The most influential player in the Northeast Division is Boston Bruins left winger Milan Lucic. Montreal’s Carey Price may be more important to his team and the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara may be the best player, but no other skater has changed the landscape like ‘Looch.’
And in an age where many in the media and medical community are railing against fighting, this is another example of how hockey’s unorthodox fabric won’t be torn so easily.
Consider the evidence as Lucic skates in his sixth NHL campaign: His running of Ryan Miller last year ruined Buffalo’s season and possibly influenced the Sabres in trading Paul Gaustad to Nashville (Gaustad was on the ice when Miller was steamrolled, but didn’t jump Lucic despite the fact the 6-foot-5, 223-pound center drops the gloves every season).
Next up, Toronto’s Mike Komisarek: The big defenseman has never looked the same since Lucic dropped him in a fight back when Komisarek was patrolling the blueline for Montreal and an attempt at revenge once the blueliner joined the Maple Leafs yielded similar results.
Now look at how the Northeast has positioned itself. Montreal’s big free agent grab in the summer was Brandon Prust, a big, fighting winger who can also take a regular shift. Buffalo brought in 6-foot-8 monster John Scott. Toronto, which has always had a cadre of enforcers, nonetheless picked up mammoth fighter Frazer McLaren off waivers from San Jose, coincidentally right before a game with Boston.
Now I’m not saying Lucic is the only reason these moves were made, because he can’t fight everyone and there are different weight classes to consider. Scott ended up pounding Shawn Thornton into submission when the Sabres played the Bruins, while youngsters Mark Fraser and Lane MacDermid split a pair of bouts in that Toronto-Boston showdown.
But it’s the threat of Lucic that looms large, hence his influence. Here’s a player who has scored 30 goals in a season and broken the 60-point mark in his past two campaigns. He’s on the power play and the B’s top line. Simply put, he can’t be ignored. As much as Boston fans love scrappers Thornton and Gregory Campbell, they’re fourth-liners – effective for energy and penalty killing, respectively, but fourth-liners nonetheless.
Left unchecked, Lucic is going to run around for 17 minutes a game, causing havoc, upsetting apple carts and maybe scoring a dagger goal. And is there anything worse than the opposing player you hate most scoring on your team?
According to hockeyfights.com, the NHL is on pace for the most tilts per game since 2001-02, with 0.65. For years now, there has been speculation fighting would die out or be legislated out. Clearly that’s not the case right now.
Do players get hurt in fights? Sure. Thornton was concussed by Scott during the previously-mentioned beatdown. The key is determining whether or not you think fighting is a part of the game, akin to big bodychecks, another cause of head trauma. True, fighting is “illegal,” because you get a penalty for it, but I’d imagine many players and coaches regard some of those as good penalties, like hooking a player to prevent a sure scoring opportunity. There have been studies released that attempt to bust the myth that fighting swings the momentum of a game, but based on the numbers of scraps we’re seeing this season, the guys playing the game aren’t listening. And that means more fun for Lucic, and more pain for the Northeast.
BODY OF WORK
Speaking of fighting, it seems to be that body shots are trendy amongst pugilists in the early going. Toronto’s Colton Orr dropped Buffalo’s Scott with one, while Leafs teammate McLaren landed several on Carolina’s Kevin Westgarth in his convincing win Monday.
I have to wonder if the evolving training industry that has enforcers working with mixed martial arts instructors in the summer (principally for balance and strength) has influenced the way guys throw punches now.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.