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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Classy New York Rangers Ryan McDonagh: Matt Cooke's Only Defender

Ol' Matty Cooke did it again.

Straight off a page from the Jimmy Superfly Snuka handbook, Cooke delivered a flying elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

Cooke dished out another dangerous blow to an opponent, and received a a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct for his efforts.  The Penguins received a four-goal, third period explosion by the Rangers and a big, fat L for the night.

A day later, after an in-person hearing with NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell, Cooke was handed a suspension covering the remainder of the regular season and the first-round of the playoffs.  Meaning his "time out" could span anywhere from fourteen to seventeen games.

Within hours of the incident, and stretching on days afterward, reactions by television analysts, bloggers and fan message boards have blown up every possible medium of media.

Lost among all the fury over Matt Cooke's history, Mario Lemieux's responsibility, and the NHL's disciplinary action is the sheer graciousness of Ryan McDonagh.

Reiterating his same comments after the incident, McDonagh expounded further after Cooke's suspension was announced:

"I don't think he's trying to put his team down (with a) five minute penalty...

"It's coming down to the end of the year here. Ten games left for about everybody. You're trying to get good momentum going into the playoffs or keep your playoff spot and that was a close game at the time and momentum could go the other way.

I think he's trying to make a big hit and he just caught me wrong. I don't think it was his intent.

The suspension … it is what it is. The league is really pushing to get these hits out of the game. If that's a statement, it's a pretty big statement, for sure."

As Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Dave Molinari put it:

"The consensus in hockey circles is that Matt Cooke's hit Sunday to the head of New York's Ryan McDonagh was indefensible."

However, McDonagh, although he had every right to condemn him, found a way to defend the indefensible.

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma applauded the suspension, and were encouraged by Cooke's apology and commitment to change the way he plays.

Time will tell if Matt Cooke really has made an adjustment for the good of the game and the safety of it's players; but we do know one thing now...

Ryan McDonagh is not just a young player who has an appropriate respect for veteran players.  He is a player who is willing to go the extra mile to give the benefit of the doubt when absolutely no one else would.

As the recipient of disrespect on the ice, McDonagh deserves recognition for his magnanimous gesture off of it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

NHL GM Meetings: No Universal Ban For Hits To the Head

A universal ban on hits to the heads is not happening in the NHL.  At least, not now.

What the GM meeting did produce was a novel idea: A recommendation that the league enforce the rules!

As's Shawn P. Roarke put it: " they opted to recommend that existing rules governing boarding and charging be more stringently applied. They also believe the threat of stiffer supplementary discipline for those that deliver illegal hits to the head, as well as for repeat offenders in the League's supplemental discipline process, will have the necessary chilling effect to make the NHL workplace a far safer one."

For the time being, it's really all that the league can do.  A universal ban would only create more gray area.

Commissioner Gary Bettman explained:

"We are going to see if we can get something more precise than a blanket head hit rule..."

The key words from all of the commissioner's interviews were "precision" and "definitive."

The single greatest criticism that the league has endured through all of this concussion crisis is it's seeming failure to interpret similar incidents with consistency. 

The last thing the NHL needs is more controversy over head shots.  As we have seen thus far, a blanket ban invites all sorts of discretionary calls and interpretations.

Where was the offending players elbow/arm/glove at the point of impact?  What was the intention?  Did the receiving player move suddenly or change direction just before impact? etc... debate can go on and on.

Without doubt, reckless hits are a danger to player safety.

However, clean hits can be too; but they are part of the game that the GM's, players, owners and fans alike would like to see preserved.

Brian Burke GM in Toronto mentioned in an iterview after the meetings:

"To give a reference point, you all remember Phil Kessel's first game as a Leafs. Mattias Ohlund stepped up and drilled him. Got him right in the head with his shoulder.

We want that hit in the game. Phil has to be more alert and keep his head up. He didn't get a concussion on that play, but even if he did, I'd have the same view. We want that hit in our game."

It's a great point made by Burke citing his own player as an example.

Eric Lindros had to quit the game because of concussions.  Most of them were caused by clean hits courtesy of Scott Stevens and Darius Kasparaitis.  Lindros just couldn't remember to keep his head up. A blanket ban on head hits would not have made a difference to one of that era's best players.

As Bettman outlined, stricter enforcement of existing rules and harsher discipline for repeat offenders can go a long way to protecting players.

The question is will they execute the plan, and do it with consistency?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Gamesmanship: Should Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau Just Shut Up?

Is is safe to say that Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau was no fan of Greg Louganis?

Boudreau is well know for his penchant for unleashing the quote machine during post game interviews, particularly so after a loss.  However, the coach's machine got started up before a big divisional showdown with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"We don't like the way they dive every two seconds and they lead the league in power play attempts because they've got guys like [Steve] Downie -- even though he might not be playing tonight -- who if I was a referee I would never make a call on him ever because he dives every two seconds," Boudreau continued. "[Steven] Stamkos, dives every two seconds. You start to get a hatred on for guys like that. So, it will be interesting."

