Sweet-shooting Mighty Ducks right wing Teemu Selanne deserves to be among the three finalists for the Hart Trophy, which goes to the league's MVP. But whether he should beat out Penguins right wing Jaromir Jagr and Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek, two almost certain finalists for the award, comes down to this: Does Selanne's dominant season outweigh the fact that through Sunday, Anaheim was 25-41-12 and in last place in the Western Conference?
Even though he led the NHL with 52 goals and was tied for fourth in scoring with 86 points at week's end, the odds are against Selanne's winning the Hart. Jagr was the NHL's point leader, with 97 through Sunday, and Hasek was having one of the best seasons ever by a netminder, with 13 shutouts and a 2.09 goals-against average. As for Selanne, only four players whose teams failed to make the playoffs have been MVP (the last was Mario Lemieux of the 1987-88 Penguins). "He's had a phenomenal season," says Anaheim coach Pierre Page. "Through the down times, he hasn't let up."
With the absence of star left wing Paul Kariya, who missed the season's first 32 games in a contract dispute and who has been sidelined since Feb. 1 with postconcussion syndrome, Selanne has played with a hodgepodge of linemates and has been keyed on by opposing teams. "Trying to do damage without Paul has been a big challenge," says Selanne.
Here's how he has responded: Through Sunday, Selanne was plus-12 on a team that had surrendered 55 more goals than it had scored, and he had scored 10 game-winning goals and 26.9% of Anaheim's 193 goals. Only Brett Hull, who scored 27.7% of the Blues' goals in 1991-92, has had a higher percentage of his team's output in a season.
The 27-year-old Selanne, who is 6 feet and 200 pounds, is tougher in the corners than most snipers and possesses an uncommon blend of speed, explosiveness and touch. A classic Selanne moment, even though it didn't result in a goal, occurred on March 9 against the Kings. He was advancing on Rob Blake—one of the top three defensemen in the game—who was skating backward and was in good position. But when Blake broke stride for a split second, Selanne seized the moment. He accelerated past Blake and snapped a breakaway shot on goalie Stephane Fiset. "Most guys wouldn't have even noticed my hesitation," says Blake. "He saw it, and he was gone."
During and after the negotiations that resulted in Kariya's getting a two-year, $14 million contract on Dec. 10, Selanne never complained about the deal he signed in 1995, which was worth about $13 million over five seasons. Earlier this month, however, the Ducks added two years and $19.5 million to his contract. "I'm thankful they gave me the extension," he says, "but I wasn't worried, because if the only problem I have is that I'm underpaid, then things have to be pretty good."
NHL on Fox
What If No One's Watching?
The folks at Fox are scrambling to find ways to bolster their NHL regular-season ratings, which have dwindled from 2.1 in 1995-96 to 1.9 last season to just under 1.7 this season (each ratings point equals 970,000 households). In hopes of reversing that trend, Fox, which shows six regional games each Saturday afternoon from the week after the mid-January All-Star break until the end of the regular season, will trim its schedule to three games next season. Its plan is to concentrate on getting better matchups to more viewers and on beefing up production quality. "By covering fewer games, we can throw more resources at them," says Fox Sports executive producer Ed Goren. "It could help make our weekends more special."
In a way Fox has been its own saboteur. The 1996 advent of its cable network, Fox Sports Net, which bought up the local TV rights of various pro spoils teams, has resulted in NHL games on cable being barely distinguishable from those on over-the-air TV. All Fox broadcasts of NHL games use similar graphics and sound, which makes watching on Saturdays less of an event than it might be. "Fox does so much on its cable coverage that it dilutes the national game," says Stephen Solomon, the NHL's chief operating officer. "We need to create a distinct national look."