Friday, January 6, 2012

The Bruins are Proof that the Problems in the New NHL Aren't Actually Universal Despite What Brian Burke Believes

Apparently hockey is going through a horrible change that is deeply distressing...

Essentially Burke is upset because he had to send Colton Orr to the AHL (thank heavens he cleared waivers!) and he had to send Orr to the AHL because, as an enforcer, there is no longer a spot on the roster available for a player who isn't necessarily the best skater (in other words, is nothing but a fighter) in the new and evolving NHL in which Brendan Shanahan suspensions are strict and frequent. He feels that because of Shanahan's excessive "policing", the physical aspect of the game is being forcefully removed and accountability on players who take cheap shots is placed solely on the shoulders of league disciplinarians (Shanahan) rather than players on the ice. In the past, for example, if a player like Downie takes a run at Phaneuf (who can protect himself, by the way), Orr comes out and makes Downie pay for it. Throwing a cheap shot directly leads to physically paying for it on the ice in that game, rather than perhaps a penalty and waiting to see if you do or don't get suspended by Shanahan. If Downie throws a questionable hit on Phaneuf, nobody on the Leafs can respond to it, because apparently the fact that Shanahan will look over the hit means nobody can respond to it on the ice.

That is where I simply don't understand what Burke is saying. Just because Shanahan may or may not suspend a player for a cheap shot doesn't mean someone on the Leafs can't respond to the cheap shot at some point during the game. Perhaps, for example, Downie refuses to fight; in that case, it's on Downie for not dropping the gloves - not Shanahan. If Downie isn't held accountable by one of the Leafs at some point after that, than that is because nobody on the Leafs physically challenged him and made him pay - therefore it's on the Leafs for no responding, rather than Shanahan for the vague non-present threat of a post-game review. I'd also like to point out that Phaneuf is perfectly capable of taking care of himself. If someone takes a run at you and you're not injured, Phaneuf should be motivated to respond himself. He can drop the gloves and fight - he just chooses not to. And why would he if he has a guy like Orr whose ONLY job is to fight? Maybe you disagree with the philosophy that players should stick up for each other while also being useful to the team with their gloves still on. 

Here is video of the Downie/Phaneuf instance Burke is referring to (about a minute and a half in):

That seems to be the issue Burke is unable to cope with that is causing this emotionally distressed over-dramatic press conference. The Leafs are not succeeding right now, and that probably has a lot to do with it, too. His team can't perform and/or adapt to the new nature of NHL physicality and he's seeing that early-season success of the Leafs start to slip away. A win over the Jets tonight (1/5/12) put the Leafs back in a playoff spot at 7th in the East, but the fact still remains that a team that dominated the NHL at the start of the season is now falling in the standings and battling with teams like Winnipeg that were at the start of the season, the very bottom of the NHL. 

Maybe Burke has a point; maybe a certain aspect of the NHL under Shanahan right now is causing players to lose accountability, but it's not a certainty. The Bruins are the perfect example of why every single thing that Burke is saying here just isn't absolute truth. They play a physical game and hit and have a fight almost every game; Shawn Thornton fought Colton Orr at least once this year, for instance. Sometimes that fight is in response to something or it's just because it's what needs to happen - that's the beauty of players like Thornton and Campbell; when they need to, they will fight and be effective as enforcers but the rest of the time, they still have a very valuable role on the team. 

Shawn Thornton's first fight of the season was against Colton Orr; the Bruins went on to win 6-2; Orr played a total of 5 minutes while Thornton played 10 minutes and had a shot on net.

Since the Bruins are basically the only NHL team that rolls 4 lines effectively and consistently, they seem to be the exception to the rule rather than discounting the existence of the rule. But why can the Bruins succeed in a system under their coach, a team that was built by a smart GM and front office as well as bred through the team and it's system. The Bruins mastered the old style of hockey as a physical, violent game while mastering the new style of hockey that emphasizes speed, skill, and team depth and that's why they are the best team in the league and defending Champions. If a player like Thornton failed to adapt, or did not have his line-mates on the Merlot line that compliment him and work so well together, then perhaps he would be in Orr's situation and being sent to the AHL because there isn't room anymore for someone who only fight. If you can't adapt, you can't survive; if you can't adapt, claiming that adaption is impossible makes no sense. 

I think this instance perfectly displays my point and the discrepancy between the reality Burke claims exists in the NHL and the actual reality of the NHL:

Raffi Torres, a Downie-like player, elbows Ference in the head and Ference's teammate, McQuaid, instantly holds Torres accountable by fighting him. It's very important to note that Torres did not get suspended for this action, but was fined in the next game for a similar incident and the game after that finally suspended for yet again, a similar incident. You can't blame lack of NHL players policing the game for Torres' actions because McQuaid certainly made him pay on the ice. The Bruins went on to win that game, as well. Burke's "fear" that there no longer exists guys in the NHL looking out for one another doesn't apply to the NHL just because it's a problem that exists within the current Leafs team.

