Thursday, June 27, 2013

2013 NHL Season Wrap-Up

It's OK everyone. Chara ate before he hugged Hosa
I think even most Blackhawks fans would argue the 2013 NHL season ended one game too soon. They would say the right guys won, but it would have been the most just for them to have won at home after they and all other hockey fans were treated to another brilliant Hawks/Bruins game. But end it did. Here are my thoughts on the 2013 season including the Stanley Cup finals. Warning: Most of this is going to be complaining (and that's after I cut how much I fucking hate the Subban won the Norris) but, I love hockey and I see some problems.

The NHL Has a Discipline Problem
The NHL's discipline problem is they don't know how to apply it. According to the actual rule, Eric Gryba's hit on Lars Eller was perfectly legal. Gryba arrived when the puck did, from the side rather than from behind, without launching himself off the ice, making primary contact shoulder to shoulder. It was a huge hit, but not any different from hits Lucic makes every game, except that when Lars Eller fell his nose and face happened to hit the ice hard and he bled all over the place. It looked bad, really bad, but according to the replay, the hit was legal. But because it looked bad, the NHL suspended Gryba one game. In contrast, Matt Cooke's (more on him later) hit on Macquaid, despite being actually very illegal by a very, very repeat offender was not deemed worthy of additional discipline. But what if Macquaid hadn't gotten up? What if as he fell, his nosed clipped the dasher, and started gushing blood? What Macquaid had gotten a concussion and sat out the rest of the playoffs?

Another example from the playoffs. Why was Duncan Keith's slash to Jeff Carter, which was obviously unintentional and for which he apologized as much as he could, worthy of a suspension but not P.K Subban assaulting Kyle Turris? Play had ended, Subban was frustrated because his team was getting hosed, Subban coasted right into Turris' path and when Turris pushed him away, Subban started wailing on him, even breaking the code by throwing punches after they'd fallen while the linesman was between them. Because Duncan Keith's slash (though accidental, in principle I support the suspension) looked bad and Subban's assault didn't. Until the NHL learns how to dole out discipline based on the actual plays rather than on how they plays look on TV (and quite often who the plays involve) its discipline will be effectively useless in keeping players safe. The discipline needs to be based on dangerous plays, not just injurious plays. Of course, the art of discipline is judgment and there will always be some debate, but the main question they should ask is not, “Was a player hurt?” but “Did this illegal action create a significant risk of injury?”

I Still Don't Know What Hooking Is...
primarily because the NHL doesn't enforce its diving penalty. Right now, there really isn't any punishment for diving. As in game 6 of the finals, even if your dive is blatant enough to get caught (and it really has to be the kind of obviously-grab-the-guys-stick-and-pull-it-into-your-body-while-throwing-your-feet-out-from-under-you kind of move to get caught) the other minor will almost always be called anyway, so you don't go down a man. Right now, the only real reward for skating through a stick check is personal pride.

The ONLY OK dive in the NHL
In general, I like the strict enforcement of the various interference penalties, but hockey loses something when players choose to fall rather than fight through. The real problem is that no referee wants to be the guy that calls a dive only to have the repay reveal it wasn't. And so the solution to the diving (and I'd say the instigator as well) is replay. Just like how every goal is reviewed and on-ice officials can ask for replay reviews from Toronto, why not allow referees to ask for reviews of penalties where they suspect a dive has happened. They call the penalty, signal for a review and get a response. The response can either be, No Dive or Dive. If it's No Dive, the original minor penalty is given, if Dive, even if the other penalty was clearly committed the Diver gets a minor penalty and his team goes on the kill. Odds are, if this is adopted, just the threat of it will pretty much eliminate diving. One or two players get caught early in the season and you'll almost never see it needed again.

