As I’ve watched the NHL season and playoffs this year, there have been a few things that really stand out in my mind.
First of all, the “new NHL” package is still as exciting to watch as it was the year before. True, coaches and defensemen are getting wiser and undoubtedly are learning how best to combat the new open ice. A perfect example of this is the Anaheim/Minnesota series. Being a fan that bleeds red and green, it was very disappointing to see my team knocked out in the first round but, quite frankly, we were outgunned and outmatched through the entire series. The one thing that the Wild have always had is speed. Marian Gaborik won the fastest skater competition at the All Star skills competition in his first and only All Star game but, what fails to ever be mentioned is that the very same year, he was beaten out in the Wild’s own skills competition by Wes Walz. On top of those two, there is Pavol Demitra, Pierre Marc Bouchard and the list can continue. So how did Anaheim slow down the Wild’s attack? The neutral zone trap. They did the exact same thing that Edmonton did against Detroit the year before. Clog up the neutral zone, clog up the passing lanes, slow the team down. My point being is that the defense of the game is again evolving, while the offense is remaining stagnant. That is the reason that the goals didn’t make another huge jump this year. Coaches spent so much time figuring out how not to get scored on that they didn’t spend any time figuring out how to score. The neutral zone trap is pretty much a staple of modern hockey, regardless of what age or skill level. It’s simply one of the most efficient ways not to get scored on. Next year, however, there will be more goals. Coaches will see that teams are doing this and will react in kind. As simple as that. Anaheim dominated a very speedy Wild team by using the neutral zone trap and playing physical hockey. The one game of the series that the Wild won, they combated this by carrying the puck into the zone (instead of the typical dump and chase game) and by throwing their bodies around. Which brings me to my next topic…
The league is, on a whole, getting more physical. However, contrary to what most people are saying, this isn’t a bad thing. Hitting and fighting have always been a part of the North American brand of hockey. This is nothing new. I won’t go so far as to say that fighting is acceptable simply because it’s part of the game, because there is absolutely nothing that I hate more in a hockey game than watching a good game degenerate into nothing more than two teams trying to inflict the most damage on the other. Fighting is part of the game and, contrary to what most believe, is not acceptable. It is punished by the stiffest penalty that does not result in an ejection; a five minute major. I do feel that the NHL should be doing more to punish fighting and to make some of these so-called goons actually skate because, when they put their minds to it, these big brawlers are actually pretty decent hockey players. For example, Derek Boogaard. The last few games of the season, Boogaard got more ice time than he had previously seen all season, simply because Lemaire wanted him to get a goal. Now, during this time, Boogaard was actually trying to stay out of trouble for the most of it, and he looked fantastic. He skated hard, got some good scoring opportunities, and actually created some plays as well. Look at the other big fighters too. Brashear and Mayers are two other good examples. These are two heavy hitters who actually have a lot of talent with the puck too. But I digress. The NHL should institute more instigator penalties (to take the instigating side down a man) or even take the game to 4-on-4 during the five minutes that the penalties are being served. Something to penalize the teams other than just having a player that gets at most 8 minutes of ice time off the ice for 5 minutes. Also, the NHL needs to realize that fighting isn’t the most pressing issue on this matter. The most pressing issue is the “emotional” aspect of the game. Yes…Hockey is physical. Yes…People get hit. You know another sport that’s physical? Football. After a huge hit in football, how many times do you see the player that got hit stand up and take a swing at the one who hit him? Or try to injure the one who hit him? In the last 5 years, hockey has started taking a turn for the worse in this department. Todd Bertuzzi and General Manager Brian Burke became the poster boys for this degeneration during the Steve Moore incident. A horrific retaliation for a clean hit. And for those keeping score, Moore hasn’t skated since and Burke and Bertuzzi are both involved in the playoffs. Beyond the fact that both Burke and Bertuzzi got off light (and for those questioning why I continue to bring up Brian Burke; it was him who put the “bounty” on Moore’s head after said clean hit), the question should be begged, are these two people that the league wants to be associated with? Beyond those two, there were a few small incidents here and there (Ray Emery and Maxim Laperriere anyone?) but otherwise it was relatively quiet up until Chris Simon decided that he wanted to play baseball with Ryan Hollweg’s head. I’m sorry…I’ve looked at every single angle of the slash that I could find. There is nothing that convinces me that Simon didn’t know exactly what he was doing. What sickened me even more was Keith Jones DEFENDING him on a Vs. telecast, saying that he thought that the suspension was too stiff and that Simon was out of it and didn’t know what was going on. My questions is who cares if he was out of it or not? Two inches lower and Hollweg wouldn’t have been breathing, much less skating! Why is Chris Simon still in the league? Then, the knee jerk punches, of which there have been a lot. The most recent that come to mind are Jordin Tootoo against Dallas and Brad May in the playoffs against the Wild. Yes, a case can be made that Tootoo was protecting himself. Yes, Modano most likely should have been suspended for swinging his stick at him. But if you’re going to punch someone in the NHL, let him know it’s coming. Drop the gloves, wait for him to drop the gloves, then go to town. Don’t sucker punch someone coming to the aid of a teammate. What Tootoo did was at least semi-defensible, but what Brad May did was downright despicable. Besides the fact that Johnsson was coming to the aid of a teammate who had just been the victim of a third-man in wrestling match, Johnsson doesn’t even fight! He never saw it coming, never had a chance to defend himself and May broke his hand on Johnsson’s face! What does May get? A three game suspension, more likely than not to protect him from Boogaard. I won’t get into that rant, because it’s for a different time, but the NHL MUST crack down on these incidents if it wants to be taken seriously. No more “it’s part of an emotional game.” No more “he wasn’t in his right mind.” Take the 20-odd game suspension that Chris Simon received and give it to Tootoo and May. Take the “year long” suspension that Bertuzzi received and give it to Simon. Take the life-long suspension that Marty McSorley received and give it to Bertuzzi. If the NHL wants to be taken seriously as a sport again, it needs to start cracking down on these incidents and making sure the highlights on SportsCenter are of Alexander Ovechkin scoring a sick goal or Sidney Crosby making a terrific pass; not big dumb brutes trying to hurt one another because they have a little sore spot because they got checked.
And third, a short little Wild blurb. Doug Risebrough needs to make signing UFA Niklas Backstrom number one priority, trading Manny Fernandez number two priority and getting some more firepower number three priority. The ONLY reason that we were even close in the entire series against Anaheim was Backstrom. Had he played more than 40 games, there’s no doubt in my mind that we would have had home ice, and that he would have won the Vezina. Also, if Gaborik’s absence proved anything, it’s that we need another pure scorer. Not someone who creates plays and can also shoot, but a pure, tried and true scorer. If we can resign Backstrom, let the free weight of Fernandez go and get someone to compliment Gaborik, there’s no reason that Rice Park in downtown St. Paul shouldn’t be hosting a pre-party for the first game of the Stanley Cup finals next year.