Since 1994 there has been much earnest Canadian hand wringing over the decline of goal scoring in the NHL. Defensive systems, clutching and grabbing, talent dilution due to expansion, goaltenders’ bulky equipment and the NJ Devils have all been the focus of blame. I think the reason for the lower scoring is elemental and irreversible: goaltending has moved from an art to a science. The butterfly style is a best practice. With ample video, coaching and preparation goaltenders have become like professional tennis players where the top five players are only one or two percent better than the thirtieth through thirty-fifth best players. Unlike in 1985 goaltending is now learned and not so much a task that one is born to do.
Diminished pads will expose a few pretenders and the restriction on goalie puckhandling will marginally limit Brodeur and his imitators, but the science of goaltending will remain. Scoring will go up a noticeable but modest amount if only because there will be more power plays, but the days of 7 – 5 games are over, and they still would be even if Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were both 23 years old and the whole league was trying to emulate them.
This season’s shootouts should provide a test of my Goaltending Is A Science hypothesis. The shootouts will feature no systems, no defensemen, or even any bad ice; just a goalie and the best juking and jiving attackers. If the goalies win over 55% of these encounters then that would indicate that goaltending is a science. If the shooters win over 55% then perhaps the recent lower scoring was due to some combination of other factors. If the conversion rate is closer to 50% then the results will be inconclusive.
It should also be interesting to compare the shootout success rate in the first half of the season and the second half. By the second half of the season there should be substantial amounts of video of both goalies and skaters performing in shootouts. The shootouts may well become a “feint within a feint within a feint” affair like the climatic knife fight in “Dune.”
My prediction: As the season progresses goalies will win increasingly more of the shootout showdowns; by the end of the season they will have won over 60% of the shootouts.
My other predictions:
The Fall Of the Wings and Avs: These teams remind me of the 49ers and Cowboys in the mid-90s. They have sustained themselves by buying players for too long. They both still have a solid defense and superstar forwards, but neither has a proven goalie. Throw in some aging key parts and it’s clear that “yeah they’ll pass you by, glory days.” It will be especially delicious to watch the Avs falter as their fans are the most arrogant, spoiled and ignorant in all of sports and Woody Paige is a scat muncher.
Goalies Are Still Key: There is lots of excitement in Edmonton and Pittsburgh, but without proven goalies these teams will have trouble after the first twenty games of the season when teams adjust and there are fewer penalties.
The Devils Will Be In The Hunt: If you ignore the fact that the Scotts were lost and just look at the defense subjectively you would have to say that they are in the top tier of the league. When Elias comes back they will have the makings for two good scoring lines and will boast a nice combination of role players and grit in the bottom half. Then there is Martin Brodeur. The Devils are a sub-elite team, somewhere form 5th to 10th best in the league and without a captain they have no identity, but they are better than the Sabres team that made it to the Fianls in ’99. Scott Burnside’s chuckleheaded analysis on ESPN proves how overlooked this team still is.
The Decline Of The ‘Ning “Dynasty”: Tampa earned their cup in ’04 and they are still a formidable squad even without ‘Boulin. They will certainly make the playoffs. But… their last campaign was charmed. Everyone on the team had a career year. They had no substantive injuries. They tied several games at the end of regulation. Because they had never done anything substantive in the playoffs and because they were in Tampa Bay I think teams did not always give their best effort against them. That won’t be the case this year and the law of averages says that they will have more adversity on the injury front. We shall see how they fair when everything is not going swimmingly.
Catching A Rising Star Fading Over The Hill: Who will be this years’ Pavol Demitra or superstar rookie (other than Crosby)? Which unknown will become an impact player? There are no teams with four absolutely solid lines so whichever team benefits from a precocious player will have a tremendous advantage. Conversely, which forty year-old star will burn up in the atmosphere? I’m looking at you Hasek.
Finals Prediction: Calgary over Philadelphia in 6.
Potential Spoiler: Nashville Predators. They were already on the up before the lockout. Kariya could make all of their almost-good players good and Vokoun is the real deal in net.
UPDATE: In the first shootout the goalies stopped 3 out of 5 shots: 60%. After one game the goalie is indeed key. For all of their firepower the Pens got creamed because Brodeur was in a different class than Thibout. Loved the demise of the red line. Did not like the ticky-tacky penalties that seemed to limit physical play.