I think something similar could be applied to the instigator rule. I think the instigator rule has good intentions but without dealing with the fact that referees still miss dangerous plays, actually can do more harm than good. I like that there's an extra penalty for guys trying to force fights, but I don't like that cheap shot artists can get away without any kind of punishment. Essentially, every time a referee calls an instigator penalty, that play is flagged for review. After the game, the league would watch the surrounding play to see if anything dangerous happened. If they find a penalty or dangerous action they can impose discipline. For example, when Chara totally beat down Lars Eller, he was, rightly according the rules, assessed an instigator penalty. After the game upon review, the league would see Eller cross-check Sequin right in the ribs and either 1. Somehow determine that was totally cool, 2. Assess a minor penalty to be served by Eller at the next game at the start of the period in which the play took place, or 3. Assess a stronger penalty again to be served by Eller, including a game misconduct and/or other suspension as a result of an intent to injure penalty. Does this make for a weird situation when a penalty is served for a play that happened in a previous game? Yes. With trades, last games of the season, playoffs, etc, will there a raft of contingencies need to be figured out. Also, yes. But the result is players will be able to defend themselves and each other against the few assholes who go around trying to hurt people and there would be a league sanctioned mechanism to punish the stuff referees will never be able to catch 100% of the time. And since we're talking about those assholes...

The Matt Cooke Problem
How bad would the problem of hits to the head be in the NHL without Matt Cooke? It wouldn't be gone, but it certainly wouldn't have been as bad as it was. And Matt Cooke doesn't just hit people in the head. Let's not forget him cutting Adam Macquaid earlier this season. If you've got the stomach for it, there are a few YouTube compilations that show Matt Cooke engaging in just about every dirty, dangerous, cheap action a hockey player can take. (And though I know we can't prove Cooke intentionally stepped on Karlsson's Achilles tendon, but those kinds of collisions happen dozens of times again, thousands of times a year, and I've heard of exactly ONE Achilles tendon being sliced in the process.) And to make matters worse, every time an opponent tries to take him to task for hurting, attempting to hurt, or at least endangering another player, he turtles and looks up at the referees as if some injustice has been done to him after they pull whoever off of him. In short, Matt Cooke endangers everyone on the ice with him and will not take responsibility for his actions.

And, as with everything else in the world, there is a very easy solution to the Matt Cooke problem, except that a rich white man is standing in the way. Mario Lemieux should release Matt Cooke and nobody else should sign him. No rule changes. No disciplinary hearings. Just a formal statement by a person who has spoken quite often about player safety, that someone as dangerous as Matt Cooke should not play in the NHL. An agreement that there is a way the game should NOT be played and if a player plays that way, there will be no place for him in the NHL. Frankly, given how much Lemieux has whined about player safety, it's pretty shocking he continues to sign Matt Cooke's checks. It's not like there aren't dozens of other players in the NHL with, once you take out the total disrespect for the game, the exact same ability as Cooke. Which tells me one of two things, both pretty gross. Either Lemieux actually thinks Matt Cooke hurting opponents is good for the Penguins, or he believes he is protecting his players by making sure the most dangerous player in the league is on their team. Both possibilities, though logical, are disgraceful.

The Finals
It was clear early on, that, as unjust as it would have to be, the series would most likely be decided by a bounce. Too evenly matched. Too well coached. Too disciplined. Too talented. Even when one aspect of one team might have struggled, like Corey Crawford's woeful glove hand, they seemed to find balance in the struggles with the other, as with the Bruins' turnovers in that very same game. No cheap shots. No liberties. No whining about the other guys or injuries or referees. I would have gladly watched a best of 97 series with these two teams. I don't think any of the games in particular were as good as Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, which was essentially a perfect hockey game, but they were all pretty close.

Also, in Game 6, Duncan Keith played about the single greatest game I've ever seen from a defenseman. The Bruins were absolutely all over the Hawks pretty much the entire game, and the biggest reason they only scored two goals was Keith. The clearest example of how he played was when he faked a clear up the boards while killing a penalty, spun on a dime, and cleared the puck through the middle ice. It was a stunning mix of intelligence and agility and he made plays like that all game. He broke up plays in front of the net, he relieved pressure, he shut down the top lines. The Bruins only had a one goal lead going into the last minutes of the game because Duncan Keith stopped them from scoring more goals.

And then, as we all kind of knew would happen, one team just happened to get an extra bounce. Every hockey fan wanted more, and I can only hope we get it in 2013-14.

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