Feb 192011
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

Matt Martin, New York Islanders, Max Talbot, Pittsburgh Penguins

Photo credit: canada.com

They say you can teach a player to play defence, but you can never teach a player offense. Offense comes from within – from a player’s imagination, intellect and feel for the game they play.

Two professional sports leagues seem to understand this, and have changed their rules to cater to the offensive side of their game.

Over the last decade, the NFL has gone out of its way to protect the player on-field through which all offense is orchestrated: the quarterback.

As Bill Simmons wrote last fall, when it comes to the NFL today it is pretty much “glorified flag football with better plays.”

It’s also fair to say, given that football has replaced baseball as America’s sport, and given that the Super Bowl has just set record ratings, this change has been a good one for the NFL and its bottom-line.

Meanwhile the NBA, certainly since the launch of the Bird-Magic era, has marketed their entire product around the league’s best offensive players. Rule changes, specifically around the 2001-02 season, have favoured offense.

And, whether it’s real or imagined, being an NBA superstar means getting the benefit of a referee’s call. Sneeze on the game’s best players and you’re likely to be called for a foul.

Like the NFL, the NBA understands that it’s the offensive side of the game that brings and keeps fans around the sport.

This brings us to the NHL, and discussions this week about the return of 70’s-style “goon” hockey.

Of the “big three” North American sports that feature player-on-player contact (hockey, football, basketball), only the NHL doesn’t go out of its way to protect its star offensive players.

Perhaps this is because a certain element of hockey culture has a grip on every nook and cranny of the NHL operation.

From analysts in the media to NHL headquarters to various general managers and coaches throughout the league, professional hockey is overrun with former “tough guys.”

We’re talking the types of players who would fill the bottom of an NHL roster. Players who, when active, exhibited characteristics of sacrifice, toughness and intimidation. Players who more often used their stick as a weapon than a creative tool.

In short – we’re talking about an entire culture created and enforced by former players who could never play the game at the same level of teammates who exhibited the very best the sport has to offer.

This culture recently went to work taking Mario Lemieux to task for his comments about the state the NHL game. They were quick to point out that the Penguins are themselves one of the league’s most penalized teams, employing a player like Matt Cooke, whose job on-ice is based purely on intimidation and intent-to-injure.

Yet despite these unfortunate truths, the fact of the matter is that the NHL is better off when its greatest players contribute their voice to the direction of the sport.

It is a shame another part of the hockey culture is to defer to the status quo, and not “rock the boat.”

Because as it stands, the game’s being left to the Neanderthals.

And that’s not a good thing for the future of the game.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Stephen Brunt hammered away at the same nail in a column earlier this week.
  • For what it’s worth, the NHL’s hiring of Brendan Shanahan and Rob Blake – two skilled players now contributing to the league’s hockey operations – is a step in the right direction.
  • Four random solutions to NHL “gooning:” 1) designate an instigator for every fight, resulting in a powerplay for one team 2) hand out suspensions of increasing seriousness based on the number of instigators (5, 10, 15) a player earns in a year 3) adopt the NBA approach and call more penalties when the league’s best players are infracted upon 4) Adopt Pierre Maguire’s suggestion and reduce the NHL roster by one player.
  • This pretty much sums up the season Nik Antropov’s having in Atlanta: USA Today talks about how adding Blake Wheeler will address the Thrasher’s lack of size up the middle. Antropov’s only 6’6 and plays centre.
  • Nice touch having both the Flyers and the Hurricanes wear #17 jerseys pre-game in honour of Rod Brind’Amour’s banner raising. Speaking of Brind’Amour, I wonder if there are any Oiler fans left in Edmonton willing to argue the similarities between Shawn Horcoff and the former Carolina captain.
  • Brian Burke is already looking to leverage his two new first-round draft picks in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft into an earlier selection. The thing is, the 2011 draft is reportedly a weak one beyond the first few selections. Two late-round picks might not move the Leafs up quite as far as they’d like…
  • …which means plan B may just be dangling those two first-round draft picks in front of cash-strapped teams with young restricted free agents seeking pay raises. Zach Parise (NJ), Shea Weber (NSH), Brent Seabrook (CHI), Zach Bogosian (ATL), Kyle Okposo (NYI) all fit that description, even if their respective teams may not want to move them.
  • As a pending UFA, not sure if Craig Anderson will want to stick around Ottawa for the next few years as they rebuild. That being said, it may be the best chance he has next year of starting the year as a #1 goalie.
  • Meanwhile, in Brian Elliott the Avalanche get a goalie of (at least this year) equal ability, who is also younger, cheaper and may yet improve.
  • Injuries and a low-profile have robbed him of some of the lustre he had as a younger defenceman in Edmonton, but make-no-mistake Tampa Bay got a good one in Eric Brewer. His offense has never truly materialized, but he’s very sound in his own zone, and can play an effective physical game.
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