Monday, November 14, 2011

Sabres Learn An Old Lesson

So the Buffalo Sabres are getting it from all corners of the hockey world for failing to act on Milan Lucic’s hit that knocked out their franchise player and number one goalie Ryan Miller on Saturday. Pundits are calling the Sabres “soft”, “gutless” and a few other things that aren’t printable in your average family newspaper.

Sound familiar Sens fans?

It should, because Ottawa had a reputation for a long time of being a team that failed to protect its star players from predatory hits and cheapshots (and oh there were many over the years). That changed a little when Zdeno Chara and Brian McGrattan provided some muscle in the mid-2000’s but after a few incidents with Daniel Alfredsson in recent years (such as the Mark Bell hit and the Wojtek Wolski elbow) that were not fully addressed on the ice, either at the time or in subsequent matches, the Senators are not exactly a shining example of frontier justice anymore either. But more on that in a moment.

Miller, who is now out with a concussion, fired the first “gutless” shot at Milan Lucic himself, saying “He has 50 pounds on me and he runs me like that?... That was gutless.” Lucic, who was given a few love-taps by the Sabres on the ice immediately after the hit, fired back with “We wouldn’t accept anything like that. We would have [taken] care of business. But we’re a different team than they are.”

The reason Lucic can say that with complete confidence? He knows the Sabres won’t do anything about it. Who says intimidation doesn’t work in hockey? Boston won the game 6-2.

Perhaps the Sabres were counting on the referees to take care of them but Lucic only got a two-minute penalty for charging and the Sabres didn’t do anything with the power-play, as can often happen when a team is demoralized like that.

You can perhaps forgive the Sabres for thinking the refs would come to their rescue, just like some teams who don’t employ tough guys believe that the league will dole out the proper punishment to players taking cheap shots at their stars. But even in this era of heightened sensitivity and super-suspensions, the league is still powerless to act if they deem the hit to be a legal one.

That’s exactly what happened to the Ottawa Senators when Brendan Shanahan decided that the New York Rangers Wojtek Wolski was “bracing himself” instead of intentionally elbowing Ottawa’s own franchise player in the chops and concussing him for five games (of which they lost 4 in a row).
So right there you can quickly see a grey area where old school “vigilante justice” may still have a role in the NHL. If your star player is lying on the ice and the league sees nothing wrong with it, what are you supposed to do? Just sit back and take it?

Of course not. That’s a loser mentality. Even if your star player gets hit cleanly, it’s important for his teammates to let the other team know that’s still unacceptable. That doesn’t make sense to a lot of fans who see everybody as fair game as long as it’s within the rules but hockey players certainly don’t think like that. The proof is out there on the ice. A lot of people complain about the fights that happen after clean hits, and in a way it has gotten a little ridiculous. In the 80’s for instance, fights always happened if a star player got hit cleanly but was usually let go when a third or fourth line player got lit up at centre ice (give or take a few bench clearing brawls between the Canadiens and the Nordiques of course).

Now even those hits are ending up in fights a lot of times, but behind it all is a reasonable motivation. If teams let every clean hit go without fighting back, the league would be littered with star players (and third liners) on the sidelines. Those fights, or the threat of them, make some players think twice before really laying the body on someone (although some players just aren’t wired that way, like Patrick Kaleta). It acts as a deterrent and keeps the game from turning into a roller derby every night.

And that’s just the clean hits. If you let the dirty ones go unpunished, what does that say for your team? To count on the league to play enforcer is plain folly. Even if the guy who hit your star gets suspended, it seems like little solace in the end. Players don’t want the league to do their dirty work. They’d much rather take care of it themselves in the traditional way that hockey has always allowed, even after the instigator penalty was instituted (although to a lesser degree).

So why didn’t the Sabres respond to Ryan Miller getting knocked out of the game? Beats me. They’ll get a chance to do that later in the season but it seems like it’s already too late. They’ve been labeled and teams won’t have much fear going into that rink and maybe giving Thomas Vanek that extra shot that they know will go unpunished. On the other hand, maybe this incident serves to wake up the Sabres and they come together as a team. It can work both ways.

And why did the Senators seem to shy away from getting tough on the Rangers just weeks after Alfredsson was knocked out of commission? Maybe it had something to do with Wolski being out of the lineup for surgery but that shouldn’t have had any bearing on the situation. Brad Richards had a fairly comfortable game, as did Marian Gaborik. Zenon Konopka and Jared Cowen stepped up and took on the Rangers but it still felt like a missed opportunity to make a stand as a team. The Senators fell apart shortly after that and erased their great October with a brutal start to November with Alfie on the shelf.

In essence, it’s not the fighting that’s important, it’s the idea of coming together and making a statement to the league. They could have done that without any fights at all. All they had to do was make life miserable for the Rangers on the boards and within the rules. Winning that game on their own turf would have been enough. That didn’t happen either.

To be fair to the Senators, they have a lot of young guys trying to stay in the league. Nobody wants to be the guy who takes a stupid penalty and puts his team down a man. Nobody wants to get hammered by Shanahan. The league seems to be in a flux right now and a lot of players don’t know how to act.

