Two men are standing head and shoulders above the competition this year in the NHL. No, I’m not talking about Zdeno Chara and Tyler Myers who can probably shake hands from opposing bluelines. I’m talking about two players simply dominating their positions and contributing to a revitalization of their team, and division. Both are chasing records, both have had their names on the tips of peoples tongues for the last year or so. I’m talking of course about budding hockey icon Steven Stamkos and the sixth oldest goalie in the NHL this season, Tim Thomas.
With a very hush-hush hip injury, and a broken hand that received better press, it’s safe to say Tim Thomas’s year last season might not have been very pleasant. Add to it the fact that everyone expected him to be the undisputed starter working fifty five to sixty games, and being in the hunt for a Vezina for a second straight year and you might get the idea that in the season he did have unpleasant moments were the highlights. Losing his confidence, his starting role and his dream of winning Gold at the Olympics there wasn’t much that didn’t go wrong for Thomas. Capping it off glued to the bench while his team crashed and burned in the playoffs probably means that despite stomping through the early goings of the season, he still hasn’t gotten the bad taste out of his mouth.
Knowing now how unhealthy Thomas was all last year, its hard to remember the form that took him to the Vezina trophy the season before. Well, hard unless you’ve seen him play this season. In that 2008-2009 season where he not only lead the league in goals against and save percentage, but improved both numbers through two playoff series he had just five shutouts. In fifty four appearances he had a shutout about every ten games. He finished the regular season with a .933 Sv%, and a 2.10 GAA. He went eleven games in the postseason with .935GAA and 1.85 GAA. All impressive numbers. This seasons through 16 starts, he’s averaging a shutout about every three games. After stonewalling the highest scoring team in the eastern conference, the Philadelphia Flyers, he’s once again in the familiar position of being on top of the league in Sv%, with a .955, and GAA with a tiny 1.46.
If Tim Thomas were to keep at his pace, and play the same number of games as his Vezina season he’d have a staggering 16.875 shutouts. That number would be neat, and put him second on the single season NHL shutout chart. A mere 13 shutouts would make him the most prolific producer of this stat since well before Jacobs bought the team, in fact you would have to go all the way back to the 1927-28 season to find a Bruins goaltender better when Hal Winkler was Boston’s backstop. If Thomas plays to his 66 game career high, at the current shutout pace he’d land at 20.625 shutouts, or 1.375 shutouts short of the all time NHL record held since1928-29 by George Hainsworth.
The hype and drama that has surrounded this Markham Ontario native is unrivaled by anyone since the lockout ended. Ovechkin, Malkin, and Crosby made huge waves as the NHL’s marketing department tried to wash away the stain of the lockout. No one since has had half as much attention. If Steven Stamkos manages to chase down the elusive 70 goal plateau, he’ll join the rarefied heights that only a handful of NHL players have ever reached. Steven Stamkos is chasing the opposite dream of Thomas. He’s chasing 70. The list of players to reach that level isn’t long; Gretzky (4 times), Lemieux (2 times), Hull (3 times), Kurri, Nichols, Esposito (the first to do it), and the last active player to do so, Teemu Selanne who scored 76 back in the 92-93 season. Selanne’s 76 goal season. 1993 is the year Stamkos turned three. Some of the names not on the list of the 70 goal club are rather surprising: Iginla, Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Heatley, Nash, St Louis, all of whom are known for putting up league leading goal totals.
Right now Stamkos is on pace for 68.88 goals. This would incidentally top Ovechkins gaudy goal scoring best. With so many of his games in the Southeast division which doesn’t boast a single top ten defenseman, Stamkos has a damn good shot at seventy. When you factor in the supporting cast of Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St Louis, Ryan Malone, Victor Hedman and the occasionally healthy Simon Gagne, that’s a lot of talent (when present) to defend against, and even elite defenses can only be in so many lanes at once.
So, will either record happen? 23 or 70? If they both happen do these become the most sought after jersey’s in youth and beer leagues across North America? Or would it be 35 and 91? Can the NHL build up a useful marketing campaign on either of these chases? Probably not, they’ve been force feeding two men to the entire continent since before the lockout ended. This despite the fact that the jersey sales success of Milan Lucic, the still lingering PJ Stock tshirts, and the instant recognition Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, Ryan Miller and others get even in places where hockey is just a rumor. Of the two, I have more hope for Stamkos’s chase, it won’t really require the NHL to change templates, just the name on it.
I think having both of these records broken in once season could be the best thing to happen to the NHL in a very long time. With a whole boatload of weak number two goalies holding down number one slots, and less than five fifty goal scorers in each of the last several season it’s time to revitalize both positions. For “the Bettman Ideal” of 80’s style OK Corral style games more snipers are needed. For teams in small markets, or places where high end talent is hard to retain, having a top notch goalie is a powerful building block. When it comes right down to it, both are in the NHL’s best interested if they want to remain the premier hockey league not just in North America, but the world.