Nicholas J. Cotsonika's weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week's topics include fighting’s place in the NHL; Marc Staal’s eye injury and the visor debate; the case for cut-resistant socks; Brendan Shanahan and the department of players safety have a perception problem; coaching legend Scotty Bowman on the best young defensemen in the league.
FIRST PERIOD: Time to bring down the curtain on staged fights
Fighting is one thing. Staged fighting is yet another. There is no need or excuse for what happened Wednesday night, and if it dredges up the same, old tired debates, well, good. It should.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Frazer McLaren fought the Ottawa Senators’ David Dziurzynski. They squared off, fists up. Then they danced, grappled and swung wildly. Finally, McLaren caught Dziurzynski with a right, and Dziurzynski dropped to the ice, face first, out cold. He suffered a concussion.
It became the talk of the NHL at a time when the Chicago Blackhawks are on a 24-game point streak, the Los Angeles Kings are shaking off their Stanley Cup hangover and the playoff races are ultra-tight.
“Did you see that punch last night?” said legendary coach Scotty Bowman, now a senior advisor to the Blackhawks, bringing up the subject in a conversation Thursday. “Oh, my god. That was real scary.”
That was bad enough, if you don’t like any kind of fighting. But the rest of the story makes it hard to justify even if you think fighting has a place in the game.
The fight came 26 seconds into the first period, so it didn’t arise from something that happened in the course of play. It was only to get a rise out of the Leafs and the crowd.
It was a mismatch. McLaren, 25, is listed at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. Dziurzynski, 23, is listed at 6-3, 204. McLaren has had 60 fights in the American Hockey League and 21 in the NHL. Dziurzynski has had 15 in the AHL. This was his first in the NHL.
And here is the worst part: McLaren told reporters he challenged Dziurzynski and that Dziurzynski declined, only to change his mind.
Dziurzynski never played major junior and was never drafted into the NHL. He signed with the Senators as a free agent winger and spent three seasons in the minors. This was his 10th NHL game.
Speculating here, but maybe he felt obligated to go even though he isn’t an enforcer. You don’t back down. You’ve got to show you’re tough. When you’ve fought so hard to make it figuratively, you’ll fight literally.
The culture has not changed, at least not enough.
The NHL has not taken steps to curb fighting, even after the deaths of Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien in 2011. To be clear, the deaths of those enforcers could not be linked definitively to fighting, and each case was different. Still, the issues raised were legitimate – from the unique pressures of the role, to the effects head trauma might have.
Why no action? The NHL thinks fans like fighting, that it acts as a thermostat and deters other types of violence, and that the players are willing combatants.
At least there, the league has an argument. There is no question arenas roar when players drop the gloves. There is no doubt that fights release tension and keep players honest. And even though the science is still evolving, the players know more than ever before what they could be doing to their brains. It is informed consent, or close.
“Obviously,” said the Detroit Red Wings’ Jordin Tootoo, “you’re putting yourself at risk.”
But staged fights aren’t a reaction to the actual game. They’re only about show business or energy or intimidation or toughness. That’s it.
“I think the biggest thing is creating emotion out there,” said Tootoo, who fought twice off the opening faceoff earlier this season. “I think it’s just a spontaneous decision. Obviously you want to get off to a good start. The first five minutes of every game is huge. Setting the tone right off the bat could be the key to a big win.”
“Most of my fights are in the first period,” said the Edmonton Oilers’ Mike Brown, among the league leaders with five fights. “Just whenever necessary in my head. For me, I like to get energy in the game, whether it’s the start of the game or the start of a shift.”
It would be difficult to draw a distinction between fights and staged fights in the rule book. As one NHL executive pointed out, say you add an extra penalty for a fight in the first 30 seconds of a game. What if someone takes a cheap shot in the first 30 seconds and a fight erupts as a result? Was that a staged fight? Where do you draw the line? How do you make that judgment, practically speaking, night after night?
The NHL has debated ways of curbing fighting in general, such as establishing quotas that lead to automatic suspensions, as in the Ontario Hockey League. But the league obviously has not implemented anything like that yet, and it needs to take another look. A quota system should cut down on staged fights even more dramatically than overall fights. You wouldn't want to waste one of your fights on something silly, right?
Fighting is supposed to be declining naturally, because the league is so competitive and teams can’t afford to carry players who can’t, you know, play. But while fighting has been trending downward and there are few pure enforcers left, fighting ebbs and flows. It is back up this season over last.
Look at the Northeast Division, where the Buffalo Sabres added Steve Ott and John Scott because they failed to stand up to the Boston Bruins’ Milan Lucic after he ran their goaltender last season. Randy Carlyle loved his fighters when he won a Stanley Cup as coach of the Anaheim Ducks, and he loves them now as coach of the Leafs, who lead the league with 24 fighting majors.
“There's people that want it out of the game, but I don't think it's going to as quickly as some people would think, some people would like,” Carlyle said earlier this season. “I just think it's a fact of life in the NHL.”
The truth hurts.
SECOND PERIOD: Visors aren’t invincible, but every NHLer should wear one
Should NHL players wear visors? Yes.
But would a visor have saved the New York Rangers’ Marc Staal on Tuesday night? Maybe not. And it might have even made his injury worse.
A veteran NHL equipment manager, who requested anonymity, said that in his professional opinion the shot that hit Staal in the face would have broken a visor and the pieces might have impaled his eye.
The equipment manager watched the replay at real speed and in slow motion. He watched the Philadelphia Flyers’ Kimmo Timonen fire a shot. He watched the puck deflect off the stick blade of the Flyers’ Jakub Voracek and strike Staal in the face. He saw Staal’s horrific reaction and the blood on the ice.
