ANYBODY SEEN Wayne Gretzky lately?
At the midseason mark The Great One, the most accomplished scorer the game has ever known, is missing in action. Nowhere near the top 20 in scoring, Gretzky had all of five goals and 14 assists. Play that out over 48 games and it's 10 goals and 28 assists, 38 points. For most of his career, Gretzky has averaged better than 38 points in a quarter-season.
He's not alone. Scan the list of the NHL's scoring leaders at midseason and it's no longer a list of who's who, it's one that reads "where are you?"
Detroit's Sergei Fedorov, the Hart Trophy winner as the league's most valuable player last season, isn't in the mix this time around. At the midpoint of the season, he had 13 goals but only 10 assists and wasn't among the scoring leaders. Toronto's Doug Gilmour, a runner-up to Fedorov last season, is also among the missing with just six goals and 14 assists. Gretzky's linemate, Jari Kurri -- among the greatest right wingers of all time? Missing. Montreal's Brian Bellows and Vincent Damphousse? Gone. Toronto's Dave Andreychuk, Buffalo's Alexander Mogilny, St. Louis's Brendan Shanahan, Detroit's Steve Yzerman, Vancouver's Pavel Bure, Chicago's Jeremy Roenick? All gone.
Newcomers have taken their place. The rightful rise of bright young talents like Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr, Philadelphia's Eric Lindros, Winnipeg's Alexei Zhamnov and Quebec's Joe Sakic and the surprise performances of players like Philadelphia's John LeClair and Mikael Renberg make for an interesting scoring race, but that doesn't explain the absence of the old guard.
Gretzky's 130 points led the league last season, Fedorov was second (120) and Boston's Adam Oates (112) was third. This season, only Oates is still in the race and he's 15th. Gilmour was fourth last season, followed by Bure, Roenick and Mark Recchi (then with Philadelphia, now with Montreal). Surely not all these players got old at once.
Experts say it's a combination of things. In the case of Gretzky, Kurri and Gilmour, time is beginning to take a toll, but there are other problems. Holding and interference are at the top of the list. So is the neutral zone trap and the emergence of better goaltending. The lockout also has had an effect. Some players have come back in worse shape than others and some -- especially older players -- haven't been able to play themselves back into shape. Purists argue that the tag-up rule that allows defensemen to dump the puck in the offensive zone is killing the odd-man rush, the kind of thing Gretzky, Gilmour and others thrive on.
Conference-only play has made the games tight with each outing representing a crucial point swing in the standings. Checking is tight and everyone is good at it. On a more individual basis, Detroit -- once the most wide-open team in the league -- has adopted a defense-first style. Toronto has horrendous travel schedules, Mogilny has suffered from the loss of Pat LaFontaine. Montreal traded away defensemen who got their scorers the puck. Bure has contract woes and Roenick isn't getting the same ice time now that the Blackhawks have Bernie Nicholls.
Given all of the above, it's no surprise that young talent with fresh legs on really good teams -- Jagr, Sakic, Lindros -- have had an impact in the race. Older players on really good teams -- Ron Francis and John Cullen (Pittsburgh) and Nicholls -- have also done well. The rest may just have too much to overcome.
"There are elements in our game that we have to look at," said NHL executive vice president Brian Burke, noting that a study of rule changes is under way. "We are doing that."
Hopefully, in time to find Wayne Gretzky.