Haggerty: Banning fights not the answer for NHL

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Haggerty: Banning fights not the answer for NHL

WINNIPEG Any attempt to clean concussions out of the NHL and the sport of ice hockey is surely an admirable venture.

Two summers ago when NHL tough guys Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak all died of apparent suicides, it became disturbingly easy to link connections between hockey fighting, the chronic brain swelling now being found in medical studies of pro athletes that take too many concussive blows to the head, and potentially dangerous mental illness.

There has been clamoring to outlaw hockey fighting because it was clearly turning NHL players into the ticking human time bombs that have become all-too familiar in the NFL over the past few tragic years.

It was part of the thesis for a Boston Globe column by Chris Gasper last week calling for fighting to be banned in the NHL. It also rekindled the issue in the city of Boston where hockey fighters are celebrated cult heroes and the big, bad style of old time hockey is still respected, revered and fully understood. But a funny thing has happened to the Chicken Little element of the hockey world looking to outlaw hockey fighting as the last two years have unfolded: Things didnt get worse, and instead its starting to look like those three fatal incidents were more coincidental than troubling trend.

Fighting is up over 20 percent in the NHL this season from last year, and both the usage of the Quiet Room and the mandatory 7-10 days out of the lineup instituted by the league after a diagnosed concussion are methods that are working.

Concussions are up across the NHL from 10 years ago, but in a strange way thats a good thing. It means concussions are being more accurately reported and treated with a gravity that perhaps wasnt present among all NHL medical staffs in the he had his bell rung mentality of NHL yesteryear.

The Shawn Thornton incident from a couple of weeks ago might be perhaps the perfect example of the NHL concussion protocol working in the proper way. Thornton was dinged up in a one-sided brawl with 6-foot-8 monster John Scott to the point the Bruins enforcer entered the penalty box asking NHL officials if hed just been in a fight.

That was seconds after scraping himself up off the ice, and was the first clear indicator hed suffered a concussion.

It was the first diagnosed concussion for Thornton during his six years filling the enforcer role for the Black and Gold, and that includes 87 fights since the winger first signed with Boston prior to the 2007-08 campaign. He sat out his 10 days and then returned without any lingering issues or symptoms, and he hasnt experienced any complications afterward as a 35-year-old enforcer playing in a young mans game.

Thornton rightfully gets indignant when anybody uses a single incident of a concussion in a brawl between experienced fighters to ignite the argument that fighting should be eliminated from the NHL.

"I don't like when people try and take advantage of the situation," said Thornton to CSNNE.com more than a week ago while still recovering from his concussion. "It's part of their agenda. There's fighting in hockey. It's in the game. I think it's a necessary part of the game. I don't think it's going anywhere, so there's no point in really even dwelling on it.

I'm a big boy. I know what I'm getting into."

Here are the facts about hockey fights in the NHL: They account for less than 10 percent of all concussions in the NHL and are not even close to the biggest cause of head injuries in hockey. In a study done 10 years ago by the NHL it was found that centers were twice as likely to suffer concussions as defensemen and forwards. By and large, these are not the fighters, the enforcers, the goons.

The centers are the talented, playmakers in the NHL that are skating in the danger zone areas in the middle of the ice, and sport a natural target on their backs given that theyre typically the most skilled players on the ice.

So outlawing hockey fighting is doing next-to-nothing to solve the concussion problem in the NHL, and would instead simply do the opposite it. The banning of hockey fights would be exacerbating the concussion problem. The dangerous faction of NHL players like Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres -- who seem to pop up at least once or twice a season in regrettable plays that lead to other players getting injured -- would act with more frequency and impunity. The lack of accountability by force would also multiply the number of Cooke-type characters in the league, and thats not a good thing.

Suddenly instead of every team employing an NHL enforcer to keep the peace, each team would be forced to employ a certifiable NHL rat, constantly flirting with going over the line and hurting fellow players. Outlawing fighting would have the opposite intended effect, and it could very well turn hockey into something much more like the NFL: a place where predatory players roam free and engineer dangerous hits on unprotected, vulnerable opponents.

Hockey is the only sport where players have a actual weapon in their hands during play. Sticks can damage eyes and snap wrist bones like twigs. Hockey is also the only major pro sport where there is no out of bounds or foul territory if a player is targeted on the ice.

