Every now and then, surveying dirty hits almost feels like being a television crime scene investigator.
The names and places might change, but most “cases” feel unsettlingly familiar. Friends and family are devastated. Innocent and guilty parties seem equally likely to be victims. And all too often, there’s someone being carted off on a stretcher to a hospital. They’re disturbing situations, but after a while - when it’s clear that the people who can truly make a difference are either too complacent, lazy or incompetent to do anything about it - you get a little jaded about the situation.
Saturday’s Pittsburgh Penguins - Boston Bruins game wasn’t the only contest from this weekend that should be embarrassing for the NHL. Zac Rinaldo’s incident with Antoine Roussel was unnerving and Dion Phaneuf might get his first suspension for hitting Kevan Miller from behind.
Yet the Penguins - Bruins game grabbed the headlines, and rightfully so. It also captured pieces of just about every type of “crime” one can expect in this dangerous league.
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BROOKS ORPIK ON LOUI ERIKSSON
Was Orpik’s hit illegal? I’m not sure. In an ABSOLUTELY SHOCKING development, the two teams’ totally unbiased coaches disagreed about the check’s legality.
But a more uncomfortable question is: “Did Orpik really need to absolutely obliterate Eriksson?” I find it tough to say yes, but some might. Still, the Orpik hit comes from the Scott Stevens class of hits that involve applying maximum force on a vulnerable opponent that might be technically legal, but likely could have been less extreme.
(Granted, I do try to give the benefit of the doubt to guys moving at high speed, so perhaps it wasn't as malicious as it seemed.)
This hit falls under the category of “Average/solid player taking out a star-quality performer” too, which is one of those things that should make fantasy owners queasy. With Eriksson’s concussion history this season alone, this is troubling.
JAMES NEAL ON BRAD MARCHAND
Speaking of unnecessary … James Neal kneed Brad Marchand fairly flippantly Saturday.
Neal’s explanation of his hit, via Yahoo, is so laughably absent-minded that it tells the story of players’ total lack of respect for each other better than any amount of soapbox speeches could:
"I haven't, like, seen the replay or anything, so I mean I hit him in the head with my leg or my foot or my knee or shin area," Neal said. "I don't know. But I mean, he's already going down, and I guess I need to try to avoid him, but I have to look at it again."
Asked about his intent, Neal said: "I mean, what do you want me to say? That I was trying to hit him? No, I'm going by him. I don't get out of the way, like I said. I need to be more careful and I guess get my knee out of the way, but I'm not trying to hit him in the head or injure him or anything like that."
I almost expect him to follow that eloquent self-defense with, “What are you, like, going to tell the teacher I was cheating, nerd?”
This was another wildly unnecessary moment, maybe the most pointless one of them all. Thornton at least could argue blind rage and Orpik could claim it was a legal hit. Neal provides an example of a player with a rap sheet simply using his knee to injure another player (or, like, to just, like, hurt him a little bit’n’stuff).
Neal has already been suspended by the NHL twice at age 26, including for a playoff game, which takes a pretty major offense (especially for a star player on a prominent team). As great as the power forward is, that mean streak that can generate serious PIMs can also present its drawbacks.
It’s a risk you have to factor in when drafting Neal high - which, honestly, is generally still a smart idea - as his repeat offender status makes him a risk for harsher suspensions.
SHAWN THORNTON ON ORPIK
And then we get to the headliner.
Thornton broke many of the unwritten rules (aka “The Code”) by attacking - or, um, assaulting … as some might call it - Orpik from behind by slew-footing him and then punching him while he was already down. So many No-No’s, and by a guy who crowed about his “honor” just a few days before he lost his marbles.
I don’t know if it’s the disturbing stream of “crime scenes” or merely Thornton’s immediate apology,* but I think it’s wrong to blame Thornton alone.
Really, it can be spread far and wide, like a glorious scoop of Nutella.**
Thornton - He did it, after all, and deserves the greatest helping.
Julien - When you send out one of your vigilantes over and over again with the guy who hurt Eriksson, you can’t totally plead ignorance, can you?
