In the winter of 2011, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux sent a strong and public message to the NHL in regard to a “sideshow” brawl between his franchise’s players and those of the New York Islanders. Calling the incident a “travesty”, the retired Hall of Famer went on to talk about the type of league and game he wanted to be associated with:
“We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players,” Lemieux said. “We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated.”
Three years later – with Matt Cooke’s infamous legacy in Pittsburgh still relatively fresh in the collective memory of hockey fans – Lemieux’s team has made moves that suggest the integrity of the game and player safety isn’t as much of a priority as he’s suggested it ought to be: In July, the Pens signed expert agitator Steve Downie to a one-year contract; and Thursday, they agreed to terms on a professional tryout deal with journeyman and fellow super-pest Daniel Carcillo.
When you hear Carcillo’s and Downie’s names, the words “integrity of the game” and “safety” do not leap to mind. In fact, they run screaming away from mind.
Although Downie has had a few years where he contributed more than just chaos – he posted 22 goals and 46 points for Tampa Bay in 2009-10 – he’s now a virtual mirror image of Carcillo: they’re both small-statured wingers who make more news for being suspended than anything else.
Downie is most famous for acting as a human missile as an NHL rookie in the 2007-08 pre-season (yes, you heard that correctly: in the pre-season), launching himself into Senators forward Dean McAmmond:
Recognizing the recklessness of the play, the league suspended Downie for 20 games. But time hasn’t changed Downie all that much. In the spring of 2013 – three years after he was fined for a dangerous hit on Sidney Crosby – he went after Predators blueliner Roman Josi in a similarly dangerous fashion:
Carcillo, meanwhile has been a suspension machine, with six in his eight NHL seasons. The longest suspension was a seven-gamer in 2012 for this ugly hit on Oilers defenseman Tom Gilbert:
Carcillo nearly broke his personal “best” in suspension length when the league hit him with a 10-game suspension for elbowing linesman Scott Driscoll in the 2014 playoffs:
That suspension was later reduced to six games, but the facts are clear: he’s a multiple-repeat offender (suspended 23 games in total) who is highly likely to offend again.
These are the guys Lemieux, GM Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Johnston are turning to after clearing out the previous management regime? Two players who their division rivals in Philadelphia and Manhattan have no use for? Two guys who are as likely to hurt you with a bad penalty as they are to draw one? Seems more than a little desperate to me.
Unfortunately, these signings underscore the copycat nature of the NHL. When the neutral-zone trap was first introduced, it didn’t take long for teams across the league to adopt the strategy. This summer, teams made a run on advanced statistics experts as that element of the game gained more credence in the hockey community. And because the league refuses to take harsher stances against predatory play, owners such as Lemieux talk out of one side of their mouths about player safety while switching to the other side to gladly welcome dangerous players into their organization.
If the league allows players such as Downie and Carcillo to act with relatively little consequence, they’re sending a clear message to owners: sign up your own attack dogs before someone else’s attack dogs attack you. A purely principled owner would reject that message and refuse to employ reckless players. But these signings demonstrate Lemieux isn’t ready to put all of his money where his mouth is.
Some of that money is now going to Carcillo and Downie, who I grant you would make an incredible pro wrestling tag team. But having them on the same NHL team – especially Lemieux's Penguins – is curious to say the least, and hypocritical to say the most. Acquiring them flies in the face of Lemieux’s accurate proclamations the game should demand more of its players. Acquiring them rewards their previous behavior and undercuts that important message.
Lemieux can rationalize that the old “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” way if he wants, but the record will show he's only helping to perpetuate the problem.