Jonathan Toews wouldn’t have gotten healthier had his teammates stood up to Brooks Orpik last Sunday. Toews is out until the playoffs because of a bum left arm that Orpik just about caved in with a clean but line-straddling wallop.
Nor would Orpik be less inclined to throw such hits had the Blackhawks come knocking. If that logic were true, Orpik’s bone-wrecking approach — he just about took off Bruin Loui Eriksson’s head on Dec. 7 — would have withered on the vine right after Shawn Thornton’s attack.
Players are who they are. No challenge to fight will change their nature.
But the Blackhawks whiffed on their chance to send a message. Not to Orpik. Not to the Penguins. But to Toews and themselves.
Toews is the Blackhawks’ best player. He is their No. 1 center and do-it-all leader. Toews is Chicago’s version of Patrice Bergeron.
The Blackhawks have a deep roster filled with difference-makers. Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Corey Crawford are among the second tier of star power. But Toews is the team’s engine.
Orpik landed with one of his specialties: a legal but disrespectful hit. He lined up Toews and plowed into the center. Replays showed Orpik making some contact to Toews’s head. But Orpik did not show any intent to make Toews’s head the principal point of contact and thus didn’t receive supplemental discipline.
But the Penguins wouldn’t have liked the play one bit had Seabrook, for example, wiped out Sidney Crosby with a similar check. Players gripe all the time that they have to show more respect for each other. Those words are meaningless when players such as Orpik continue to connect with dangerous and disrespectful hits.
So when Orpik blasted their leader into next month, it was the Blackhawks’ imperative to strike back. At the time, they did not have the right personnel to respond. Toews’s teammates on the ice were Hossa, Brandon Saad, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya. None of the four is equipped to fight. On the next shift, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville rolled out Andrew Shaw, Brandon Bollig, Patrick Sharp, Sheldon Brookbank, and Nick Leddy. Bollig and Brookbank can throw down. Shaw, while not an experienced fighter, doesn’t back down.
Dan Bylsma, as the home coach, wisely sent out a unit of Brandon Sutter, Taylor Pyatt, Brian Gibbons, Rob Scuderi, and Deryk Engelland. That’s one tough guy in Engelland and nobody wearing No. 87 (Crosby). It would not have been the right time for the Blackhawks to respond.
But at some other point during the game, one of the Blackhawks should have asked Orpik to fight, taken a good lick at him, or given Crosby a good, hard check. Nothing happened.
There was nothing the Blackhawks could do about Toews’s condition. But they could have turned Toews’s injury into a come-together moment. Players who get run over by an opponent feel good when their teammates have their backs. It brings the room closer.
Tough guys around the NHL believe that fighting serves as a deterrent. They think that by fighting a player who takes liberties with their teammates, it discourages further abuse. I don’t buy it. I have yet to see the evidence, anecdotal or statistical, that proves a dance invitation reduces physical play. If that were the case, wrecking balls such as Zac Rinaldo, Antoine Roussel, and Derek Dorsett, who like to hit and have accepted repeated challenges, would have discontinued their body-thumping manners long ago.
But I believe there’s a benefit to fighting that’s impossible to measure. A team’s character shows through. Four years ago, the Bruins were in a similar position. On March 7, 2010, Matt Cooke delivered the elbow to Marc Savard’s head that helped end his career. Milan Lucic and Zdeno Chara were two of the Bruins on the ice at the time. There was no response, to Cooke or any other Pittsburgh player. In the following days, team president Cam Neely expressed his disappointment in the absence of engagement.
Toews didn’t see Orpik coming and couldn’t protect himself. At least there’ is some sportsmanship in fighting. You ask. Your combatant accepts or declines. If it’s the former, the punches stop when one man goes down and that’s that. The Blackhawks have the talent and experience to chase another Cup. But they’re starting their quest shorthanded. After their lack of response, the Blackhawks had better jack up their character. They know firsthand that their enemies will check them even harder once the playoffs begin.
Next season, Iginla
could cost Bruins
Last summer, Daniel Alfredsson and Jarome Iginla were two of the right wings the Bruins recruited for their top-line opening. They were targets not just because of their games. Their ages were also factors. Because Alfredsson (41) and Iginla (36) were 35-or-older players, the Bruins could pull off some creative accounting. Under a one-year deal, both could receive lower base salaries but make it up via bonuses. This is how the Bruins locked up Iginla to a one-year contract with a $1.8 million cap hit. They promised Iginla $4.2 million in bonuses for a possible payday of $6 million. So far, Iginla has been well worth the investment. The drawback, as the Bruins always knew, is how it will affect next year’s books.
