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Kingerski: Penguins, NHL Physicality Evolution, and Tying it Together

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Marcus Pettersson, erik gudbranson, nhl trade

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.

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William Nichols
William Nichols
28 days ago

I stopped watching. The game as played in the playoffs wasn’t worth my time.

The intensity is what makes playoff hockey. Take out the speed of play and skill and it might as well be WWE. No thanks.

Keith T.
Keith T.
28 days ago

It is sad that the NHL Dept of Player Safety is so inconsistent in the application and the enforcement of the rules and penalties to players. But it is what it is and other TEAMS have realized this and acted. Ya, It is difficult for teams to know with precision what to do…..BUT the fact is even without the post play shenanigans the Pens are in a world of trouble for basic man-up physical real-time hockey. This was the case for several seasons and it has digresses in the past three years! No doubt they have skill & speed and… Read more »

Peter Hoffman
Peter Hoffman
28 days ago
Reply to  Keith T.

Hey Keith, good comment. I agree with everything except the quickness and skill part. It holds in the regular season but for the last 3 years, in addition to being physically manhandled, we havent been qicker or more skilled in the playoffs either.

Uros
Uros
28 days ago

If this is the direction the league is taking, what I would call anarchy, then there won’t be much hockey to watch. Of course clean hits and occasional fights are part of the game and I would have it no other way, but clean is different from every man for himself and no discipline. I can’t not watch hockey, but I’ll certainly be less of a fan if things go this way. Even less so if I have to watch my team “do anything” just to win. I prefer to see who’s better at playing the game not who’ll hurt… Read more »

Rob
Rob
27 days ago

It would be much better and easier for the NHL to call penalties using the rule book. Punish the offenders like they should. Players should be allowed to use their speed and skills because that is what the game is about. It shouldn’t be “I went to see a fight and a hockey game broke out”, it should be the other way around. All these teams reacting to Tom Wilson and bringing in bigger and tougher players shouldn’t be happening. Teams should be fielding their best possible group of hockey players. Tom Wilson is a sideshow and a clown and… Read more »

Rob
Rob
27 days ago
Reply to  Rob

As for the penguins in this scenario, I would say they handled Wilson enough last season and that reflected in their record versus the Capitals. So if other teams want to get players to beat him up, that’s fine, but I would rather beat the Capital’s on the scoreboard.

Cal Reid
Cal Reid
27 days ago

The game is fine. The rules are fine. It is the reluctance to call a penalty that is the root of these issues.

TartanBill
TartanBill
27 days ago
Reply to  Cal Reid

Agreed, but I add “an to remove players who engage in dangerous plays or deliberate intent to injure”.
A physical team can overcome speed with checking and board play. That an assault happens on the ice rather than in the parking lot is irrelevant to me. If the game will be decided by Tonya Harding thugs, I’m not watching.

Tony C
Tony C
27 days ago

Basically a rewrite of your August 15th column. Seems you have a man crush on Tom Wilson.

Rob
Rob
27 days ago
Reply to  Tony C

Tom Wilson should only be attractive to the DOPS because every time he hits the ice, its time for them to earn their $$$

TartanBill
TartanBill
27 days ago
Reply to  Rob

If there are no rules, how long before someone low bridges him?

Rob
Rob
27 days ago
Reply to  TartanBill

It will happen eventually, he is not impervious to on ice repercussions

Katz
Katz
27 days ago

The league didn’t change. Pittsburgh surprised the league with an outlier couple of years , the league copied, and now reverting to the mean. The Problem for Pittsburgh is they ( Sullivan) refused to recognize reality and stubbornly adhered(s) to his rigid ideology. I argued that the roster add of Reaves by GMJR was enough to address the missing ingredients and could have led to a 3rd Cup. But we never got the opportunity to see, …we got Brassard instead. Now the league has reverted. Pittsburgh is left holding the bag, as if 3 embarrassing 1st Round exits are not… Read more »

Cal
Cal
27 days ago
Reply to  Katz

Ugh dont get me started on the Brassard fiasco. I was vocal about it when it happened and still believe to this day is was the beginning of the end.

Kris Francis Peterinelli
Kris Francis Peterinelli
27 days ago

Just wondering if this movement doesn’t have something to do with new TV contracts. Currently live in Jacksonville, Florida and have attended a lot of the Iceman ECHL games. Rapid fanbase, but also a novice one that is “looking” for the fights. Might this be an underlying mandate with the new TV Contract to “grow the game” to the novice knuckleheads who actually watch ESPN? In the efforts to get larger audience, we are breaking the game. Toughness is part of the action, but the illegal and after whistle stuff needs called.

trackback

[…] 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. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now) […]

Top Shelf
Top Shelf
27 days ago

1 or 2 guys that bring big time physicality and WIN fights would greatly benefit the Pens game. Say what you want, but there is no way that Gretzky would have put up his numbers if he didn’t have McSorely constantly being a deterrant. When the Pens had Sestito, Sid said that he felt a foot taller on the ice. Doesn’t that pretty much sum it up?

trackback

[…] Pittsburgh Hockey Now: From Tom Wilson to the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, the Metro added toughness. The game is changing and de-evolving. That affects the Pittsburgh Penguins, dramatically.  […]

trackback

[…] Pittsburgh Hockey Now: From Tom Wilson to the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, the Metro added toughness. The game is changing and de-evolving. That affects the Pittsburgh Penguins, dramatically.  […]

trackback

[…] Pittsburgh Hockey Now: From Tom Wilson to the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, the Metro added toughness. The game is changing and de-evolving. That affects the Pittsburgh Penguins, dramatically.  […]

Tony C
Tony C
27 days ago

The Pens went 6 (wins) and 2 (losses) against the Caps last year.  Explain to me again how “it’s much better to be the team causing lost teeth than it is to be the team losing teeth.” Rather than goons, we need exactly what Hextall said we need (and have)… namely, players who can “play through” the rough stuff other teams want to bring.

Katz
Katz
27 days ago
Reply to  Tony C

You think Pittsburgh would’ve beat Washington in a playoff series? LOL

Rob
Rob
27 days ago
Reply to  Katz

They could have beaten any team in the playoffs. Collectively as a team, they didn’t take their game to the proper level needed. Also, their goaltending was outmatched by a rookie. Still, a handful of goals from the top line and its a different story.

Rob
Rob
27 days ago
Reply to  Tony C

I was thinking something of the same nature. Overall team toughness is needed. They really miss having a player like Hornqvist. He exemplified what toughness is. Take the beating and score the goals. He inspired everyone on the team to do the same. Also, the star players need to play through the rough stuff and do their job. One goal in each of the last 3 playoff series is not enough from Crosby. To sum this up, having a player like Ryan Reeves won’t provide overall team toughness, only a deterrent for opposing players looking to cross the line. An… Read more »

Steven K.
Steven K.
26 days ago

I fully agree. The Pens should go after Gudbransib. Not only was he physical but clean, he also had pretty good stats. I think he was worth the money unlike Johnson. He was good st cheating the zone and keeping thugs at bay from hurting our star players. I’m sure now he could be had for a song. Let’s do it!

trackback

[…] Kingerski: Penguins, NHL Physicality Evolution, and Tying it Together […]

David Heyl
David Heyl
25 days ago

I know this comment will be trolled however I believe the rise in thug play is due to the new ESPN hockey contract. The ESPN coverage of the expansion draft was showboat & I turned it off. ESPN shows every fight in sports, baseball, basketball etc now they have the perfect sport known for using their fists. Once again the dread networks ruin another sport, sad!!!!!

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