For all the changes we’ve seen in the NHL — and with realignment a fait accompli — a couple of hot topics never get settled. One is fighting, the other is eye protection, and both were front and center yet again last week.
On the fighting front, we had a quick, nasty beatdown Wednesday night when 6-foot-5-inch Toronto tough guy Frazer McLaren tangled with another “big,’’ 6-3 Ottawa rookie Darian Dziurzynski. The bout came only 26 seconds after the opening faceoff, the irascible and punch-proficient McLaren looking to put a spark into the often-slow-to-ignite Maple Leafs on home ice.
Just a few exchanges into the tussle, a crushing McLaren right hand to the kisser sent Dziurzynski right to Queer Street. A couple of his teammates eventually scraped the concussed rookie off the ice, steered him on his rubbery legs to the runway, and he was finished for the night.
“Lucky punch,’’ McLaren said later. “If you catch someone in the right spot . . .’’
The Leafs indeed jumped to a 3-0 lead by early in the second period, but the fight was total, needless nonsense. All it did really was take a promising kid off the job and further gut an already-injury-riddled Ottawa lineup.
Tough for a game to showcase its future stars when they’re in the dressing room, seeing stars and answering questions like, “Uh, Darian, can you count backward from 5?’’
A night earlier, in a far uglier and gut-wrenching episode, hard-luck Ranger defenseman Marc Staal was felled when a rocketing slapper by Flyer blue liner Kimmo Timmonen ticked off Jakub Voracek’s stick, the puck striking Staal directly over the right eye. Staal collapsed face-down on the ice, his legs flailing as he writhed in pain, a small amount of blood pooling beneath him as he covered face with hands.
No question, had he been wearing a visor, the shot would have been blocked and Staal would have been left nick-free, albeit with a searing headache to remind him of his overall blessings.
First, the good news: It appears both Dziurzynski and Staal will be OK. The former still didn’t have a clear head as the weekend commenced and will have to sit out at least a few more days, per the league’s concussion protocol. Staal, whose injury could have been career-ending, was told by doctors some 24 hours later that he would not require surgery. No return date has been set, but it sounds as if he’ll be in uniform soon.
“Doctors are optimistic that Marc will make a full recovery,’’ stated a Ranger release.
Is fighting going away? No. Not now. Probably never.
Will NHLers join the rest of the hockey-playing world and universally adopt eye protection? No. Not in one fell swoop. But they’ll get there on a case-by-case basis. League bosses have long wanted visors. The players have remained in favor of free choice, which, I suspect, is linked to their generous health-care package. They don’t blister their fingers reaching in pockets for co-pays like the rest of us.
And round ’n’ round we go on issues that have lasted decades, although eye protection truly never became a serious debate until the last 10-12 years. It’s here now in large part because everyone is lugging lightweight sticks.
All players, big and small, weak and strong, can rocket shots. It is a sport of monkeys armed with machine guns. Unfortunately, fewer players are able to direct those shots to the net, keep them below eye level, and random deflections are essentially seen as a scoring strategy in the game’s airtight-net era. Those deflections also have turned into the game’s asbestos-in-the-workplace issue.
The fighting thing, well, I’ve dropped my dukes on that one. In my 35-plus years of covering the sport, I’ve gone from ardent advocate of the sweet science in the ’70s and ’80s, to reluctant acceptance, and eventually to my realization a couple of years ago that it’s a core ingredient to a troublesome violence issue permeating the game. It adds something, for those many who still relish in the dust-up, but overall it takes away more. It’s a net loser. Time to go.
Mainly, in a game that I believe needs to dial down violence and injuries, especially concussions, disallowing fighting would be the simplest place to begin to change the game’s culture, shift the emphasis from what has evolved as a frenetic seek-and-destroy game to a game that people can better enjoy for its playmaking, its skill, and most of all its scoring.
