Sam Gagner’s eight-point performance last Thursday night was undoubtedly the NHL’s feel-good story of the week and, on the surface, it was phenomenal. No player had scored that many points in a game in more than 23 years and only once in the league’s history – when Bert Olmstead did it in 1954-55 – had a player scored eight in a game in an era when league-wide scoring was lower than it is now.
It was one for the ages to be sure. Too bad it should never have happened.
That’s because even though Gagner was credited with eight points in the game, he should have only earned seven. Don’t believe me? Watch the replay of the Oilers third goal of the game, the one scored by defenseman Ryan Whitney.
Gagner gains the Chicago Blackhawks zone with speed and cuts to the middle of the slot. That’s when Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson knocks the puck off his stick. Then David Bolland of the Blackhawks pounces on the loose puck and tries to clear the zone. But he fails to do so and the puck ends up on Whitney’s stick before the Oilers defenseman blasts it from the blueline past Chicago goalie Corey Crawford.
Any way you look at it, there’s no way Gagner deserves an assist on that goal. Two Blackhawks touched the puck between Gagner and Whitney, with Bolland clearly having the puck on his stick before committing the giveaway. That goes against rule 33.2 which governs goals and assists, which says: “An assist is awarded to the player or players (maximum two) who touches the puck prior to the goal scorer, provided no defender plays or possesses the puck in between.” (Italics mine.)
Despite that, Gagner was awarded an assist on the ice by the referee, but that’s not where the mistake was made. Every goal scored in the NHL is reviewed by the official scorer, who would have had plenty of opportunity to watch the replay before coming up with the official scoring play. How anyone could see a goal under those circumstances and still award an assist to Gagner is beyond comprehension. In fact, it’s right in the same rule that the official scorer’s duties and responsibilities are spelled out. The rule also reads: “The official scorer shall award the points for the goals and assists and his decision shall be final. The official scorer shall use the video goal judge system to verify the proper awarding of goals and assists.”
Need more evidence? Actually it was provided in a game that was played that very same night. In the Dallas Stars 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, Stars defenseman Trevor Daley makes a long pass to Steve Ott, which bounces off Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle before coming back to Ott, who shoots it in the net. Daley was not awarded an assist on that play.
Go ahead, accuse us of being nitpickers and killjoys here, but this was a franchise record-tying event we’re talking about. Of course, the official scorer had no way of knowing things would turn out the way they did when the third goal was scored, but when you watch the replay there’s still no excuse for awarding Gagner an assist. (A long-time NHL observer came to precisely the same conclusion when he reviewed the goal, by the way.)
Since the official scorer’s decision is final, there’s no way the assist can be taken away from Gagner, nor should it at this point. After all, players have scored at least eight points in a game 13 times previously in NHL history and there’s a chance they could have received phantom points as well. Wayne Gretzky scored eight points on two occasions in the 1983-84 season and the joke around the league then was that Gretzky received an assist for every goal scored in Alberta.
But had the points on that goal been properly awarded in the first place using video technology the league has embraced, there would be no reason to point it out because Gagner would have finished the evening with seven points.
The two-game suspension levied against Nail Yakupov for missing the Canadian Hockey League Top Prospects Game is another example of the limited rights the best teenagers in the world have in major junior hockey.
Yakupov was suspended two games by Ontario League commissioner David Branch for skipping the event in Kelowna, which he did after Yakupov produced a note from a reputable doctor in London, Ont., who said it would not be in the player’s best interests to play in the game. It should be noted Yakupov had played in the Sarnia Sting’s three previous games after missing a month with a knee injury suffered in the gold medal game at the World Junior Championship.
This is not the same thing as an NHL millionaire blowing off the All-Star Game because he wants to spend four days on the beach or gambling in Las Vegas. This is an 18-year-old in the midst of one of the most crucial seasons of his career, one who has just returned from a significant injury.
Players in junior these days are expected to play in pre-season games, the regular season, all-star games, Russian-CHL challenge games, prospect games (during their draft years) and face a Stanley Cup-like playoff grind if their team makes it to the Memorial Cup. That’s a lot to ask of teenagers who aren’t nearly as physically developed as the men who play in the NHL.
What makes this so disturbing is that Yakupov is an elite player, the top prospect for this year’s draft. If he has no control over his own career, what’s a third-liner going to do other than constantly toe the line, even if he feels it’s not the best thing for him?
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.