The Bruins - OK, I actually think Thornton is one of the more “reputable” tough guys. Still, when you hire a player to fit a certain role - basically a Judge Dredd or Dirty Harry on ice - you’re crossing your fingers that the other team’s players are being served the hard justice if anyone must pay the price. If the league wants to “clean up this garbage,” the fines and punishments shouldn’t stop at the players or even the players and the coaches. GMs should squirm, whether it be a cap penalty, lost roster spot or some combination of similar factors when one of your signings attack.
The NHL - Nothing was as darkly comical as Gary Bettman and Brendan Shanahan airing their disgust over Ray Emery’s shameful attack on (er, fight with) Braden Holtby while acting like their hands were tied.
If we’ve learned anything from the Bettman Era, it’s that the NHL can change what it wants to change. In a situation of desperation, referees can do this magical thing in which they blow their whistles when a penalty happens. When big bad Sean Avery makes a crass joke, he receives a stricter suspension then some of the worst hits of the last decade. When big bad Sean Avery (gasp) waves his stick in Martin Brodeur’s face like a buffoon, the league basically amended a rule overnight to make sure it never happens again.***
Don’t get me wrong, violence is a critical part of the sport. The fact that a hockey game can be dangerous and brutal - often in the same shift - is sometimes what makes it feel so special.
Still, the league has plenty of room for improvement and the tools to do so, even if it might not be easy. Unfortunately, the NHL will probably just make subtle tweaks instead of the seismic shifts that are crucial.
Hopefully this crime scene investigation analogy won’t need to go from hyperbolic to sadly accurate for big alterations to happen.
The NHLPA - When Patrick Kaleta considered appealing his 10-game suspension to an independent arbitrator, the New York Post’s Larry Brooks suggested something that should be chilling for the union to ponder: the league is doing a better job protecting players than the union.
Sure, Kaleta deserves to get a fair shake, but what about the victims? Things get awfully murky there, but it’s disquieting when Kaleta and Raffi Torres are the ones getting such public support.
The union has been depressingly rigid when it comes to making tough choices that are beneficial to the players. The league seems to be the ones pushing for hybrid icing, visors and other safety-first measures while the instinct to fight change is defended with strange vigor.
It all makes for a mess of a situation and a really mixed message. And it’s the kind of situation that stokes the urge just to shut all of this noise off and bury your head in the sand.
Which, sadly, is probably what more than a few of the parties involved would prefer us to do. Ugh.
Let’s face it, fantasy leagues aren’t going to be shaken by the potential absences of Thornton or Orpik, really. Instead, it’s all about the guys who were injured and might get suspended.
To avoid this Dose becoming too unwieldy, I’ll save the James Neal and Dion Phaneuf suggestions for when a decision does (or doesn’t come).
Most of the Neal suggestions will be old hat for Dose regulars, but I thought I’d give you one defenseman you should really take a look at … whether you have Phaneuf or not.
Radko Gudas (28 percent) - One of those hidden fantasy treasures who returned to action on Dec. 7. In 24 games, he has an acceptable seven points, astounding PIM (70) and hits (93), great blocked shots (50) and OK SOG (38). You should be adding him before you go on with your workday or take a nap. Seriously.
I’ll go into greater detail in the likely (I think) situation that Neal gets suspended and the toss-up for Phaneuf. But if you’re feeling antsy about Neal, target the usual power forward suspects such as Scott Hartnell.
For a complete list of injuries and suspensions, click here. The biggest injuries of this weekend not mentioned earlier in the Dose include Sergei Bobrovsky (out four-to-five weeks), Vincent Lecavalier (three-to-four), Chris Kelly - another BOS-PIT victim - out about a month and Marc Staal (possible concussion).
* - Which Claude Julien sullied by getting into some kind of accountability contest with the Pittsburgh Penguins … sheesh. That was another reminder of Julien’s occasional tendency to make himself look foolish.
** - Nutella + low-calorie English Muffin = quasi-healthy glory. See, this column provides food advice too. Yes, this is my way of Trojan Horsing the Dietary Dose into your routines …
*** - It’s too bad Avery wasn’t used as a vessel of change by reverse psychology. Avery keeps interfering with people subtly but isn’t getting penalized! Avery loves (insert your least favorite TV personality)! Avery thinks that the current shootout wins equaling two points system is just A-OK …