Things to be thankful for
As the calendar year comes to a close, here is my list of the top-five things to be grateful for as we head into 2006.
5. Dany Heatley playing so well for the Ottawa Senators -- Heatley's fine play in Canada's capitol means any questions surrounding the deal are moot. The Atlanta Thrashers have moved on as an organization with Marian Hossa continuing to distinguish himself as a world-class player and Greg DeVries fitting nicely in the team's top four blue-line pairings. More heart-warming, though, has been Heatley's handling the questions as to his physical health and his mental mindset. He has reasserted his rise as a difference maker on the ice and found the inner strength to unabashedly grace us with his easy-going toothless smile once again.
4. The infusion of rookie talent into the NHL -- Seeing Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby live up to the advanced hype has been nothing short of a marvel. So often, highly touted youngsters struggle with some aspect of the marquee billing. Not these two. Ovechkin and Crosby have delivered to the highest degree. And their performances alone would be enough excitement most years, but this season is special league-wide. While Ovechkin and Crosby are producing at a better than a point-a-game pace, so many others are impacting their respective teams in a variety of ways. Dion Phaneuf in Calgary with his hitting and blistering blue-line blast; Marek Svatos for the Avalanche already reaching the 20-goal plateau; Alex Steen in Toronto with his all-around solid game; Thomas Vanek and Paul Gaustad helping redefine the Sabres' identity and the trio of former first rounders in Philadelphia Mike Richards -- a good bet to be the Flyers' captain one day -- Jeff Carter and RJ Umberger allowing the Flyers to stay near the top of the Eastern Conference with the best depth in the game all come to mind.
|Wayne Gretzky is doing a very nice job behind the Coyotes' bench.|
3. Having Wayne Gretzky in the game on a day-to-day basis -- Wayne Gretzky means so much to the game and his decision to step behind the bench for the Phoenix Coyotes gives the NHL invaluable currency. He says coaching provides him an immediacy he needs -- as closely satisfying his competitive urges as he can while no longer playing. That's good. What's better is that the hockey world gets to further its connection with one of the brightest hockey minds the game has known. Yes, Gretzky has been and will always be one of the finest ambassadors for any sport in any era, but the power of the moment only strengthens that legacy. Memories made as a player are lasting and indelible, but what a unique situation to have the Great One in our midst to project and recap his team's performance on a daily basis as a head coach.
2. Speed at the point of attack -- The game of hockey at its best is all about skating and the sum of the changes this season has led the NHL back to emphasizing speed at the point of attack. Long ago lost was the winger busting in off the wing to challenge the goaltender with either a shot or a crease-cutting move. It is back and as riveting as ever. It is hockey's version of the ultimate one-on-one play -- a situation that has drama due to the possibilities of either a physical -- as in collision -- or finessed -- think great move or a sprawling save -- outcome. It is more high risk for the goaltenders and certainly makes for mayhem in defending, but players at full speed at the top of the crease make for exciting hockey.
1. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement -- The players and owners forging a partnership in their industry was welcome and enlightened. The NHL is back with a chance to be better than ever, with 2006 holding untold promise and potential.
Back to the future
I've seen the future of goaltending and it comes in glimpses of the past. Just when you thought the pad stack move by goaltenders was obsolete, it seems to be back in vogue. Not surprisingly, dusting off and executing the old-time move to perfection are wily vets -- guys just old enough to remember when goalies everywhere routinely employed the double leg pad stack to one side.
First I saw Dominik Hasek stymie a would-be rebounder poaching off the weak side post with the move. Then I saw Marty Turco finish a fine flurry of saves with the lay-down scramble move. Next up was Martin Brodeur, anticipating and stacking his pads on a breakaway. Then Chris Osgood did the same thing, guessing right on a breakaway by Marian Hossa who looked to go five-hole, only to have the opening disappear sideways. Osgood made the move again on a play off the wing as Hossa tried to cut across the top of the crease to pull the puck laterally. Osgood stacked his pads to protect the short side while laying out to his right to cut off the skating lane.
What does it all mean? Well first off, none of the four are stereotypical butterfly netminders. All are more athletic and acrobatic than many of their contemporaries. But the two-pad stack? Most credible goalie instructors eliminated that move from their repertoire years ago. After all, it is a virtually impossible to control the rebound from that prone position and is difficult to recover from and reestablish a balanced setup.
|Chris Osgood is not one of those stereotypical butterfly goaltenders.|
But it sure is exciting, and effective in certain situations. Plus, there must be more to it than that. The examples come from four of the most successful goaltenders in the NHL over the past decade. As such, these guys aren't dipping into the bag of tricks of yesteryear for the good of their health. Or are they?