The Bruins are projected to carry an approximate $4.5 million penalty in 2014-15 for exceeding this season’s $64.3 million cap via bonuses due to Iginla, Dougie Hamilton, and Torey Krug. Teams estimate the cap will be around $70 million next season. The Bruins have about $62 million committed to next season’s payroll. They can exceed the cap by $4 million by exercising the long-term injury exception on Marc Savard as they did this season. But Krug, Matt Bartkowski, Reilly Smith, and Jordan Caron are scheduled to become restricted free agents. So is Niklas Svedberg, projected to be Tuukka Rask’s backup.
Krug, Smith, and Bartkowski could double their current salaries. If so, the Bruins would have trouble re-signing Iginla to a multiyear extension, which he probably deserves. Iginla would have to be willing to accept a similar deal: a one-year contract heavily stacked with bonuses. Teams are not allowed to include bonuses on a multiyear contract to a player 35 or older.
It’s been a perfect fit between Iginla and the Bruins. It would benefit both sides to go for a one-year repeat with a slight pay bump. Iginla wants to play until he’s 40. The right wing isn’t showing any signs of wear. If so, the sides could agree in principle to an extension but couldn’t make it official until July 5. But if Iginla reaches the open market, he could score at least a two-year contract at good money with a team boasting more cap space than the Bruins. It may be too appealing for Iginla to pass up.
Ovechkin needs help
to perform at his best
Last Sunday, Alex Ovechkin pulled off a nearly impossible move. He failed to score an even-strength goal in Washington’s 4-3 shootout loss to Nashville, making him 0 for March (15 games) in that category. Entering Saturday, Ovechkin had scored 22 of his league-leading 49 goals on the power play. Anybody will tell you it’s easier to score when you have more players on the ice.
This reflects as poorly on Adam Oates as it does Ovechkin. The Washington coach has not put his most talented player in a position to succeed. For seven straight games, Oates split up Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, one of the more skilled tandems in the NHL. Oates replaced Backstrom with Jay Beagle, who is a good and dependable player but a third-line grunt. Washington went 2-2-3 during that stretch.
Backstrom and Ovechkin were reunited on Friday against New Jersey. It may be too late for the Capitals and for Oates. “Looks like they’ve quit on their coach,” said a rival team executive.
Oates has done some good things with Ovechkin. Oates initiated moving Ovechkin, a lifelong left wing, to the right side. Oates also was correct with his assessment of Ovechkin after a Dustin Jeffrey goal in Dallas’s 5-0 rout of the Capitals on Tuesday. Before the goal, Ovechkin pursued a play in the neutral zone with all the urgency of a schoolboy going for a skate on the Frog Pond. By the time Ovechkin woke up, Ray Whitney blew past him to set up Jeffrey’s third-period goal.
“Ovi quit on the play coming back,” Oates told the Washington Post. “[Whitney] forced it down the ice, and just goes to show you’ve got to hustle the entire time, the whole entire time.”
Ovechkin is not exempt from playing defense. No player is. But Ovechkin isn’t earning the league’s highest average annual value ($9,538,462, according to www.capgeek.com) to backcheck and play with third-line grinders. Ovechkin is a Lamborghini. He shouldn’t be racing alongside a pickup. Oates could pay the price. So could George McPhee. The Washington general manager, on the job since 1997-98, is on the last year of his contract. This is no way to claim an extension.
Until this season, Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman was an OK player. He was picked second overall in 2009 after the Islanders’ John Tavares. But now, in his fifth NHL season, Hedman is playing like a difference-maker. Through 70 games, the 23-year-old had 12 goals and 37 assists, both career highs. Hedman is averaging a team-high 22:35 of ice time. The Lightning have helped Hedman find his identity: not a No. 1 shutdown ace, but an offensively aware D-man who can hold his own in defensive situations. In even-strength situations, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper doesn’t have Hedman share much ice time with Steven Stamkos. This guarantees that Hedman doesn’t play against the opposition’s best top pairing or two-way line. Cooper usually sends out Matt Carle and Radko Gudas with Stamkos in five-on-five play. The forwards seeing the most ice time recently with Hedman are Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula, and Ryan Callahan. It’s on the power play where the Lightning load up with Hedman, Stamkos, Filppula, Palat, and Callahan. Hedman has scored 12 of his 49 points on the PP. His emergence is one reason why Cooper will be in the running for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. Cooper identified Hedman’s strengths and put him in the best position to use his assets.
