March 10 2011 03:09PM
I had an awful week as a hockey fan. I'm sure many of you feel the same way.
It seems quaint now – but on Monday, I got myself worked up into a lather about the wholly manufactured “Canucks Nation” moniker making the puck media rounds. The label “Canucks Nation” has previously been used by local media, it appeared on twitter over the weekend, Canuckz.com wrote a smart piece on it and it ended up on Puck Daddy on Monday afternoon. This travesty of a moniker was used to describe the awesome new phenomenon of Canucks fans travelling en masse to road games in American markets, and drowning out the home teams support. The media can describe this phenomenon however they'd like – and they seem to have picked the canned, inaccurate(*) and unoriginal “Canucks nation” – but I'll never self-identify as such, and I suspect a slim majority of thinking Canucks fans share my reservations.
(*) Check out the 3rd point from that Nucksmisconduct article. They end up supporting the label, which, I disagree with. But still, brilliant reasoning.
By Wednesday afternoon, any concern I had about “Canucks nation” had been superseded by a more serious existential issue facing the game. I found myself wrestling with my conscience about whether or not I could continue to support a league that routinely fails to protect its players. (**) This much is clear: the current rules and supplemental disciplinary practices have failed to adjust to the increased speed and size of the athletes playing the game. The league is preoccupied with “intent” in doling out supplemental discipline – a fine metric for adjudicating criminal charges but an awful one if your aim is to protect the players. In my admittedly amateurish view – what the NHL desperately needs are new rules of the road.(***)
(**) Despite my hand-wringing, and my cloudy conscience – I couldn't help myself – I watched the entirety of the Blackhawks vs. Lightning game on Wednesday night. Yes, I caved on my 'moral stance' that quickly. Ultimately, I have too much invested in the league. I have watched 70+ Canucks games a year for over fifteen years now, I blog and tweet obsessively about the NHL, I attend upwards of fifteen pro or major junior games a season, and my greatest fear in life is dying before Vancouver wins a Stanley Cup. So yeah, my threat to “stop watching the NHL” was about as idle as it gets.
(***) Modest suggestions: A) you hit a player in the head – even accidentally – it's a penalty. It has become clear that concussions are are too big a risk to a players quality of life for head shots of any sort to be allowed. B) Replace Murphy and Campbell, who the public don't trust, and hire an independent organization to adjudicate supplemental discipline. Direct them to prioritize player safety and consistency. I also liked the Botch/Kurtenblog suggestion about having a player committee play a role. C) Invest heavily in R&D on safety equipment for helmets and for the rink itself.
Now I don't think Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty was beyond the pale in the way the Bertuzzi-Moore incident was, but it was – at best – a reckless, borderline hit. To paraphrase Greg Brady: it was an illegal hit, in a decided game, at the end of a period, on a player Chara had a history of being angry at/annoyed by. It also broke Pacioretty's neck. In my opinion, Chara intended to drive Pacioretty into the stanchion, but certainly didn't mean to break his neck. His actions were reckless, dangerous and warranted a lengthy suspension – though not a criminal investigation. Despite his insensitive comments after the fact, Chara isn't the bad guy – rather, I'm furious at the NHL for not doing enough to protect the players.
Max Pacioretty is only the latest example of a larger, tragic trend. I could go on for another couple thousand words, but this issue has been covered at length by smarter people than I. (****) Nonetheless, I'd like to make one final point: when Matt Cooke (likely) ended Marc Savard's career last season – the NHL failed to punish it. This set off a wave of ugly incidents, as NHL players – already used to playing 'on the edge' – pushed the limits of what was acceptable under the rules at the time. When Max Pacioretty criticized the league for failing to suspend Chara he said, "I'm not mad for myself, I'm mad because if other players see a hit like that and think it's okay, they won't be suspended, then other players will get hurt like I got hurt." I think Patches is right on the money here. To disincentivize hits like Chara's is the major reason why big-Z needed to be suspended – even briefly. The NHL got it right on Kubina – but his punishment for the elbow he gave Dave Bolland seems disproportionate when judged against Chara's hit on Pacioretty. I just hope that next week, when I sit down to write my Nucks Army post – that I'm not writing about a dramatic uptick in dirty play and serious injuries – though sadly, I suspect I might be.