Lightning head coach Guy Boucher was not amused:

"We all know he's trying to influence the refs for (Monday's) game," said Boucher. "I have too much respect for the players' dedication, mine and his, to even think that is possible. Referees are smart and more competent than people realize. Besides, Downie and Stamkos have the most minor penalties on our team, it's not like they're getting a lot of calls going their way. I think (Boudreau saying Stamkos and Downie are diving) is ridiculous."

Tampa GM Steve Yzerman was even less inclined to agree with Boudreau's assessment:

"Steven Stamkos does not dive. He doesn't do that. He plays the game with integrity," said Yzerman on Monday. "He fights through a lot of checks. He plays the game the right way. I would hate to think someone would make a statement that isn't true and people out there would think a player like Stamkos is going to get a reputation for something that he doesn't do.

"Steve Downie is not a diver. Steve has worked hard since he has came into the league to improve the way he plays the game and he's continuing to work at it and we really like the strides he's made. But diving is not something I would say is now part of his game."

"We would like to think NHL referees are smart enough to see what's going on here and that this is nothing more than gamesmanship."

Well, did the "gamesmanship" work?  Washington won the game 2-1 in a shootout, but Tampa won the penalty war with five power play opportunities to four for Washington.  No penalties were assessed for "diving."

Was Boudreau out of line with his pregame comments?

We say no.

In the same way that Stevie Y is always measured and elegant when he speaks, Boudreau is loose and crass.  It's just his schtick.

As far as the gamesmanship of attempting to influence the referees... we just can't envision the officials sitting around listening or reading a coach's barbs at another team and reacting by saying, "Yeah, that guy has a point."

If you watched HBO's 24/7 series leading up to this year's Winter Classic, then you know that Boudreau will use negativity to motivate his team just as often, if not more so, than positive reinforcement.  So why wouldn't he use it to distract the opposition from focusing on the game? That's the kind of gamesmanship we see here.
Are Stamkos and Downie divers?

A few people have attempted to use statistical evidence to figure out if someone dives, but unfortunately, the NHL doesn't keep a diving stat.  Penalties drawn are often cited, but don't really tell a story on a guy faking his team's way to the power play.

Like NHL Rule 64.1 (Diving / Embellishment) it's a discretionary call.

All too often the team that you are rooting against seems to have eighteen divers dressed on any given night, while your team has the same amount of pure-hearted, integrity fueled, worker bees that would never, ever try to buy a call.

Let's face it, there aren't any teams in the NHL that don't have some guys who will embellish a bit to help their team gain an advantage.  It happens.

Do some guys do it more often than others?  Sure

Does it mean those who do it occasionally are serial frauds?  No way.

Boudreau may not have a refined manor, or even be right, but he got people talking/thinking about what he said.  Most importantly, his team got a win; and we are pretty sure that's what he was looking for when he "dove" in to the subject matter before the game.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

New York Islanders' Trevor Gillies Wasn't Hugged Enough As A Kid

Fresh off a nine-game suspension for a concussion-inducing elbow to the head, and special helping of punches and taunting of an ice prone Eric Tangradi, Trevor Gillies returned to the ice last night.

His return was short lived.

After the game Gillies explained:

"I went over and finished my hit. There was no intent at all to injure him," Gillies said after the game. " I saw him hit [DiBenedetto] and I just made a hit on him. That's it."

Both Gillies and coach Jack Capuano said they didn't think Clutterbuck's back was fully turned. "I didn't think it was from behind at all," Gillies said.. " I hit him from the side."
Clearly neither Gillies, nor his enabling coach seemed to care to mention that Gillies forearm to Clutterbuck's head preceded the "hit."

It was nearly a carbon copy of the shot that concussed Eric Tangradi ten games ago.

As Versus studio analyst Keith Jones aptly stated last night, Gillies "is a slow learner."

Trevor Gillies is not an inexperienced player, who has gotten a little reckless trying to make an impression on the coaching staff.  He is a 32-year old veteran of professional hockey since 1999.

All kidding aside about the not being hugged enough... His refusal to take responsibility, and blatant disregard for the swell being of others under the guise of defending teammates are signs of psychological issues.

The Online Journal of Sports Psychology, Athletic Insight, published findings of a Direct Observation Approach To Study Aggressive Behaviour In Hockey.

It was interesting to read that (paraphrasing) frustration and goal differential had little to no correlation to acts of aggression on the ice.

This would support the notion that Gillies' violent acts are not "in the heat of the moment" or reactionary, but are displays put on by a person with no respect for the rules of the game, nor any understanding of sportsmanship, not to mention a complete disregard for the safety of opposing players.

Mario Lemieux verbally asserted that the NHL's punishment of Gillies in February was not enough. Gillies supported Lemieux's statement with his actions last night.

After the Pittsburgh incident:

"The actions by the Islanders' Gillies and Martin were deliberate attempts to injure by delivering blows to the head of players who were unsuspecting and unable to defend themselves," league disciplinarian Colin Campbell said in a statement. "The message should be clear to all players: targeting the head of an opponent by whatever means will be dealt with by suspension."
Campbell was right, the message SHOULD BE clear to all players, but it wasn't to the Isle's supposed "tough guy" Gillies.

When Vancouver's Rick Rypien lost it a few months ago, attacking fans in the stands, he voluntarily sought out anger management counseling.

Gillies should face some involuntary counseling in addition to any suspension he now faces.