Thursday, December 15, 2011

On fights, hits, concussions and the Habs

Emelin Boom! (Photo credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ever since the NHL added Rule 48 in an attempt to deal with illegal hits to the head, there’s been repeated claims that it’ll force players to hit less, for fear of lost salary from suspension.

The result of course would be a drastic reduction in physical play, turning the game we all love into mere Shinny. Yeah, about that…

When the lockout ended, the goal was to generate more offense and speed up the game. The biggest change being the crackdown on hooking, holding, interference and other means of impeding an opposing player’s progress.

They also removed the red line, limited a goalies ability to handle the puck and increased the size of the offensive zone. The intent was clear; increase puck pressure with speed to create more offense.

On fighting

The immediate result was a two-year, all you can eat buffet of power play opportunities, along with the biggest drop in fighting the league had seen in decades. The reason for that was simple. Hard to justify a staged fight or retribution scrap for a perceived cheap-shot when your team is already on the power play or shorthanded.

It took two years of adjustment before we saw a brief spike in fighting which was actually just a return to the downward trend, to fight levels last seen in the 1970s. From its peak in the 1980s, fighting is down 48% and is currently on-pace to be lower yet again this season. With revenues at an all-time high, fans don’t appear to have noticed, or cared over the years. A point that's driven home when you consider major penalties drop by 70% when fan and media interest in the sport is maxed out in the playoffs.

On hitting

The adjustment years caused a purge throughout the NHL. Speed and mobility began to matter more than sheer size. Players who couldn’t adjust to the speed and pace of the game began to lose their jobs to those who could, and over time it was reflected in the physical play.

In 2005-06, teams averaged just 15.98 hits per game and it’s steadily increased; 17.89, 19.01, 20.96, 22.04 to 22.73 hits per game last season. That’s a 42.2% increase in hitting, with greater speed since the lockout ended. As for the playoffs, hitting typically jumps another 28% on average over a given season. This past year, teams averaged a bone-crunching 29.41 hits per game in the playoffs.

Just over a third into the 2011-12 season, hitting is on a 21.53 per game pace, with teams averaging just 1.2 fewer hits over last season so far. Not exactly the destruction of the physical game opponents of Rule 48 were predicting. Given that physical play usually ticks up in the new year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the final number slightly above last year’s average.

With the shift in the type of player who can earn an NHL paycheque, speed and mobility is no longer the domain of the smaller player. With fighting continuing its downward trend and the pace of the game at an all-time high, thanks to post-lockout rule changes to boost offense, bigger players must keep up or be replaced by those who can. And adjust they have.

On Concussions

It’s taken 6 years but hitting, with greater speed and overall size has finally returned to consistent levels last seen towards the end of the 1990s, when equipment such as helmets were substandard to say the least. Concussions back then were downplayed, misdiagnosed and often hidden from doctors and training staff. Wanting to keep a well-paying job is a strong motivator during an era were injuries without obvious wounds were often viewed with skepticism. Man up and play or risk being marked as soft or weak-minded.

Now that the league has adjusted and hits have returned to levels from the late 90s, it’s time to do something to reduce the speed of collisions. No touch icing, allowing goaltenders to handle the puck without restriction and tweaking the impedance rules within 5 feet of the boards, where 90+% of hits occur would have an immediate and profound effect while equipment manufacturers, the league and NHLPA continue to work together on safer gear.

What won’t help are the ludicrous calls to eliminate the instigator rule. Decrease hits to the head by increasing hits to the head, often without helmets to serve macho, gladiator imagery … to avoid injuries? Great for lining Don Cherry’s pockets with DVD sales and Saturday night rhetoric but nonsensical from every other angle.

Fighting is diminishing anyway so little needs to be done, except perhaps to help accelerate the process to a point where, possibly within the next decade, nature can take its course and players are simply ejected for fighting. If a death occurs on-ice as the result of a fight before that happens, all bets are off. The only way this can happen is if referees begin to consistently call the crap that typically leads to retribution with the league following up as needed. Anything short of that is oxygen for fighting to exist as a means to act where the refs and league won’t.

On the Habs

So, what does all this mean for the Canadiens? The game is getting more physical, more so in the playoffs while the average number of power play opportunities has been falling since the lockout; 5.85, 4.85, 4.28, 4.16, 3.71, to just 3.54 last season. Build your team around passive play with small, skilled players and an over-reliance on the power play to carry the offense? It’s just stupid. On average last year, 76.8% of offense across the league didn’t come on the power play while the Habs have been the 6th most dependent, two years running.

The Canadiens have tried to draft bigger recently but none of their forward prospects with legitimate top 6 potential are over 6 feet, 200 lbs. Adding Cole and Emelin during the summer helped but even with them, the Habs have outhit their opposition in just 3 of 15 road games this season. With physical play jumping another 28% in the playoffs and power play opportunities falling, keeping teams honest by making them pay on the power play just seems… archaic.