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CALGARY, Alta. /Troy Media/ – Looking for a National Hockey League catch phrase to describe the third round of the playoffs? How about May Mayhem?
Apparently the stick work of April was not enough. This month’s lawless behaviour permitted by the league is checking from behind into the boards. Games have been a festival of players being pitched face-first into danger by a cross-check from behind.
How do we know it’s a thing?
Don Cherry was recently rummaging through his trick bag for a description of why Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf is such a great leader. His tape sampler featured the Ducks star pile-driving opponents from behind into the boards (without penalty). I rest my case.
Getzlaf is hardly unique this month. Sidney Crosby has been launched in this manner on a number of occasions – as recently as Saturday versus Ottawa when Dion Phaneuf played rocket booster to the Pens’ captain.
Sometimes players are checked this way because they’ve turned their backs to the defender. But that’s not an excuse. Football doesn’t allow hits from behind and no one has accused it of going soft. As we’ve said many times, the NHL is tempting fate by permitting checking from behind. The game is dangerous enough. It doesn’t need a paralyzed or dead player to illustrate the point.
The Nashville Predators have so many excellent defencemen that former Montreal superstar P.K. Subban is now the No. 3 defencemen on the team. In the days before salary chaos, that would have been an embarrassment of riches for the Preds.
After all, defencemen are the coin of the realm in the NHL. He who has many blueliners is considered a Warren Buffett on ice. But in the salary-capped NHL, no team can afford a player with Subban’s contract – eight-years, $72 million, running through the 2021-22 season – playing third-D minutes. The circumstances suggest to some that Preds general manager David Poile might try to find a buyer for the charismatic ex-Hab.
All of which begs the question: Has Subban become the new Phaneuf? Phaneuf, if you’ll recall, burst into the NHL as an offensive defenceman with the Calgary Flames. As a rookie in Calgary, he wowed the league with his big shot and his dynamic skating. He was also a big pain to opponents, a controversial figure in the NHL.
Like Subban, Phaneuf won a large contract well before the Flames had to pay him big money under the NHL’s salary grid. But, as the years passed, he wasn’t playing up to the salary commitment the Flames were making to him. He was considered hard to coach, a risk-taker who played to his own music.
Eventually, the Flames tired of Phaneuf’s unreliability on ice and shipped him to Toronto in a controversial deal. With the moribund Maple Leafs, Phaneuf played better but he was not the man to turn Toronto around. After six years as the whipping boy in Toronto, Phaneuf was dealt to Ottawa, where he has become a reliable defenceman in these 2017 playoffs – just not the superstar he was touted in Calgary.
Subban appears to be headed in the same direction. He’s fun to watch since he plays high-risk hockey but he’s also a coach killer. The arc of his career resembles Phaneuf’s more each year. Does he become like Phaneuf, a talented enigma passed around the league to diminishing expectations?
An Ottawa/Nashville Stanley Cup Final might answer a few of those questions.
Speaking of puck pariahs, last week saw the defenestration of Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin after his Capitals once again failed to surmount Crosby and the Penguins in the playoffs. In a bitter defeat, Washington lost yet again in a seventh game – this time at home to Pittsburgh.
With Ovechkin as captain, the Caps have not advanced to a Stanley Cup Final. At the same time, Crosby has led the Pens to two Stanley Cups in three visits to the final series. Adding to the disappointment, the Caps have won three Presidents’ Trophy titles as the best club in the regular season, led by Ovechkin, a three-time NHL MVP.
The crushing loss last week brought out a storm of criticism, much from sources who’d previously been empathetic to Ovechkin.
Russian journalist Slava Malamud accused Ovechkin of being a prima donna who has dragged down the Caps (and the Russian national team) over the past decade through his lack of leadership. Sample: An insane hockey talent who can’t drag a team kicking and screaming to victory. Doesn’t command the room in this way. Always been like this.
Certainly, Ovechkin’s record in big games in the post-season and Olympics is replete with failure. But having built his franchise around the player, Caps owner Ted Leonsis has been unwilling to face the reality that maybe the Great Eight is fallible.
With a huge contract and the owner’s undying love, Ovechkin’s not going anywhere soon. But his legacy is a Hall of Famer who can’t win the big one. That’s not dissimilar to where Brett Hull was when he left St. Louis for the Dallas Stars. A record goal scorer and Hart Trophy winner with the Blues, Hull became a secondary star with Dallas and then Detroit and won two Stanley Cups at the end of his career.
Can Ovechkin turn around his rep as a guy who can’t get you where you want to go? What’s clear is that the Washington equation isn’t working. The question is whether the Caps adapt or trade him.
Bruce Dowbiggin is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster. Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.
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