The Rangers have some significant restricted free agents to address this summer, starting with Boxford’s Chris Kreider. The left wing is in the mold of Max Pacioretty: a fast, skilled, and heavy player. Other RFAs-to-be are Derick Brassard, John Moore, and Mats Zuccarello. But that should leave the Rangers with money to re-up Benoit Pouliot. The ex-Bruin has been a very good fit on the No. 3 line with Brassard and Zuccarello. Pouliot scored the deciding goal in the Rangers’ 3-1 win over Vancouver on Tuesday. Through 76 games, he had 13 goals and 20 assists while logging 13:21 of playing time per appearance. Pouliot fits coach Alain Vigneault’s uptempo style well. Pouliot’s speed and hands usually put him at an advantage over the bottom-six and third-pairing competition he plays against. The 27-year-old has been on five straight one-year contracts since emerging from his entry-level deal with Minnesota. Given the fit, Pouliot has earned a multiyear extension on Broadway.
Ex-Bruin Tim Taylor is happy in his position as St. Louis’s director of player development. But Taylor is even happier with the health of daughter Brittany, who will be a senior at Nipissing University. Brittany Taylor was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma around the time her father turned down a scouting job with the Lightning, which would have required too much time away from home in Brantford, Ontario. Brittany Taylor is one year away from being cancer-free for five years, which is the timeframe for patients to be clear of the disease. Brittany Taylor is playing hockey for ex-NHLer Darren Turcotte.
Last week, this space encouraged referees to call misconduct penalties to punish players and coaches who repeatedly complain. Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna relayed an anecdote from the Providence-Quinnipiac East Regional semifinal game on March 28. At 12:55 of the second period, Quinnipiac’s Connor Jones was sent off for charging the goalie. Providence’s Trevor Mingoia scored on the power play. As Jones left the box, he mouthed off to referees Marco Hunt and Steve McInchak. Jones was given a 10-minute misconduct. “Officials take too much from coaches and players, in my opinion,” Bertagna wrote in an e-mail. “We ask them to penalize people who chirp, but they seem reluctant.”
Once they advance the puck into the offensive zone, the Maple Leafs are pretty good. They have the speed and skill to zip the puck around and sniff for scoring chances. But they exhibit a frightening absence of hockey IQ and structure in the other two zones. Their defensemen sag back and keep slack gaps. Their forwards don’t backcheck well enough to slow opponents in the neutral zone. Once the puck is in the defensive zone, everything breaks down. Defensemen are all over the place. They go hard along the walls and behind the goal line, which vacates the net-front house area. The forwards aren’t good enough at rotating low to occupy the space the defensemen leave open. It’s why opponents have repeated flurries and put wicked heat on goalies Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. The Leafs have had a perpetual need for a top-line center to possess the puck and set up Phil Kessel. But they need multiple players with bigger brains in concert with a simpler, more conservative defensive system. Those aren’t fixes made in one summer.
The Hurricanes made a wise move last month by signing Justin Faulk to a six-year, $29 million extension. Faulk is a young, smart, and mobile two-way defenseman. His contract makes the Islanders’ decision to lock up Travis Hamonic even smarter. The surly Hamonic is wrapping up his first season of a seven-year, $27 million extension. Both are team-friendly contracts . . . Former Bruins Gregg Sheppard and Dwight Foster will appear at Sportsworld in Peabody on Sunday. For more information on the appearance, call 781-233-7222 or visit www.sportsworld-usa.com . . . My family had the market cornered on bad TVs. One doozy required a screwdriver to hold the knob in place so the TV would stay on one channel. I thought of that TV when NESNplus went dark in the third period of the 3-3 Bruins-Leafs game on Thursday. After showing a technical difficulties graphic for several minutes, NESN returned with a standard-definition feed that looked straight out of the Channel 38 era. Even our worst box would have provided a better picture. Stick salute to NESN for giving us a good laugh and bringing back some great memories of things that didn’t seem so funny back then.