Iginla, Nash and Kovalchuk battle for scoring title

Out of a group that includes a superstar and two of the most exciting young talents to come into the National Hockey League in years will emerge the NHL's goal-scoring champion for 2003-04.

One wonders whether Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash or Ilya Kovalchuk should actually get the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy for winning the scoring title.

Calgary's Iginla, who won the trophy two seasons ago, Nash, a second-year standout for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Kovalchuk, the sensational standout for the Atlanta Thrashers, all finished the season with 41 goals.

The Richard Trophy goes to the goal-scoring leader, but here's the rub: The trophy came into being largely because Richard was the first NHLer to score 50 goals in 50 games, a noteworthy achievement when he did it in 1945, but a mark that was nearly doubled when Wayne Gretzky scored 92 in an 80-game season in 1981-82. Unless some sort of miracle is about to take place, none of today's leaders will score 50 goals on the season, a far cry from what the Rocket did and so supremely distant from Gretzky's 50 goals in 39 games in that same '81-82 season that one can't help but believe Gretzky's accomplishment was something out of myth and legend.

Iginla won it two seasons ago with just 52 goals. Last season it went to Colorado's Milan Hejduk who put on a huge finishing kick just to get to 50. Since the award's inception in 1999, only one player has won the trophy with fewer than 50 goals and that was Teemu Selanne who had 47 for Anaheim and the end of a dismal 1998-99 campaign.

Whoever wins, it's likely he'll do it with the lowest total since Gordie Howe won it in 1962-63 with 38. That was when the league played a 70-game season and even then, Howe scored at a better clip than today's contenders.

Nash was hardly downcast about the situation. It's not often that a teenager scores 40 goals in this league, after all.

"I've got 40 goals. I think that's a pretty good season," he said. "If I don't win it, look who I'm going up against -- two superstars in the NHL."

Iginla certainly qualified and Kovalchuk is on the cusp. It's arguable that had Kovalchuk not been on the bench for several games because of defensive shortcomings he would have won this thing going away -- or at least have hit the 50-goal mark.

No player is on record as saying he wouldn't accept the award. With the winner likely to record the lowest goals-for total since its inception, the Rocket probably isn't spinning in his grave. However, we suspect he could at least be up on one elbow.

It's also a stinging indictment as to how the NHL has become dominated by goaltending and defense.

Consider this: Iginla's teammate, goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, notched 27 saves en route to a shutout Wednesday vs. the Phoenix Coyotes. The shutout was the 187th of the season in the NHL, a record that was topped one night later when San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov notched the league's 188th. The old record, 186, was established in 2000-01.

Pushing the goalie-dominant theme just a bit further, Kiprusoff has an excellent chance of lowering the NHL's mark for lowest goals-against average. He's at 1.69. The most recent GAA mark was established last season by Dallas' Marty Turco, who came in at 1.72. In terms of historical reference, Dominik Hasek once won the Hart Trophy as league MVP by becoming the first goaltender in nearly four decades to finish with a goals-against average below 2.00. This season, four goalies who've played 30 or more games -- Kiprusoff, Dwayne Roloson, Turco and Robert Esche -- are in position to do that. Two more -- Martin Brodeur and Andrew Raycroft -- are at 2.02.

There is at least one encouraging note, however. Nash is the first teenager to score 40 goals in a season since Jimmy Carson, then playing with the Los Angeles Kings, scored 44 in 1987-88.

Points are hard to come by
This could also be the third time in five years that a player wins the overall scoring crown without reaching the 100-point plateau.

Tampa's Martin St. Louis appears to be the runaway winner for the scoring crown with 93 points. St. Louis has but one-game remaining. He's not likely to be caught even if Colorado's Joe Sakic (86 points with two games remaining) or Kovalchuk (85 points with two games remaining) both have huge finishes. St. Louis, however, is also not likely to hit triple figures.

The scoring leader annually walks away with the Art Ross Trophy. Last season, Colorado's Peter Forsberg won it on the final day of the season, out pointing Vancouver's Markus Naslund. The season before that it was Iginla with 96 points, a run than ended Jaromir Jagr's streak of four straight scoring crowns. Jagr had 102, 127, 96 and 121 points respectively.