No matter how much pundits would like to say the NHL needs to get rid of fighting and conform to the other big three sports, hockey will always be its own entity because of its nuances.

If any altruistic soul truly wants to rid the NHL of concussions or at least lessen them significantly there are some pretty simple steps to follow.

First, the NHL would need to reduce the size of elbow and shoulder pads -- as well as the hard material used to make them -- that currently make hockey players look like knights from King Arthurs Round Table. The risk of injuring yourself would reduce the reckless abandon used on the ice.

Second, the NHL needs to reinstitute the red line to help slow down the action: higher skating speeds, combined with the size and strength of this generations hockey players contributes greatly to head injuries on plays that used to be routine in old time hockey.

Third, NHL referees need to allow interferenceobstruction away from the puck. Defensemen formerly used this technique to slow down fore-checkers that were looking to pick up a head of steam before they blasted the puck-retrieving defenseman behind the net. Players were allowed to use their bodies to get in the way and slow down attackers prior to the 2004-05 lockout, and hence the NHL game became much faster and more dangerous after that work stoppage.

Of course these changes would probably lead to more shoulder and elbow injuries for NHL players, and they would certainly slow down a brand of hockey thats become fast, exciting and attractive in the eight years since the rules were changed.

The question becomes whats more important: making changes that might improve the safety of NHL players, or leaving things at the status quo. But those that think eliminating hockey fights is the panacea hockey has been searching for in reducing the NHL's concussion problem are taking the very short-sighted view of a massive, complex, all-encompassing issue.

NHL hockey a contact sport that will always have some level of risk and danger associated with it, and thats what the players signed up for when they started playing the game as children.

GAHS Podcast: Felger 'fearful' of where Bruins are headed

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GAHS Podcast: Felger 'fearful' of where Bruins are headed

In an all-CSN edition in the 15th episode of the Great American Hockey Show Podcast as co-hosts Joe Haggerty and Jimmy Murphy welcomed SportsNet Central anchor Mike Giardi to discuss the current B’s situation and conducted a wide-ranging interview with Sports Tonight host and Felger and Mazz co-host Michael Felger about his time covering the Bruins as a beat reporter, where he developed his love for hockey and his pathway toward becoming the most influential figure in the Boston sports media scene.

Perhaps most interesting from Giardi’s segment was his take that “nobody should be untouchable” on the Bruins roster, that includes franchise player and future captain Patrice Bergeron, if the return is good enough. Felger discussed who he’d move between Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask to change up the Bruins roster this summer and how gravely concerned he is about the health and well-being of the franchise coming off two seasons out of the playoffs.

“I’m fearful, of course. I think the passion of the Bruins fan base is still there. We could do four hours on the radio tomorrow talking about the Bruins, and totally bang it out with callers,” said Felger. “So the Bruins are so lucky that the fans are that passionate. But if it’s too long of a drought, we all lived through 2005 and 2006 coming out of the lockout. It was dark, and we have the capacity to go back there.”

For the full Great American Hockey Show podcast check it out below: 

No defense for blue-line shortcomings

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No defense for blue-line shortcomings

This is the fourth in a five-part series about the breakdowns that doomed the team this season, and what must change for the Black and Gold to once again get moving in the right direction. 

The Bruins had a master plan to upgrade the defense last summer. It quickly morphed into a dumpster fire.

After ultimately deciding they were unwilling to pay Dougie Hamilton an outlandish sum of money -- and coming to the conclusion that the young D-man simply didn’t want to play for Boston anymore -- they dealt him to the Calgary Flames for three draft picks. It was pennies-on-the-dollar value for a young, top-pairing defenseman, and a fear-based move given the threat of offer sheets that possibly loomed if Hamilton made it past July 1 without a new contract extension.

(They also torpedoed a better draft-pick package offer from their ex-general manager, Peter Chiarelli, by demanding Edmonton's young stud D-man Darnell Nurse, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The Bruins made the decision to move Hamilton after he and his camp ignored Boston’s multiple contract overtures. It was also apparent to those running the team that players like Hamilton and Reilly Smith weren’t meshing well with the rest of the Bruins core. 

(There's no second-guessing from this humble hockey writer about the jettisoning of Smith, despite his solid 25-goal season with the Florida Panthers: he was a soft player in that last year with Boston. The part of that move that should be regretted was immediately signing Jimmy Hayes to a three-year contract extension after closing the Smith-for-Hayes deal. But, again, that's neither here nor there.)