Think about the changes to the game this season from the goalies' perspective. They are facing more situations in which the onrushing forward is at top speed at the top of the blue paint. As a matter of self-preservation combined with practicality, the pad stack makes sense again because goaltenders still want to take away the bottom portion of the net while at the same time getting themselves out of the way of any potential collision. You can't do that if you commit to the butterfly move at the edge of the crease. In that position, contact can prove costly due to the knees bearing the brunt of the impact.
So, while stacking the pads holds an element of surprise under certain circumstances, it is a matter of compromise in others. It isn't solely a matter of the elite adjusting -- it's a matter of the best surviving. As the forwards are allowed to wheel more freely in and around the crease, goaltenders will continue to find ways to negate the advantage with more aggressive, proactive and athletic maneuvers. You already see that with goalies setting up close to the traffic on point shots -- much like the guys in the past -- to minimize the severity of the angle of deflections instead of goal line sitting which had been a favored ploy in the old hook 'em and hold 'em days.
It is difficult to say what other tricks of the trade might once again become fashionable. Suffice it to say, though, that the long forgotten "kick save and a beauty" isn't likely to return. In retrospect, some things are hard to justify in any era.
'Original Six' still special
Not too long ago, I took the train from Toronto to Montreal and idly watched the Canadian countryside amble by -- the entire time envisioning the days of the NHL's "Original Six" teams making the exact same trip. It got me to thinking of the NHL's initial entries and their place and relevance in the "new" NHL of 30 far-flung franchises.
Is there still a mystique surrounding these storied teams, or has their individual and collective histories lost some luster? After all, under the current setup, the Central Division doesn't meet the Northeast Division, meaning the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks don't play the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, or the Boston Bruins. Forget scheduling anomalies for a moment, that's a subject for another day. What I wanted to know was whether or not in today's NHL does the Original Six still have the allure of days gone by.
In talking to coaches and players -- both current and former -- they confirmed my own convictions that, yes, the history associated with those teams make them special. I know when I pulled the famous Detroit winged wheel jersey on for the first time (don't bother looking it up -- it happened so few times, I can recall each vividly) there was a kid-like kinship that transcended professional accomplishment. To don a Kings' jersey for my first NHL game was the things of boyhood dreams fulfilled. Yet, skating out for the team I had rooted for as a kid -- the same Red Wings that my idol Roger Crozier had tended goal for -- was ethereal (even if short-lived).
|Former Red Wings goaltender Roger Crozier was Eliot's idol as a kid.|
It was as I had always suspected: to make the NHL was one thing; to do so for an Original Six team was another level of validation. In my informal questioning of players who had performed for Original Six teams, Brad McCrimmon gave an interesting insight. He broke in with the Bruins and cited the connection with the past and the old Boston Garden as making the experience bigger than just making the NHL.
More telling, though, was his recollection of winning the Stanley Cup as a member of the Calgary Flames against the Canadiens and clinching the title in Montreal. That 1989 Flames' team was the only one to win the Stanley Cup at the Forum other than the Canadiens. Winning a Stanley Cup is the crowning achievement for any hockey player, yet the fact that it happened on the iconic ice of the old Montreal Forum made McCrimmon's moment resonate through the ages.
And just when I was struggling to put those sentiments into today's context, the Boston Bruins trade Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks. The 1997 first-overall pick goes from an Original Six team to one involved in the expansionist '90s that culminated with the sixth expansion. In analyzing Thornton's time in Boston, former Bruins first-round pick in 1982 and current TV analyst Gord Kluzak summed it up thusly, "He has had a very good career, and maybe on a team that doesn't have as high expectations, he'll achieve even more." Pressed by David Pollack of the San Jose Mercury News Kluzak explained. "The Sharks had to give up a lot to get him, but it's not the same thing as coming to an Original Six city as the first overall pick."
Then from the man himself, giving my query a contemporary feel, when asked about the pressure of coming to a struggling Sharks squad, Thornton told Victor Chi of the Mercury News, "I've always had a lot of pressure on me, playing in an Original Six city, so this isn't new."
No, and here's hoping that the prestige of the Original Six never grows old.