For the latter to happen will take more than removing fighting, of course. Referees would have to do a better job at enforcing all the rules. And the Lords of the Boards, taking a cue from the NFL they so dearly love (see: salary cap, huge profits, incredible TV ratings), would have to wake up one morn and realize that people pay and watch on TV to see the puck go in the net.
Just as the NFL had a touchdown problem and acted diligently to correct it, NHL owners need to reckon with the fact that scoring is going down and, worse, even generating bona fide scoring chances has become increasingly difficult. Too much of the game delivers not even the slightest anticipation of a goal.
It’s time for the game to breathe on offense, yet, for whatever reason, the Lords are holding their breath. A hockey team is only as fast as its slowest skater. In terms of ingenuity and spotting dysfunction, the owners’ pace for enacting change is painfully Eeyore-like. Case in point: how long they shuffled their feet over deciding how to penalize hits to the head.
Slowly, eye protection is being solved. Numerous reports last week, in light of the Staal incident, noted that 73 percent of today’s NHLers wear visors, nearly triple the amount who wore them some 10-12 years ago.
One day, it would seem, all NHLers will wear them. For the most part now, it’s the fighters who go visor-free, in part because fighting and visor-wearing don’t fit, shall we say, hand in glove. Just another reason, I say, to get rid of fighting (you knew it was coming, right?).
For the record, the only piece of protection mandated by the rulebook is the helmet — for both skaters and goalies. Goaltenders also are mandated to wear masks. Otherwise, no one has to go out there with protective cup, or shinpads, elbow pads, mouthguard, etc.
Time for both sides here to show real courage. Owners and players together should move to stop the fighting and make other rule changes to open up the game and place emphasis on playmaking skill and scoring.
And for goodness sake, have the sense to protect the gift of sight. It’s not about restricting a player’s right to choose. It’s about doing the right thing, for everyone.
on the way?
OK, we’ve been through this a few times, but here goes once more, with gusto: The Bruins think they have a reasonable shot at getting Swedish center Carl Soderberg on their roster in the next few weeks. Check the sky nightly this week to see if the cow jumps over the moon, too.
Had it been up to general manager Peter Chiarelli and crew, Soderberg, 27, would have been here long ago, soon after Chiarelli acquired his rights from St. Louis in a 2007 trade of goalie Hannu Toivonen. But Soderberg, despite constant hints and suggestions that he was coming this way, has remained in Sweden, where this season he finished tops in league goal scoring (31) and second in points (60).
Now, according to Chiarelli, it looks as if Soderberg finally will pack up and head to the Hub once his Linkoping club has finished its playoff run, which begins this week in a best-of-seven with HV 71. If Linkoping lasts through three rounds of best-of-seven, Soderberg wouldn’t be available until, say, May 1. But an HV 71 sweep could have him here in 10-14 days.
“I wish them well, because they’ve been great to deal with,’’ Chiarelli said Friday, referring to Linkoping’s postseason chances. “On the same hand, I’d like the player.’’
Under contract with Linkoping, Soderberg would have to buy his way out of that deal, which typically would be a fee of no more than $250,000. He then could sign with the Bruins and report here for duty, be it at center or wing. He is 6 feet 3 inches, 210 pounds, with very good hands and a strong wrister, according to Chiarelli, which he likes to unload from mid-range in the faceoff circles.
“I don’t want to hype him too much because, again, this is not a done deal,’’ noted Chiarelli. “He’d have to get here, then adjust to our game, and we’ve seen just this year how Tyler [Seguin] had to adjust after being over there, how goalies have to adjust when they come here. But it’s looking better and we’d be fortunate to have him.’’
