Friday, October 01, 2010

Enigma Or Goalscorer?


a person or thing that is mysterious or difficult to understand

mid 16th century: via Latin from Greek ainigma, from ainissesthai 'speak allusively', from ainos 'fable'


a player who scores goals (or is credited with goals after the puck deflects in off him/her)

a player whose main talent is scoring goals and who doesn't score so infrequently that Travis Moen replaces him on a scoring line

Joe Malone, 1912

Last night, Benoit Pouliot played what Jacques Martin would allege was his best game of the preseason. I didn't watch thanks to a mountain of work, so I'll have to take the coach's word for it. After all, when has he ever shown bias to Pouliot before?

The follow-up report from Rue Frontenac call him an enigma. Hard to understand, even impossible. How does someone who can skate, shoot and measure 6'3" fail to hit the target in 28 straight games?

I won't say I'm not worried about Pouliot. I won't say that his goalscoring drought is not of concern. But I will stop short of calling him an enigma.

The definition of enigma is pretty unequivocal, pretty clear. Difficult to understand, enigma. Not difficult to understand, not enigma.

For years now the Montreal media has bandied the enigma term around their broadsheets like, well, a bandy ball. We can't go a season without having at least a couple of permanent enigmas on the team, we can hardly go a game without someone being branded enigmatic. It's not that I don't appreciate the use of beautiful language originating from the Greek and Latin poets, but the term is overused. There's hardly a season preview that separates the terms 'enigmatic' and 'Kostitsyn' anymore, and no Ottawa in Montreal game can go by without enigma trending on Google.

The thing that is most difficult to understand in all this is not how 20-30 goalscorers have 60 games without a goal, and even some without a shot, but how reporters that watch and write on every minute of the 8-month season find that a surprise to them each and every time it happens.

Is it not true that while goalscoring is a rare skill that most of us would probably find impossible to master, that the people who score goals are not all that complicated at all? For years we have watched scorers come through (look up "Canadiens" and "enigma" if you've forgotten who they all are) and seen again and again how they position themselves rather than fight for the puck, try to get on the periphery of the play to lose coverage, shoot when good passes are available, etc., etc. And while they score 25, 27, 31 goals, with some multi-goal games, there are many many games sans buts.

With this concept fully grasped, it becomes easier to detach 'enigma' from Kostitsyn, Kovalev, Pouliot. It's also easier when one looks at something other than the final superstats to decide how a player fared in a game. No goal, no assist, not necessarily enigmatic.

For me Benoit Pouliot is not an enigma. He can skate, shoot and has size, but he is also lazy and slow to react at times. It's no mystery why he has bad games when he does. And if he plays well and doesn't score, it's not that difficult to understand either, because average goalies as we know nowadays save at least 91.2% of shots, and posts save 100%.

For me Kostitsyn isn't an enigma either. He doesn't score like Ovechkin because he doesn't shoot like Ovechkin, either in fluidity or frequency. He has 65 games where no one calls his name as a third star because he scores in clumps and so far at most 26 times a year.

Kovalev wasn't one either. Kovalev played a more complete game than people gave him credit for. And though he didn't move his feet like a behind-the-play Begin, he actually moved faster in the glide than 75% of players on skates. His puck possession was consistent, but deemed an asset when he scored and a detriment when he didn't. There was less mystery than his moniker suggested.

Given these three, I'd also like to propose that perhaps if we continue to use the faulty definition of enigma that it should be applied to all goalscorers that score less frequently than Gretzky in the early 1980s. Off games, those without goals, occur to them all.

If we go the other way and look for real mysteries, we might start calling out the real enigmas: those goalscorers who play their hearts out, backcheck, dig out pucks in the corner and still have time to net 30ish goals a season. In the long art of goalscoring, these all-rounders given their rarity are the real fables of the NHL.

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