He said every player should wear a visor. But he also said that visors are designed to protect players from things like errant high sticks. They are not designed to stop slapshots fired from high-tech sticks at high speed, especially when the puck hits a player straight on. They break, and when they break, they have sharp edges.
This issue comes up every time a player suffers a serious injury, and this time it’s particularly pertinent. The Flyers’ Chris Pronger and the Vancouver Canucks’ Manny Malhotra are suffering from eye problems and likely won’t play again.
The NHL favors mandatory visors. The NHL Players’ Association leadership encourages visors. And 73 percent of NHL players wear visors, an all-time high. But the NHL cannot make visors mandatory without the consent of the union, and the union represents the wishes of the players, and the majority of the players still favor personal choice.
It is understandable that players want personal choice. But the players need to understand that their personal choice affects other people – the fans, who pay to see players on the ice, not in the infirmary; their fellow union members, who pay higher escrow rates when more players are injured; their teammates, whose chances to win suffer because of injuries; and their teams, who pay them millions to play, not to sit out.
The issue is so frustrating because the answer is so simple: Make players entering the NHL wear visors. They had to wear them at lower levels, so they won’t know any different and won’t need to adjust. Grandfather current NHL players into the rule, so they can keep their personal choice. It worked for helmets years ago. It would work for this.
Just know that even if everyone wears a visor, not every injury will be prevented.
THIRD PERIOD: Pull up your (cut-resistant) socks and get out there
Another simple safety solution: Make cut-resistant socks part of the NHL uniform.
It should have been done by now, and had it, the Senators’ Erik Karlsson might be contending for his second straight Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman instead of recovering from surgery to repair a sliced Achilles.
Since Karlsson’s injury, the focus has been on cut-resistant socks worn underneath the uniform. They are highly effective. Some players wear them voluntarily, but they are not required. Karlsson wasn’t wearing them when the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Cooke clipped him with a skate blade.
But the uniform socks can be made of cut-resistant material, too. (Note: Not all are made of Kevlar.) At least one NHL team tested them last season.
The equipment manager – the same one mentioned above – asked a couple of players to try some new socks in a couple of games. He didn’t tell them anything else, so he wouldn’t color their thoughts. He said he reported his results to the manufacturer in an email: “Nobody noticed a damn thing. Get them. I want them.”
He doesn’t have them.
“Where are they?” he asked.
Good question. Had Karlsson been wearing them, there is a good chance he wouldn’t have been cut, at least not that badly. Other players might have avoided cuts to their legs, too, like the Wings’ Ian White.
“They need one more layer of protection,” the equipment manager said. “They just need that one more layer.”
OVERTIME: Perception problems with NHL’s punishment process
Forget for a moment whether the Sabres’ Patrick Kaleta should have received a five-game suspension for boarding Brad Richards. The debate over the number of games is old now. Focus instead on the process.
This showed two problems for the department of player safety (DPS):
One, a player has the right to an in-person hearing if he is going to be suspended for six games or more, according to the collective bargaining agreement. So when the news broke that Kaleta was having only a phone hearing, everyone knew he would receive no more than five games. Disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan and the DPS were being judged before they had even made a final judgment.
Two, a player now has the right to appeal a suspension of six games or more to an independent arbitrator instead of commissioner Gary Bettman. This was a win for the NHLPA in labor negotiations. But this creates a significant divide between five games and six games, and in situations like this, it can look like the DPS is backing off to avoid an appeal. We have yet to see a test case.
Shanahan should consider bringing in players for in-person hearings if they are even in the five- or six-game neighborhood. There is nothing to stop him from making a player come to New York and then giving him five, four or three games. It might make for more direct communication, more teachable moments and less noise on the outside.
As for appeals, the DPS insists they are not a factor. The DPS does what it thinks is right, shows its work for everyone to see and stands behind it. But the perception problem actually could work the other way if the DPS starts issuing longer suspensions. Players would appeal via the NHLPA. Then, suddenly, it would be the union, not the league, taking heat.
SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL
– The lockout-shortened season has been blamed for the rash of injuries. But listen to Bowman: “I don’t think it’s all the schedule. I think it’s the nature of the game – players blocking shots, players playing with speed. The league is trying to make it as safe as it can, but accidents happen. You can clean it up all you want, but it’s still a body-contact sport.”
– Bowman has been impressed with two young defensemen: the Phoenix Coyotes’ Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Minnesota Wild’s Jonas Brodin. Mark these words: “You’ll see in a couple years. You’ll be talking about these guys among the top half-dozen defensemen in the league. That’s how good they are.” He loves their skating, skill and hockey sense – how passes are always tape-to-tape.
– Ryan Suter has already faced the Predators since leaving as a free agent, but he did that at home in Minnesota. He will make his first trip to Nashville on Saturday night. It will be uncomfortable, but at least he seems much more comfortable now with the Wild. He has six points in his past five games.
– Never saw this coming: the St. Louis Blues going with Jake Allen in goal, even though both Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak are healthy now. Elliott and Halak won the Jennings Trophy last season as the goals-against leaders. Now both are struggling and the Blues need a minor-leaguer to stop the puck.
– The Wings’ Niklas Kronwall entered Thursday night second among defensemen in scoring with 18 points. But he scoffs at the idea he is a Norris candidate. “Stats only say so much, I think,” he said. “I know I need to be better.” He singled out one stat – his minus-3 – and said he needs to be more consistent in his own end and needs to make better decisions with the puck. “I have a few more levels to reach before I’m really satisfied,” he said.
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