Monday, 19 May 2014

NHL injures Carey Price; Lucy pulls football away before Charlie Brown kicks the football

Carey Price is lost due to injury for at least the rest of this series against the New York Rangers.  Radio yammerers right now are talking about retribution, explicitly stopping short of a Todd Bertuzzi on Steve Moore situation, but of 'sending a strong message', by bodychecking Chris Kreider somehow.  Or of making sure the Canadiens make Henrik Lundqvist equally uncomfortable.

Days like this, along with the day Zdeno Chara was cleared of any supplemental discipline for his 'hit' on Max Pacioretty that knocked him out for the season, or any day of any of the three recent NHL lockouts, that Gary Bettman assured us would ensure the very survival of the league, and lower ticket prices for everyone, they make me wonder why I invest myself in this whole charade.

For years the NHL has allowed coaches to stifle the game with defensive systems, and enabled grinders and tough guys and fourth-line 'energy guys' to hook and hack and slash and board and knee more talented down to their level.  The league has watched scoring totals creep down year after year, after the post-2005 lockout dead-cat bounce, brought about by the crackdown on obstruction.

But cheating has invaded the league, and we're seeing 2-1 or 1-0 games described as "tight defensive hockey", as being closely fought, instead of being boring, frustrating exhibitions of massing defenders at the blue line, of dump and chase.  The sport is an exercise in frustration, a succession of offsides.

The analysts, the reporters, the networks who cover the NHL are bought and paid for, they're fearful of endangering their access, so they don't rock the boat.  Ron McLean is a little too pointed in his questioning of Gary Bettman, and his network loses Hockey Night in Canada a few seasons later.  They learn.  Chairs that used to be filled by Dick Irvin and René Lecavalier now get offered to Mike Milbury and P.J. Stock.

When Matt Cooke injures another player with another dirty late hit, all the panel members furrow their brow and bemoan the situation, then opine that he should miss three or four games.  It's the playoffs after all.  Dylan Kleibold and Eric Harris, yeah maybe they get more, maybe up to ten games.  That's intolerable, the league should send a strong message.

The language gets denatured, in Orwellian fashion.  Interminable scrums along the boards are renamed 'cycling the puck'.  A centreman is supposed to 'get his man' after a draw.  Nathan McKinnon scores a goal during last year's Memorial Cup, and Sportsnet goon Nick Kypreos upbraids defender Seth Jones for not making an effort to "chop him down, to get a stick on him, to let him know you're there."  Delay of game penalties for flipping the puck in the stands are getting out of hand they fuss, there should be some latitude.  Refs should be able to overlook that call in Game 7's, or in playoff games, or tight games, or when the defender didn't really mean to do it.

So the NHL highlight reel contains less and less of the Patrick Kane "How did he do that?" goals, of the Evgeni Malkin weaving through opponents with the puck before roofing it past a hapless goalie.  We get instead pinball goals, that bounce through a thicket of shotblockers and goalie screeners.  We get goals during a mad scramble, with unrestrained slashing at the puck/sticks/legs/goalie mitts by both sides, while Pierre Houde shouts "La mêlée qui éclate..." and Bob Cole shouts "Everything is happening!..."

The NHL head office seeks to increase goal scoring, but does so by drips and drabs.  They hand over rule making and rule changes to General Managers, famously conservative men who are heavily invested in the current system.  Their farm teams are replete with checkers, crashers and bangers, with Eric Grybas and Jarred Tinordis.

Instead of ensuring that the best players will be allowed to ply their craft unfettered, they mess around with the hand pass, experiment with faceoffs.  They consider Brian Burke's 'bear hug' proposal.  They enact tough sanctions against slew-footing, against goalies using their blockers to punch an opponent, then howl when their team is assessed that very penalty.  So slew-footing is never actually slew-footing.  It's tripping, or more likely goes unnoticed, it's part of a scramble in front of the net.  You can't call everything.  Where would all the penalized players sit?

So we stay with the status quo.  And scrambles get more and more frequent.  Forwards skate through the goalie's crease for no real reason at all, except to 'get in his kitchen, get him off his game'.  They bump the goalie, prevent him from making a save, get in his way, and then it's a coin flip as to whether interference gets called.  There's no standard, it's subjective.  No one is ever happy.

The Euros are crazy though, the IIHF has this rule that prevents forwards from being in the blue paint, it's an automatic penalty.  Well we tried that before, everyone remember Brett Hull's toe in the crease?

So to get the goalie off his game, Milan Lucic runs Ryan Miller.  Then Jordin Tootoo does it.  We parse the intent, the effect on the game.  We get inured to the number of collisions.  Our tolerance increases.  It's not as bad as the old days, I tell ya, Don Cherry offers.

And we get to today.  After a visibly diminished Sidney Crosby gets knocked out of the playoffs after being brandondubinskied, now Carey Price is out too.  Alex Ovechkin's gets knee-on-kneed in the World Championships.  Marc Savard is still on the injured list.

Prediction:  The GM's will in their summer meetings seek to agree on tough new rules against running the goalie.  But discussions will bog down.  The Calgary Flames will want to enact an 'embrace the goalie' escape clause to reduce contact.  Ron Hextall will want to do away with the rules forbidding goalies from punching with their blockers, so they can self-regulate matters.  A significant faction will advocate for a zone around the net where crosschecking by defencemen is tolerated.  Explicitly tolerated, instead of the current practice.  And nothing will be done.  But look for amendments to the hand-pass rule.

So yeah, on days like this, days like today, I wonder why I bother with the NHL.

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