(****) Choice picks: Friedman's take on the evolving danger in hockey, Bruce Arthur on the NHL's abdication of responsibility, Cam Charron made a nice case against Chara, Greg Wyshynski had a a solid summary.
On deck tonight – the Canucks play the San Jose Sharks – a team that has dominated them over the last couple of years. This season has happily been a different story – the Canucks have taken five out of a possible six points in their previous meetings with the Sharks this season, and they've outscored San Jose 11-5 in those games. The Sharks, however, have been one of the leagues hottest teams over the past month, and with Ian White on the blueline – they've fixed the back-end speed issue that gave the Canucks their biggest advantage over the Sharks earlier in the year. I was thinking the Canucks would lose tonight, but on the heels of Kyle Wellwood's comments about Vancouver being “scared to lose” I'd expect to see a revved up Vancouver team steam-roll the San Jose Chokers in a big way this evening.
On Saturday the Canucks play their old rival, the Calgary Flames. It will be Vancouver's last HNIC appearance this month. The desperate Flames will need these two points, and I for one look forward to watching a meaningful Vancouver-Calgary game for the first time in over a year. Following Saturday's roadie, the Canucks return home for games against Northwest Division opponents: the always annoying Minnesota Wild; and the struggling Colorado Avalanche. The Wild are another desperate team and always play Vancouver tough, whereas I'd expect the Sedins to put up a lot of points on either Budaj or Elliot on Wednesday night.
At the end of every game, a regular coterie of Canucks fans pour over the box-score, then take to twitter and hyperventilate about the TOI advantage popular whipping boy Aaron Rome has enjoyed of late over Keith Ballard. When Keith Ballard returned from his knee injury on February 22nd, he was put on the second pairing with Ehrhoff for five games. He averaged nearly 17 minutes per game, was pointless, played to a -1 and had three shots on net while the team went 2-3-0. This stretch culminated in one of the worst Canucks games of the season – a 3-0 home shutout loss against Pekka Rinne and the trapping Nashville Predators. For the California road trip Bowness – whose responsible for the defence – reunited Ballard with impressive, but still shaky rookie Chris Tanev on a third pairing where he's averaged closer to 13 minutes per game.
To the annoyance, and astonishment of many, Aaron Rome has seen his TOI explode during this stretch. He's slid into the top four and played northward of twenty minutes per game in the last couple of contests. Despite the twitter complaints - the Canucks are suddenly hot, winning four of their last five over reasonably legitimate opponents. A few things to consider: Keith Ballard is having a godawful season offensively, gets an inexcusable number of shots blocked for a guy with his speed, pedigree and skill; and is - according to Jason Botchford - playing at less than 100%. Also, the pairing of Aaron Rome and Chris Tanev was a mess – even in limited minutes. Montreal, Nashville and Boston all specifically targeted them, and did so effectively.
Now I'm not arguing the merits of Ballard-Rome – clearly Ballard is the superior NHL talent. But strategically deploying Ballard in a limited role as he heals allows Bowness to protect both Tanev (with Ballard) and Rome (with Ehrhoff). It's worked recently, and really, it's worked all season. So please, Canucks fans, stop complaining about Rome's minutes! The guy has an unglamourous job (him and Ballard both sport the lowest qual-team scores among Canucks blueliners), he doesn't have a lot of offensive upside but he's skilled enough to keep the play alive, and his physical game has improved enormously over the course of the season. The proof – as they say – is in the pudding: Vancouver's record is 6-1-1 this season when Aaron Rome plays more than 19 minutes per game, and Rome has played to a +4 in those games. Now I wouldn't advocate for Rome to play a top 4 role in the medium-term, but the complaints about his play strike me as baseless – in my view he's filled in admirably when needed. For an 8th defenseman with a 2-way 750,000 dollar cap hit – that's not too shabby.