied for 12th in the NHL.
30. Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets have lost five games when leading after two periods this season – four in regulation. They have been outscored in the third period, 44-23.
PLUS: The Capitals came up with a great stat to celebrate Mike Knuble's 1,000th NHL game. He has scored more goals after turning 30 than Wayne Gretzky did (221-217). That's even more remarkable when you consider Knuble wasn't a scorer as a younger man. He ranged between one to 15 goals in his 20s. He has ranged from 21 to 34 goals in his 30s, though he has only three this season at age 39.
MINUS: Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall threw a trademark hit on Wednesday night, catching Canucks center Ryan Kesler coming up the wall in Vancouver’s end. Kronwall didn't target the head; he took the body. But he jumped into the hit, a bad habit he has been trying to break for a while. Kronwall, early last season: "I’ve had some problems in the past with leaving my feet. That’s something I’m trying to work on, because obviously that’s something you don’t want to see in the game."
PLUS: Before the Canadiens reevaluate their coaching situation after the season, they need to look at the GM job. Many think Pierre Gauthier will go. One name the Habs should consider: Claude Loiselle, the assistant GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He played in the league and has gained valuable front-office experience.
MINUS: What was Steve Ott thinking Wednesday night? Sure, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette should know better than to walk down the tunnel with the opposing team after a period. But he is a career Eastern Conference coach in a Western Conference building, and Ott is a player – an agitator, maybe, but still a player. How about a little respect? Putting on a show for the "24/7" crew or something?
PLUS: I'll say this for Jacques Martin. He took the Habs to the Eastern Conference final in 2010, upsetting the Caps and Pens on the way. Then he took the Habs to overtime of Game 7 in the first round last April, losing to the eventual Cup champs on the road. Had the Habs scored in OT, the Bruins would have fired Claude Julien. Instead, Julien's got a ring and Martin's got a pink slip.
MINUS: Maybe we should start a new weekly feature: the Crosby counter. Crosby has missed six games since suffering a relapse of concussion symptoms. The counter will click to seven Friday night when the Penguins visit the Winnipeg Jets.
“Irony: I have been fascinated by the Montreal language debate, but frustrated that I can't read everything … because I don’t speak French.”
The most passionate voices on this issue are obviously in French, and so they are inaccessible to a unilingual Anglophone like me – someone who took French in school (and watched French-language Habs broadcasts as a sly way to do homework at one point), but someone who has lost all but a few basic words.
I've tried to read about the issue in French and have failed to grasp any of it. That helps me understand how Francophones feel, and that helps me understand the argument that, say, Vancouver fans wouldn’t accept Alain Vigneault speaking French exclusively in their market.
I still think that argument doesn’t hold up, because the working language of the NHL is English, even in Montreal. The players come from all over the world and that is their common ground. I still think that the Habs should hire a bilingual coach if all is equal, but an English-speaking coach if he is clearly the best candidate, because winning matters most.
But I've tried hard to see the other side, and the best argument I can find is this: Content is king. That’s why two telecom companies are buying 75 percent of the Maple Leafs. If you look at hockey as content, the content must be compelling. Winning matters most, but you have to entertain on the way and engage your fans on a day-to-day basis. If 80 percent of them speak French – and are so proud of their history and identity – it makes sense to speak their language. You know the old saying: The customer is always right.