Getzlaf gets the last laugh
The Ducks shook up the league’s pay scale Friday with a lavish extension for center Ryan Getzlaf, who inked an eight-year pact for a total of $66 million. Beginning in October, his cap number moves to $8.25 million, equal to Carolina’s Eric Staal and below only three NHLers this year: Alexander Ovechkin ($9.54 million), Sidney Crosby ($8.7 million), and Evgeni Malkin ($8.7 million). Clubs have to make salary decisions on an as-needed basis, but now many of the league’s 29 other squads will have their best players aiming at Getzlaf’s big ticket. Just for example: Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews each will earn $6.5 million with the Blackhawks in 2014-15, the final year of their deals. And with the cap number sliding down next season, from $70.2 million to $64.3 million, big tickets will be harder to write. GMs previously could point to Ovechkin, Crosby, and Malkin as rarefied air. Getzlaf, as good as he is, just isn’t as strong a cup of coffee.
Kingdom can be had
Still no white plume of smoke out the chimney of the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which means multibillionaire Philip Anschutz, the Kings owner, has yet to sell off AEG. An industry insider I spoke with in recent days said it appeared in January that a sale was on course to be finalized this week or next, but that’s not going to happen. “They’ve had lots of action, and it’s a large, complicated sale,’’ said the source, long familiar with Anschutz Entertainment Group’s dealings. “And there are so many ways for buyers to look at the deal — to focus either on the European or the North American holdings, which to value more.’’ Anschutz announced in September that all the goodies were for sale, and potential bidders received all the key numbers in November. Initially, much of the speculation had Anschutz selling off individual parts, but in recent weeks the focus has shifted toward a bundled sale, with the buyer determining what to keep, what parts of the behemoth to spin off. “A media conglomerate would be an obvious buyer,’’ said the source, noting the fairly recent Rogers-Bell purchase of the Maple Leafs. “But the economy’s better these days and more people have shown interest, so . . . more of a seller’s market.’’
One of Carl Soderberg’s teammates in Linkoping: Lee “Scorin’’’ Goren, the Winnipeg kid whom the Bruins picked (No. 63) out of North Dakota in the 1997 Joe Thornton draft . . . The top scorer in the Swedish Elite League this year: Skelleftea’s George “Bud” Holloway, a 6-foot, 200-pound right winger who led the charts with 20-51—71. Holloway was a Los Angeles draft pick (86th) in 2006 and remained with AHL Manchester through 2010-11 before heading to Sweden . . . Ex-Bruin goalie Andrew Raycroft is 15-19-0 this season playing for the Rossoblu in Milan. Talk last summer was that Milan might be the first Euro entry in the Russian-based KHL . . . Bad went to worse last week when the Panthers announced top pivot Stephen Weiss was done for the season and will need wrist surgery (likely this week). On target for unrestricted free agency, Weiss likely would have been dealt for some help prior to the April 3 deadline. Now he walks and the Panthers will be net zero . . . Don’t always agree with longtime pal Larry Brooks, but totally buy his view last Sunday in the New York Post that the league would be better off with fewer games. Unlike Brooks, I definitely would start the season in October but restrict play in that month to back-to-back weekend games, for a total of 6-8 games each October, all within divisions. I wouldn’t worry at all about competing against college football on Saturdays or against the NFL on Sundays, though I would make certain not to schedule Sunday matinees. By Sunday eve, enough viewers are footballed out and the NHL would be welcome relief (similar to the Winter Classic offering safe harbor from bowl games each Jan. 1) . . . Max Iafrate, son of ex-Bruin Al “The Planet” Iafrate, went undrafted last June, but again is eligible this year for a final time. The 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound backliner is often compared to Boston’s Johnny Boychuk. His offensive production fell this season (3-5—8 in 56 games) with Kitchener . . . Our nation’s struggling economics make it look as though White House tours will be shut down for a while. Ex-Bruins goalie Tim Thomas was way ahead of his time on that one . . . RIP, Stompin’ Tom Connors, the Canadian cowboy-hat-and-boots-wearing singer whose “Hockey Song’’ was a big hit in rinks across the Original 30. “Hello out there, we’re on the air, it’s ‘Hockey Night’ tonight . . . ’’