But at some point for both the Sabres and the Senators, you have to come together as a team and let it be known that if you mess with one, you have to face the rest. That’s a cliché as old as hockey itself, but it’s one lesson that seems to get taught year after year after year.


Anonymous said...

I think that the Lucic hit deserved a spontaneous response. And, I'd even say that next game, Lucic needs to keep his head up.

That said, the whole frontier justice mentally is kinda stupid. If the play is against the rules, it should be punished accordingly.

I think that the NHL is taking incremental steps in the right direction, when it could really address these issues by consistently enforcing the rules.

My understanding is that Miller is concussed. You'll never eliminate concussions completely, but is the Lucic hit a play that the game could do without? If it is, then it needs to be punished.

Twelve years ago, the biggest profile player in the game, Eric Lindros, was ridiculed for his sensitivity to being hit in the head. Fast forward to today and the highest profile player, Sidney Crosby, could be at 95% and he's still deemed not ready for action. People seem supportive and understanding. That's progress. It took some time, but still progress.

The game is what it is today. But, I'd bet that the Lucic hit will not be tolerated as the game evolves. You have young players who are growing up with a higher level of consciousness with regards to the effects of head injuries. That's going to eventually works its way through the system.

I think that the resistance to punishing hits like Lucic and Wolski comes from the old guard. Just my opinion. I think that Shanahan has been influenced. Just an opinion again, supported with no inside knowledge just observation.

As the old guard gets replaced with a younger crew, I think that new attitudes and actions will emerge in the NHL power structure.

Another point about "vigilante justice" or the lack of it, may be that nowadays there is so much player mobility, that players have friends on other teams. I'm not saying that is the explanation, but it may be a factor that scales down the hate it bit.

Also, let's face it, Lucic is a pretty tough dude. Who wants to mess with him?

Jeremy Milks said...

Here's an interesting opinion on the whole "frontier justice" thing from Hall Of Famer Mark Howe:

"I like the game a little better in our era, mostly because the players policed the game. I think there's so much onus put on the officials right now ... I don't mind the fighting in the game, I know they're trying to take a lot of it out. The game in the old days got rid of the pretenders and the guys who do the whacking and the hacking, guys that are chirping back. That stuff got eliminated years ago. If somebody was taking a shot at your best player, somebody got rid of that right away."

Oman said...

"...a shining example of frontier justice... " ugh.

Nothing shiny about vigilante justice IMHO.

But that is the Typical analysis you get here on Black Aces: don't question the authorities... just blame the victim!

Mr Milks: " If you let the dirty ones go unpunished, what does that say for your team?"

Me: "If you let the dirty ones go unpunished, what does that say about the LEAGUE?!!!"

Have to agree with Anon. If Beauchemin, Lucic and Wolski get suspended this whole mess starts to go away. Fail to act and the bullies just get worse.

Right now they're doing NOTHING to prevent the kind of situation Sidney Crosby has end up in (like Kariya and so many skilled "targets" before him).

Illegal play (ie. get's a penalty on the ice) + principle contact to the head + concussion MUST = at least minimum suspension, intent or no intent. If there's intent, or you're a repeat offender, then throw the book at them.

Re. the old boy take: It's not just the "pretenders" that we should be worried about in today's game. It's the thugs like Chara and Lucic that are allowed to smash heads with impunity. To go vigilante, you need to get bigger, badder SOB's on your team to take them on... and hockey just gets uglier.

With all the money in today's game, you just CAN'T let the players police themselves. It would become a brutal arms race in no time. The game as we know it would degenerate into UFC on ice (it's already pretty dam close at times).


I love watching professional hockey too much to want to see it turn into the wild west. I wan't to see good battles and clean hits, and maybe the odd scuffle and spur-of-the-moment fight, but most of all I want to see fast, skilled players making amazing hockey plays. IMO that's what make hockey the moste exciting game in the world.

Ugly hits followed up by ugly brawls, and revenge attacks every game... with skilled players regularly injured and out of the line-up, making way for bigger, tougher, less skilled pluggers engaged in gang warfare on ice... no thanks.

(Dammit Milks, you sucked me in again! Back to work!)

Jeremy Milks said...

Oman, glad to be of service.

I think you're getting a little carried away though. Tough guys create a balance. They don't necessarily turn the game into the wild west. Some players will tell you a lack of tough guys and the accountability they bring is what really turns the game into a circus. This article was mostly about what happens when the league doesn't step in. The league can't and won't take care of every situation that happens on the ice. That's a pipe dream. There are times when a hit is technically legal but still must be addressed. When the league doesn't do it, the players have to. That was the point I was trying to make.

Not sure why you would call Chara and Lucic "thugs". They're both world class players who also happen to be tough but clean. And they also happen to be Stanley Cup champions. "Winners" is the word you were looking for.

Thomas Gamble said...

I appreciate that you taking the time to write this article , it has valuable information.

Anonymous said...

well said in the blog.

I personally don't believe that goalies should be given a free pass everywhere they roam. That being said it shouldnt be open season on them out of the crease either.

My final comment is Lucic is a mean huge prick and he can play hockey as well. No one on the sabres responded because they would simply get the piss beat out of them. Same if anyone, yes ANYONE, on the senators tried to mess with big ML. We desperately need a player like that on the Senators...