Jim Matheson’s Edmonton Journal piece on protecting Ryan Nugent-Hopkins today neatly encapsulated the feelings of many Oilers observers. Matheson, whose time as Oilers’ beat reporter goes back to the glory days of the club, referenced the old days when Wayne Gretzky had plenty of physical protection on the team.
My objection would be that no matter how hard a team tries, there’s simply no protecting star players from big hits any more.
Take the Boston Bruins as an example. The Bruins are typically regarded as one of, if not the, toughest team in the National Hockey League.
They also possessed a diminutive centre, one of the most gifted offensive players in the NHL. For five consecutive seasons Marc Savard eclipsed the point-per-game mark, twice getting within five points of 100. Then this happened:
Milan Lucic was playing on Savard’s wing at the time, clearly visible in the video. And, as Nation writer Cam Charron pointed out to me earlier today, the NHL’s official game-sheet has Zdeno Chara on the ice too. Bruins’ enforcer Shawn Thornton not only dressed; he’d been on the ice just 16 seconds earlier, lining up opposite Matt Cooke, who threw the hit that took Savard out.
Two of the NHL’s most intimidating players were on the ice when that hit took place. An enforcer had been out seconds earlier. Marc Savard shouldn’t have had to worry about a cheap hit from Matt Cooke, if players protecting each other worked. Yet, the above actions transpired.
Of course, Savard came back. But then this happened:
That’s ex-teammate Matt Hunwick running Savard’s head into the glass as he finished his check. These are the 2010-11 Bruins, the team that goes on to win the Stanley Cup in the spring, and if possible they’re even tougher than they were when Cooke took Savard out. Once again, Zdeno Chara is on the ice. Nathan Horton is riding shotgun on Savard’s wing. Gregory Campbell had already fought in this game. Once again Shawn Thornton was dressed; according to the NHL game sheet he’d left the ice one second before Savard got nailed. Milan Lucic is also playing; he’d score twice in this game.
There’s no such thing as protection, for any player on any team in the modern NHL. The Oilers can bring in Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk and another dozen like them, and it won’t matter. Guys are still going to try and hit Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner.
For those players with predatory natures – like Matt Cooke – the fear of physical retribution isn’t enough to change their nature. Cooke has seen the worst outcome possible – he fought Steve Moore in the game where Moore’s neck was broken as the Canucks exacted vengeance for an earlier hit on Markus Naslund. He was still willing to take out Savard’s head, even with the meat in Boston’s lineup. Even having seen first-hand careers end for lesser offenses.
For other players – guys like Matt Hunwick – their continued presence in the league depends on them finishing checks. If Hunwick has Savard in the corner and doesn’t hit him, what does his coach say? How does his coach react if thanks to easing up, Savard sneaks past and sets up a goal?
As Matheson notes in his piece, when Jared Boll ran Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ben Eager was right there. Darcy Hordichuk was dressed, and tried to do something about it afterward. Neither of those things prevented the hit on Nugent-Hopkins; neither of them is likely to prevent other hits on Nugent-Hopkins.
Fans can demand a physical response. They can demand nastier players. They can demand skill that can intimidate, players in the mold of Milan Lucic. In the end though, it’s not going to change the fact that guys like Jared Boll are going to take runs, or that guys like Mike Brown are going to bump shoulders along the boards. It’s just how things are. Until the NHL really does turn into the ‘no hitting league’ it’s likely the way things will stay.