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Original Issue

The puck doesn't stop here

Trigger-happy, defense-shy players are on a scoring rampage in the NHL

They are pointing an accusing finger at Bobby Orr and Mike Bossy. They're blaming Europe, Swiss-cheese goalies and coaches. Everybody is in a dither over the fact that the scoring in NHL games is assuming NBA proportions. Take last Saturday night: Boston 10, Quebec 1; Toronto 9, Los Angeles 4; Pittsburgh 7, Philadelphia 2. On Sunday it was Chicago 10, Calgary 4.

Nine or more goals were scored in 68 of the first 154 games this season. There have been no 1-0 or 2-0 games and only five shutouts. All but three teams have given up seven or more goals at least once.

Three weeks ago the Flyers faced Montreal; both teams were undefeated at the time. In the days when Bernie Parent and Ken Dryden were the goalies, these clubs played classic close-to-the-vest hockey. Not this time. The game was an 11-2 blowout for the Canadiens. Six nights later in Quebec, Montreal was up 4-1 after one period. Once upon a time a three-goal lead was as safe as a certificate of deposit. No longer. Quebec cranked up and won 5-4.

"It used to be you'd get three or four goals and you were a cinch to win," says Pittsburgh General Manager Baz Bastien. "Now you can score five, and there's a good chance you'll lose." The statistics support his observation. The beginnings of the trend were evident last season. Montreal, which won the Vezina Trophy for giving up the fewest goals (232), was scored on 28 times more than any previous Vezina winner had been. In 1953-54 the six NHL teams scored a total of 1,009 goals, an average of 4.8 a game. Last year the league's 21 clubs averaged 7.7 goals, the highest since the NHL introduced the center red line in 1943. And so far this season, the average has jumped to 8.1. Contrary to popular assumption, the increase cannot be attributed to more shots on goal. In fact, they have remained fairly constant over the last two decades (see chart, page 83).

The ones suffering the most are, of course, the goalies. Look at what has happened to Chicago's Tony Esposito. In 1970-71, Espo yielded 1.76 goals a game. Last year he gave up 3.75. So far this season, souped-up rival attacks have burned him for 5.37 goals a game. "Low averages are getting to be impossible," says Esposito. "Today you can go through a whole season without a shutout." In 1969-70 Esposito had a league-high 15 shutouts in 63 games. In 1979-80 he led the league with six. Last year he had none for the first time in his career.

It isn't just the powerhouses that are running up scores, either. Against Calgary two weeks ago, Detroit got a dozen goals. That's more than the Red Wings had scored in a game since 1944. To prove that barrage was no fluke, last week the Red Wings scored 10 goals against the Kings. Philadelphia has given up 42 goals in its last six games, and Edmonton already has scored 81 goals in 15 games. Last year the Oilers didn't score their 81st goal until Nov. 28. Two Oilers, Paul Coffey (21 points) and Risto Siltanen (19), are among the league's top scorers. And they're defensemen.

"Fans like to see 6-5 games more than 1-0 games," says Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky, who has 15 goals and 14 assists and is three games ahead of his record-setting scoring pace of last season. "I know we prefer them, too. If we can get into a basketball game, we love it."

Many purists maintain that the primary reason scoring is going through the roof is that today's players are trigger-happy. They are the biggest, fastest and most accomplished skaters the NHL has ever seen. And just about every one of them is a shooter. "In my time you could cheat a little," says former Black Hawk Goaltender Glenn Hall. "You'd say, 'The shot is going to come from there because that's where the goal-scorer is.' Now they're all goal-scorers."

