It's been a long time since the NHL saw a 60-goal scorer and the league is begging for this trend to be broken. Following Mario Lemieux's '95-'96 season in which he buried on 69 separate occasions, the NHL has failed to produce a single-season goal scorer exceeding the 59 goals potted by Pavel Bure of the Florida Panthers in '00-'01. While some have ventured closely -- like Jonathan Cheechoos' Thornton-aided 56-goal campaign in '05-'06, and the most recent victor of the Rocket Richard Trophy, Vinny Lecavalier, with 52 -- the screeching reduction in goal scoring is well documented.
Few players in the NHL have the talent, skill and determination to score 60 goals, a fact that is quite evident in the statistics collected over the last 10 seasons, in addition to the tears of every hockey purist incensed over rule changes to beef up offensive production. While the numbers represent the historical precedent by which players of the last decade have failed to score, the newest rule changes and the evolution of the leagues' top talent may allow us present a strong argument for the emergence of a 60-goal scorer in the 2007-8 NHL season.
The inflation of the size and speed of the overall talent pool in the NHL have reduced the ability for highly skilled, but slightly undersized snipers, ala Gretzky and Theo Fleury, and to an extent, Brett Hull, to impose their will through shifty end-to-end rushes and extended-range snipes. Instead, over the past six seasons since 2001, power forwards have demonstrated their ability to lead the pack in a category traditionally dominated with allusiveness, accuracy and finesse. The demands of the game have resulting in the leagues' best goal scorers evolving into physical marvels ranging from 210-225lbs of smooth skating and sharp-shooting threats. Since Bure's 59-goals as a Canuck in 2001, Iginla (x2), Kovalchuk, Rick Nash and the aforementioned Cheechoo and Lecavalier have been the leagues top goal scorers. For those who haven't watched an episode of Sportscenter since Y2K, these men average 6'2, 215lbs.
Aside from their size, these top goal scorers had chemistry with at least one top-notch linemate, received the lions share of the ice time, both 5-on-5 and on the PP, and are all prone to good health and durability. There are a slew of players who fit these broad characteristics, and thus would expectedly top the goals category. The likes of Vincent Lecavier, Simon Gagne, Ilya Kovalchuk and Jonathan Cheechoo will likely remain at, or near, the top and should be watched closely during extended hot streaks, but fall short when considering players capable of a 60+ goal season.
Sixty goals just doesn't come often enough to presume definitively that any player will reach that mark this season. That being said, I'm never the type known for aversion from bold and outlandish claims, so here are some things to consider prior to sweeping the 60-goal mark under the Rug of Impossibility. The most likely candidates to push towards the 60-goal plateau this season be Alex Ovechkin and Dany Heatley. They are the only two players situated in what may be the perfect storm allowing them the nearest passage to the 60-goal plateau; a passage they may have the strength and momentum to break it.
The Best of the Best:
At 6'2, 215lbs, the speedy and confident Alex Ovechkin will break his career-high 54-goals this season, playing on a youthful and improving Washington Capitals team. However, the extent to which he exceeds his previous best in goals scored will likely be determined by factors out of his control. For example, will the health of his supporting cast, namely his countryman linemate, Viktor Kozlov, hold up over the course of the season? Aside from the powerplay, how often will he be paired with the newer acquired Michael Nylander, who's tallied 113 helpers over the past 2 seasons in NYC, and whose averaged 40+ assist in each of his past 7 seasons? Lastly, look for Ovechkin to step up and provide more highlight-reel lamp-lighters under the added pressure of a potential playoff birth in the US capitol, all the more reason to believe in this Russians quest to 60 goals.
Just like a good story book, (arguably) the best sniper in the NHL, from the best team, playing on the best line is preserved for final consideration. Dany Heatley has made a strong case for himself early this season by firing six into the twine in seven games. Aided immensely by linemates Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson -- both know for their skill and playmaking ability -- the sky is the limit for the leagues only back-to-back 50 goal scorer. Heatley will also be featured as the go-to goal scorer on a Senators team who expects to not only compete, but win the Eastern Conference on route to the Stanley Cup Finals.
If we were talking about 40+ goals, the list would include many others. But in the NHL today, only Alexander Ovechkin and Dany Heatley deserve mention in the vacant and baron upper echelon of 60+ goal scorers. If you think I missed anyone, let me know. Lastly, think we'll see 100 assists this year? Stay tuned for Part Two in my continuing Best-of-the-Best Series on the NHL, which will feature the leagues' top passers in a few days.