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Inside the NHL
Posted: Tuesday November 03, 1998 05:46 PM
By Kostya Kennedy
The league's moves to promote more scoring haven't done the trick
When NHL higher-ups decided during the off-season to reconfigure the ice surface, place stricter regulations on the size of goaltenders' equipment and reaffirm their dedication to calling obstruction penalties, they did so with visions of red lights flashing in their heads. After all, the league was spooked last season by its 5.3 goals per game average (the lowest in 42 years), a scoring pace that was often as enjoyable to witness as watching ice melt.
Those guys include longtime minor leaguers whose numbers have steadily increased as the NHL has expanded from 21 to 27 teams over the past seven years. Many of them have speed and defensive ability, but they couldn't slip the puck past a slumbering dormouse. No hockey skill is as precious as a scorer's touch, which requires a mix of quickness, precision and calm calculation in the milliseconds before a shot is unleashed. You don't find lamplighters in the minors. Today, for every proven finisher, there are several lines' worth of hardworking guys who make their bread playing defense.
"Of course expansion dilutes the number of highly skilled players," says Kings general manager Dave Taylor. "There are only so many to go around." Los Angeles is one of several teams expected to have winning seasons despite the lack of a bona fide sniper.
The off-season tinkerings haven't gone for naught, however. Games have better flow, and several teams are weaning themselves off the trap and taking advantage of the added room behind the net to force the action with forechecking. Though shots per game are virtually unchanged from last season at this timejust under 55 for both teamsscoring chances have increased. "It's more exciting than it was," says Penguins right wing Jaromir Jagr, who through Sunday led the league with 15 points. "Maybe because they're calling penalties more, and there's more space behind the net."
The changes have helped the game. Unfortunately the new rules can't make scorers out of scrappers.
Manny Legace, a 5'9", 165-pound, orange-haired goalie for the Kings who could pass for Richie Cunningham's chubby little brother, is experiencing some of the happiest days of his life. At week's end Legace, who was expected to spend this season playing for Los Angeles's IHL affiliate in Long Beach, had appeared in seven NHL games and had amassed the league's second-best save percentage (.955) and fifth-best goals-against average (1.49). When teammate and Norris Trophy winner Rob Blake stopped by his locker after a 1-0 loss last week against the Islanders to say "Good game," Legace grinned with wondrous glee. "What a rush," he said. "Am I really here?"
His name is pronounced LEG-uh-see, and his NHL legacy is not yet three weeks old. He was summoned from the minors after Los Angeles goalies Stephane Fiset and Jamie Storr suffered groin injuries in a 5-5 tie with the Avalanche on Oct. 18. Legace made his debut three days later and stopped 49 shotsthe most saves for a debuting goalie in the last 20 yearsin a 1-1 standoff with the Panthers. In his next game he was bowled over by Lightning center Darcy Tucker and suffered a mild concussion. "That is the only highlight I've seen of myself," says Legace. "Me getting hurt."
Legace beat the Hurricanes 3-2 on Oct. 25 for his first win, and opponents are still trying to take his measure. "I'd like to know who he is," said Islanders right wing Mariusz Czerkawski after Legace stopped all four of his shots and 33 of New York's 34 in that 1-0 victory on Oct. 27. "Where's he from?"
The short answer is that Legace, 25, was acquired from the Hurricanes in July for a conditional draft pick. Though he suffered in the eyes of scouts because of his size, he was named the best goalie in the AHL in 1995-96 while playing for the Springfield Falcons. Before that he was the backup netminder for Team Canada in the 1994 Olympics.
Legace may be sent back to the minors when Fiset and Storr return to action, but he has fine lateral movement and positions himself well, talents that combined with his early success, led Kings general manager Dave Taylor to muse last week, "Who knows? Maybe Manny will be around for a while."
It must be tough for a man whose work subjects him to so much name-calling to bring his dad to the office. Yet there was Hilton Fraser, father of 46-year-old Kerry Fraser, the NHL's most experienced referee, perched in the press box at Nassau Coliseum as his son officiated an Islanders-Kings game last week. Hilton, an avid seafarer who has navigated across the oceans in a sailboat, has ruddy, weathered skin, and with his cropped white beard he bears strong resemblance to a more famous PapaErnest Hemingway. In 1963 Hilton launched Kerry's career when, while serving as head of officiating for an amateur league in Sarnia, Ont., he hired Kerry, then all of 11, as a ref.
Last week Hilton snapped photos of his boy with a pocket-sized camera, extolled the NHL's experiment with a two-referee system"It cuts down on Kerry's skating," he saidand was unfazed when the crowd began chanting, "Fraser sucks" after it thought he had missed a call. Said Hilton, "I only hope he doesn't make a bad call that I can see from herethe kind that makes me say, 'Oh, Kerry, you've blown that one.'"
Alexandre Daigle, Flyers RW
No, we're not talking about reports that he was dumped by Pamela Anderson. But Daigle, who was the No. 1 pick in 1993 but failed miserably in Ottawa, has been just as disappointing in Philadelphia since being acquired by the Flyers last January. At week's end he had only one goal and was -2 this season, and coach Roger Neilson had been forced to shuffle him between lines to try to get some production.
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