The NHL opened the door with meager punishments, which amounted to tacit approval of ugly and dangerous play. Something is going on in the NHL that no one expected, and it’s entirely the league’s fault. Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Penguins may be more drastically affected than most if the hockey people have it right.
The league is lurching back to ugly physicality. Gooning, extra-legal and illegal physicality are back, and teams are looking for players to punch back or keep the rats and enforcers at bay.
Fighting was on the decline for years. From .6 mitt drops per game in 2008-09 to just .17 per game in 2019, the speed game, skill, and probably analytics had their collective arms around fighting. Teams couldn’t afford to or want to keep a 12th forward on the bench whose primary job was to punch.
But then the dark arts flared later last season. Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson nearly wrecked the New York Rangers single-handedly, weeks after putting Boston Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo in the hospital with a half-ice running start for boarding.
The league’s Department of Player Safety head George Parros was light on punishing multiple offenders and repeat offenders.
So what do you do when the law can’t protect you? No, you don’t call the A-Team. You get someone who can administer frontier justice.
“Just play” was music to Pittsburgh Penguins fans’ ears and worked at that moment, but things have come back around. Like or not, argue until you’re blue in the face, but the rough stuff works. If being more physical didn’t work, teams wouldn’t deploy the tactic. If hitting back didn’t work, teams wouldn’t worry about it. It seems Penguins fans often argue that tough guys are supposed to remove all hitting or extra-legal hits from the game, and since tough guys can’t do that, there is no value.
Yeah, wrong. WRONG.
Having some toughness on the ice doesn’t mean the other team fears you. It means they respect you more. Did Tom Wilson run the Penguins when Erik Gudbranson was rolling every third shift? How often were the Vegas Golden Knights the target of dirty play?
Let’s be honest–it’s much better to be the team causing lost teeth than it is to be the team losing teeth.
The league was moving away from the fighting and the dirty stuff, but it looks like it’s going to roar back.
The NHL is To Blame
“It’s the game. You can’t take hitting out of the game,” say the traditionalists.
Only a few people favor less hitting, but nearly everyone is in favor of clean hitting. The NHL and DoPS had a chance to make a few statements last season. The league declined.
Not only did the NHL not pick up its rule book and throw it at deserving targets, like Wilson, but the NHL made excuses. Reports indicated Parros didn’t want to suspend Wilson for charging across the ice to slam Carlo, but Commissioner Gary Bettman eventually stepped in.
DoPS issued 11 maximum-amount fines last season, including a $10,000 fine for elbowing to the noted animal, bruiser, and a player who rules can’t contain, Jared McCann.
After watching that, tell me why McCann wasn’t suspended?
Perhaps you remember Alex Ovechkin’s vicious cup-check on Boston Bruin’s forward Trent Frederic? Tell me why Ovechkin didn’t sit out a game for trying to create a eunuch in front of thousands of fans?
The cross-checks were out of control by the playoffs. Mathew Barzal leveled Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jan Ruutta with a stick to the face, but the NHL did little beyond the penalty on the ice and a $5,000 fine.
It became Judge Harold T. Stone, “$50 fine and time served…Next case Mac.”
Those were cheap plays that didn’t affect the game’s outcome, but maybe the NHL should be a little more strict? Perhaps a few fewer cheapies would translate to a few less retaliatory cheapies and continue to lower the fights?
Don’t get me wrong. Except for a ridiculous highlight-reel goal by Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, there’s nothing better than a good scrap born of an intense situation and battle. There’s also nothing worse than watching a hockey game devolve into gong show line brawls like the Rangers vs. Capitals rematch a few days after Wilson delivered the pile-driver to Artemi Panarin.
The Metro Stocking Up, Pittsburgh Penguins Beware
The Metropolitan Division is much tougher today than it was last season. And by tougher, we don’t mean the level of competition, though that too seems to have increased.
The Philadelphia Flyers re-signed 6-foot-6 Samuel Morin, who has a few scrapes on his knuckles. The Flyers also added Rasmus Ristolainen, who is tough to play against.
The New York Rangers added “the sheriff” Ryan Reaves, Barclay Goodrow, and Sammy Blais, who delivered a few extra-legal hits last season, too.
Those teams missed the playoffs last season but aim to thump a few of the Metro teams and take their spots.
We’ve done some preliminary previews of the Metro Division, and the increased grit and physicality will be a factor. The Carolina Hurricanes are getting better every year, the New York Islanders might make a significant addition in their top-six, in addition to the thunder they bring with the fourth line, and the Capitals are as tough as any team in the NHL (and sometimes as outside the rules as anyone, too).
We still think the Penguins adding Erik Gudbranson would be a great answer to the Metro Division’s path.
But the question looms. The Penguins management, specifically President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke and GM Ron Hextall, stated a desire to add physicality.
Regardless of fan opinion, the league is almost mandating. The Metro Division is adopting it.
The Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t yet tied it all together. Perhaps Penguins fan dogma will be rewarded, and the other teams will sink with physical players. Sometimes holding your ground despite changes around you is a good thing.
And sometimes, it really hurts. The puck is in the Penguins end.