No slack for Hasek
We've received a number of e-mails from people asking us to praise Dominik Hasek for returning some $3 million in salary to the Red Wings. Their claim is that we were quick to criticize him for quitting on the team and that the refund -- half of his reported $6 million salary -- was a magnanimous gesture on his part.

We respond by saying that taking $3 million for 14 games of work still smacks of accepting remuneration under false pretenses especially since the player involved contributed next to nothing to the Wings, disrupted the team, thoroughly disrupted the life and career of his replacement, Curtis Joseph, and launched a comeback even though he knew he had a history of groin problems and had done almost nothing to prepare himself for the rigors of the 2003-04 season despite having taken a full season off.

If we were the truly cynical sort we would openly wonder if Hasek was doing anything more than lying low in the U.S. while awaiting word as to whether or not he would be indicted for assault regarding an incident in the Czech Republic and rebating because of tax considerations.

If anything, Hasek should have given more to the Red Wings, especially now that his legal problems came to a surprisingly quick and favorable resolution shortly after he quit the team. That and the fact he refused to put in the work to rehabilitate himself to a point where he actually might have helped Detroit indicates the Red Wings were fleeced and in a big, big way.

Voting issues in Florida
OK, someone needs to fess up in the Tampa Bay locker room.

Seems that someone there swiped Martin St. Louis' ballot for the Lester B. Pearson award, an award that annually goes to the league MVP as voted by the players (separate from the Hart Trophy which is voted upon by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association).

No one's talking, but the theory is that since St. Louis is the kind of player who would never vote for himself and since his teammates feel he should hands-down win the award, someone with a bolt on his chest filled it out for him.

St. Louis would be a deserving winner, but the balloting is expected to be very close and, hey, we've seen years when even one purloined vote can make a difference, especially in Florida.

Peca leading the way
Going into the final two games of the season, Islanders forward Mark Parrish had 11 goals in his last 15 starts and had managed to forge a tie for the team lead with 24 goals. This comes despite missing two months of the season with a high ankle sprain. Parrish credits teammate Michael Peca for getting him the puck on a regular basis.

Peca has almost single handedly willed the Islanders into a third-straight playoff berth (two points out with two games to play). The team captain doesn't score like he used to, but is still a good setup man, an excellent penalty killer and he united the room (as best as it can be unified in the always fractious Islanders room). Insiders say Peca was particularly driven by the fact that the team was being pushed hard down the stretch by the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot. If the Islanders make it, it will be the third straight season since the Sabres traded him to New York in a bitter contract battle three seasons ago. If the Sabres miss, it would be a third straight miss, something that hasn't been done in the history of the franchise.

Torchetti should be back in Florida
Look for Florida to keep John Torchetti as head coach next season barring "unforeseen circumstances." Those were the words general manger Rick Dudley used in saying it was an almost foregone conclusion that Torchetti would be back. The only possible holdup is believed to be if either Craig Ramsay or Lindy Ruff were to become available.

Ramsay, an associate coach in Tampa Bay, recently signed a contract extension there, but there is almost always an out should a non-head coach get a head-coaching offer. Dudley is a huge admirer of Ramsay's coaching abilities.

Ruff is thought to have two years remaining on a contract he signed at the start of this season but there is speculation that the Sabres have a clause that would allow management to make a change at no real cost should the team not make the playoffs this season. Dudley has also long admired Ruff's work. Ironically, Dudley, Ruff and Ramsay all played for the Sabres and all three were head coaches there at different times.

Skating on empty
Overall, the Los Angeles Kings lost some 600 man-games to injury this season, an NHL record. Still, the Kings are perplexed by the late-season swoon that took them out of the playoff hunt this week. They had performed well in spite of the injuries, but come into this weekend having lost nine straight (one shy of the club record).

There's a perception inside the Kings organization that the players simply ran out of gas down the stretch, but management did make moves to try and keep the team afloat. Unfortunately for the Kings, Martin Straka came over from Pittsburgh and did not score as expected. The same could be said for late-season pickup Anson Carter.

Who are you?
Should be interesting if the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning somehow meet up in the playoffs.

Lightning forward Tim Taylor this week was quoted as saying he didn't like Ottawa's Peter Bondra as a player and that he thought he was "selfish" and was glad that the Lightning didn't get him at the trade deadline.

The comments stunned several on the Ottawa roster, but Bondra had a cutting response: "I don't know who Tim Taylor is," he said.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.