I think this great blog post from Hockey in Society is absolutely worth reading because it further analyzes Burke's distorted state of mind:

It is also worth pointing out that “the Code” has, for a long time, allowed the NHL to pass the buck on player safety by refusing to interfere with the players’ self-policing code of conduct except in extreme circumstances. It has been heartening to see the NHL recently take some small (though not yet nearly adequate) steps to improve player safety and punish players who make dangerous and violent plays. Burke, however, clearly fears a world in which the league dolls out discipline and on-ice transgressions are settled by punches to the head rather than suspensions and fines.
If we continue to focus only on individuals, particularly the many individual enforcers who outside of their pugilistic role sound like wonderful human beings, we miss the impact that their on-ice role has on the broader culture of hockey. Orr, like Boogaard (and Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, for that matter) may be a fantastic person. But maintaining his employment as a hockey fighter because of this fact simply perpetuates the system that encouraged him – to say nothing of countless others who never reached the NHL or American Hockey League – to pursue his NHL dream in the first place. Fighters being “good guys” does not justify the need for enforcers in the first place.
I think Shanahan's new role in the NHL is still adjusting, clearly, but it doesn't need to effect the NHL as negatively as people think it will. Clearly the change that is happening is overwhelming and threatens a certain amount of physicality that the NHL is used to but that doesn't mean all hitting and fighting can not exist at all; nor does it mean that "rats" can't be subject to both on-ice punishment and off-ice suspensions or fines. Any sweeping change like this causes people to panic and resist - especially those teams that it does not immediately benefit. Despite Burke's belief that Player Safety and strict suspensions are destroying the fabric of the NHL and the type of hockey a successful team can play (and putting every player in danger), he must simply accept that enforcers like Orr have no place in the NHL anymore and instead fill that enforcer gap with the existing players on the roster. He must expect his team to defend each other without having to be pure fighters individually. Just like the typical enforcers that have to evolve to stay in the lineup, other members of the team must evolve and adopt a certain amount of toughness for themselves. As statistics from this article point out, hitting in the NHL isn't being chased out of the game as many claim it is.

This is especially true for teams like the Canucks. While the Sedins let punches get thrown at them with no response during the Stanley Cup finals, the most effective player on that team, Ryan Kesler, decided to defend himself when he and Seidenberg had a hilariously horrible fight. While it wasn't an exciting or brutal fight, it was still a huge statement towards defending yourself no matter who you are. And in cases of cheap shots, a teammate stepping in and fighting for you before you can do it yourself still very much exists in the era of Shanabans - it's just a matter of whether or not your teammates are willing to step up and become physical because they value one another more than they as scared of being penalized for instigating or losing a fight. Speaking of the Canucks, their team structure's ineffectiveness without a solid enforcer is a testament to it's former GM, Brian Burke. Burke previously had Colin Campbell's job that now belongs essentially to Shanahan and he left that job to pursue unsuccessful GM ventures in Vancouver and now Toronto. He didn't have any answers for the NHL, or his teams, yet he is all too willing to point the finger of blame at everyone else. What I find ironic is that the main example of why Burke is wrong, Shawn Thornton, won a Cup with Burke on the Anaheim Ducks.

Almost every single player on the current Boston Bruins has resorted to defending himself by dropping the gloves at some point in the past; but mostly, they stand up for each other - the majority of the defense is big and strong and will readily fight for himself or his teammates. One instance this season, Paille was brutally boarded and was immediately down and injured - instantly, both his lines-mates Campbell and Thornton charged at the offending opponent. Had Thornton not gotten there first, Campbell would have happily engaged. Although Campbell is a valuable penalty killer, not one Bruins fan or player would say they prefer he step down.

Conversely, the Buffalo Sabres, earlier this season, were embarrassed when Milan Lucic questionably steamrolled Ryan Miller and nobody stood up for Miller. It wasn't until the next time the 2 teams met that a Sabre stepped up and challenged Lucic. Although the Sabre wasn't a fighter and knew Lucic had the upper-hand, he still stepped up. Sadly it was too late to really make a statement - Miller's teammates should have dropped the gloves with Lucic in the first game (not to say that what Lucic did was okay; I think that the fact Lucic wasn't suspended for this vicious hit would have been less upsetting had Lucic been challenged physically right after the hit took place).

Fighting is down this season compared to last season, but pure fighters are the exact thing that everyone agrees need to be eliminated from the game. Maybe Burke is sad to have to see Orr go, but at the same time, a guy like Sean Avery also is being sent to the AHL, and I think we can all agree that we are happy to see Avery's roster spot dissolved and his "rat" behavior effectively eliminated. Maybe no team can really be as impressive as the Bruins whose top penalized players like Thornton and Campbell are also scoring at least 10 goals in a season or a physical player like Lucic scores 30 goals a season while playing a physical game that is still questionably too physical as is evident in his recent suspension. But rather than sulking in the losses to your roster, teams should be learning from those who are succeeding and trying to be a little more like them in their team bond, hard work, and willingness to adapt to new league circumstances.  If not, perhaps it's no wonder why certain teams consistently miss the playoffs and go decades without a Cup championship. Look inward to solve problems rather than blame everything on external forces. And this is why, in summary, I think what Brian Burke is saying in the above video is bullshit.

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