What has been happening, says Chicago Coach Keith Magnuson, is simple enough: "In junior hockey a young player concentrates on offense because he knows that the more he scores, the higher he'll be drafted." Well before he reaches the NHL, a player knows that scorers earn the biggest bucks. Also, since expansion in 1979-80 and the lowering of the minimum draft age to 18 in 1978, the NHL has been overrun with young players. The average age is 25.3, the lowest in history. What these youngsters do best is shoot, shoot, shoot. "The shooters are definitely smarter," says Montreal Goalie Rick Wamsley. "They don't waste time with the puck. They've seen the success that Bossy has had with the Islanders, and he doesn't look before he shoots. A puck hits his stick and he lets fly. The goaltender has no time to get set."

It's tempting to blame the scoring explosion on poor goaltending. While the quality of NHL goaltending is at a ridiculously low level, these beleaguered guardians all too often are left to fend for themselves. The era of the defensive defenseman—someone who hung tough to protect his goalie—is long gone. "Defense doesn't matter anymore," says Frank Mahovlich, the former Maple Leaf, Red Wing and Canadien marksman, "not only to defensemen, but to forwards as well. Forwards don't come back to help out often enough, so there are more scoring chances and therefore more goals. Today everyone goes for goals. We did in my day, too. But we also checked. No one does that job now."

Says former Boston Coach Don Cherry, "There's no contact anywhere in the game this year. When was the last time a team drafted a checker?" According to St. Louis Center Mike Zuke, "Probably the hardest commodity to find in hockey is a defensive defenseman. Agents, for young players especially, can't sell their clients on the intangibles of defense; they can't show statistics on that."

Today's young defensemen are products of what one NHL coach calls "the Bobby Orr baby boom." Orr revolutionized the concept of playing defense. He controlled play, handled the puck, shot and scored. "The best defensemen today are offensive defensemen," says Toronto G.M. Punch Imlach. "Orr's responsible for that. Everyone is trying to play the way he did. Naturally, they can't."

What's more, no longer do NHL coaches rely chiefly on one line to light up the scoreboard. Most teams now have two or three that can. What with all the firepower from defensemen as well as forwards, coaches have quit trying to protect leads. A few years ago teams would get one or two goals ahead and play keep-away. Toronto won Stanley Cups in 1962, '63 and '64 by making one goal look as big as 10; old opponents must still bear the marks left by the Leafs' barbed-wire defense. But now, a lead is merely a spark for piling on more goals.

Moreover, coaching—read teaching—is a lost art in North America, except on the college level. In the Soviet Union, teams practice three times as often as they play. In the NHL, however, with an 80-game, six-month schedule, teams typically play three games in a week while practicing only twice.

Still another factor in the scoring surge has been the replacement of oversized, immobile goons with small, quick players who can score. This swing toward speedy skaters is largely the result of the European influence on the NHL. In 1975-76 there were 12 European-born players on NHL rosters. Now there are 54.

"Because of the larger ice surface in Europe, a player has to skate well to be a star over there," says Montreal Managing Director Irving Grundman. "But it's well known that the Europeans aren't as strong defensively, especially in their own zone, as NHL players are." Yet, Europeans have largely taken the place of enforcers who couldn't score. Time was a club had only a few players who got 20 goals in a season. Last year St. Louis had 10 with 20 or more.

As the pucks fly, it's easy to see that there is also more individualism out there than ever before. Edmonton Coach Glen Sather tells Gretzky he doesn't care if he checks. Montreal's Mark Napier says, "It takes more of a team effort to win by a shutout than to win in a shootout."

And such team efforts are becoming increasingly rare. Whether the scoring explosion is good for the sport is another matter. Hockey people disagree. Several executives around the league concur with Red Wings' Coach Wayne Maxner, who says, "People came to see Bobby Hull shoot the puck. They didn't come to see him check."

Perhaps, but people don't go to games to see cheap goals and one-way hockey. As Ed Van Impe, a former defensive defenseman for the Flyers, points out, "For the life of me, I can't understand why the Europeans should dictate the style of play in the NHL. Hockey is very entertaining over in Europe, but it's like the Ice Capades."




Shell-shocked netminders who once got shutouts now settle for survival.