This off-season, behind the big-ticket free agent acquisitions and rumors of blockbuster trades that have yet to come to fruition, there have been a few hard-nosed transactions that have put a smile on my face and reaffirmed to me that hockey’s best and most controversial characteristic still leaves a mark.
It wasn’t all that long ago – 2008, actually – that the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup on the back of smart, skilled system hockey, one year after the grizzly Anaheim Ducks won the prize with a much different philosophy. When this happened, it didn’t take long after the Wings parade for righteous preachers to ordain a new era of non-violent hockey, one where fists and intimidation were not welcome and fighting was, slowly, heading towards extinction.
In fact, the Red Wings weren’t the rule, they were – as we should know by now – the exception to the rule.
After the Pens were whisked away by the Wings in 2008, they were able to charge back for a rematch the following year because of the great, natural abilities the team possesses – but it was the tough-as-nails, never-say-die grinders and tough guys who got them over the hump and next to the Cup.
Max Talbot was the difference-maker in the deciding game; Rob Scuderi was a shot-blocking machine; Brooks Orpik and Hal Gill used their massive mass to get in the way of scoring opportunities and mash oncoming attackers into the glass; while Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz came through with a charged tenacity that caused rushed decisions and turnovers.
Despite there being two skilled teams in the final yet again, the seven-game marathon was more than just a display of terrific plays; it was what hockey should be, a well-rounded game of blood, sweat and jeers.
So what kind of a response would sweep across NHL front offices this off-season?
When Anaheim won the Cup, the general idea was that pugilism ruled the day and that to compete, you needed to beef up and be able to ice some form of intimidation; when Detroit won, suddenly the tough-guy stance wasn’t so strong anymore.
There is one factor – let’s call it the ‘man-on-fire’ factor – that can put a stick in the spokes of any joy ride. While a tested system is needed for your team to accomplish anything in this league, that well-oiled machine can be disrupted and shut down by a few wildcard players just trying to send a message and break up plays by breaking bodies in the interim. It’s the in-your-face attack that catches these systems off guard and throws in variables when fixed processes are desired.
When the Philadelphia Flyers added Chris Pronger at the draft and Ian Laperriere July 1, it put a smile on my face at the thought that pugilistic hockey is alive and well.
The fact Donald Brashear and Colton Orr were able to get at least $1 million per season for more than one year, while players such as Vinny Prospal and Frantisek Kaberle were bought out and Alex Tanguay still searches for employment tells me that, with the limited cap space available, GMs are still trying to strike a balance of scoring touch and bully tactics.
Just look at the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have gone overboard with their big bodies, and the Montreal Canadiens, who added a number of undersized players with offensive upside and backed it up with bruisers such as Hal Gill and Paul Mara.
The fan bases of Philadelphia, Toronto and Montreal are all optimistic their teams will hit the ice an improved entity this October.
When a pure softy with great hands and zero toughness – Kyle Wellwood – gets roughly the same contract worth of a guy with tremendous toughness and zero hands (Brashear) the hockey world is in a good place.
Everything should be done with moderation and too much of one or the other would upset a balance that has teetered in the NHL since the first expansion in 1967.
For the bubble-wrap lobby out there, hear this: Big, bad, grind-it-out hockey is here to stay, no matter which team or style wins it all in 2010.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web content specialist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.