The problem for the Bruins after trading Hamilton was in the follow-through.

First they followed Chiarelli's troubling pattern of overpaying mid-level talent by handing Adam McQuaid a four-year, $11 million extension. Then they were unsuccessful in their attempts to move up in the first round of last summer’s draft and take either of the two collegians, Noah Hanifin or Zach Werenski, who projected as eventual No. 1 defensemen. They offered Hamilton and first-round draft choices; they also tried to use Martin Jones as a chip.

But whether new GM Don Sweeney thought he had a deal in place or not, things fell apart at the 11th hour. The Bruins did have three first-round picks, but they were in the middle of the round. In that position, they were unable to get an immediate difference-maker on defense.

The inability to land that young D-man (and potential heir apparent to Zdeno Chara) at last summer’s draft, or at the NHL trade deadline in February, ended up being a fatal blow. There was too much stress on a patchwork defense corps, and it was a major factor in the Bruins missing the playoffs. And even if they'd made it, the B's would have been nothing more than first-round cannon fodder.

The Band-Aid trade for 35-year-old John-Michael Liles was a nominal improvement at the deadline, but it spoke to just how badly they needed puck-moving reinforcements to assist a clearly overworked Torey Krug.

“I can tell you [Sweeney] worked extremely hard to try to move up (in the first round)," said Bruins president Cam Neely at his end-of-the-season press conference. "The scouting staff did a good job of identifying [players], and obviously, if you look back at the draft . . . you kind of had to be (in one of the top spots) to get one of those [defensemen] that were highly coveted. [Sweeney] just couldn’t do it last offseason. [He also] tried throughout the year to make something happen and he’s maybe laid some groundwork (for a future trade) . . . Hopefully [he'll] be able to get something done in the offseason.

"But like I said earlier, we know it’s an area that we need to improve upon . . . [We] know what our back end is all about. We need to . . . really improve that area of our team . . . [It's] something that I know [Sweeney's] going to be very focused on.”

Fast-forward to the present day. The Bruins finished the season with the aging, declining Chara, now 39, as their No. 1 defenseman, and the 5-foot-8 Krug as their No. 2 while posting a career-high 21:37 of ice time per game. The diminutive Krug perhaps paid the price for that wear and tear with right shoulder surgery last month that could sideline him until late October, which raises red flags about whether he should again play those kinds of heavy-duty minutes given his offensive value.

Beyond those two, the Bruins’ defensive prospects aren’t bright. The body of 35-year-old Dennis Seidenberg is breaking down, and the B's would love to be out from under the final two years (at $4 million per) of his contract. Both McQuaid and Kevan Miller are limited, stay-at-home defensemen better cast as bottom-pair guys. Youngsters Colin Miller, Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow weren’t able to lock down roles last season for a multitude of reasons. Miller is the only one who appears to have potential to develop into a top-four NHL defenseman; Trotman and Morrow seem poised to be passed by other young D-men (Brandon Carlo, Robbie O’Gara, Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon) in the organizational ranks sooner rather than later.

Botton line: It simply doesn’t feel like the Bruins have the answer to their defense woes, at least in the short term, within their system.

They need a No. 1 defenseman in the prime of his career, or being groomed into that prime, who can ideally allow the Bruins coaching staff to start easing up on Chara's ice time. Chara is a No. 1 in name only these days, and would be much better served as a middle-pairing D-man playing closer to 20 minutes a night and removed from the power play, where he no longer features his booming slap shot very much.

It’s an fact that nearly every team that’s won the Stanley Cup since the 2004-05 lockout has had a prime No. 1 defenseman in the 25-33 age range, with the exceptions of the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins. Names like Chara, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Nik Lidstrom, Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty figured prominently in those championships, playing 30 minutes a night during the brutal two-month run to the Cup.

The Bruins don’t have that type of guy right now, and they aren’t anywhere close to competing for a Cup until they get one.

So how do you get one?

Sweeney and his management team are already deeply involved in that process, and that’s where names like Jacob Trouba, Sami Vatanen and Matthew Dumba will figure prominently in trade discussions this summer. But those types of players are costly, both in terms what will be needed to be surrendered to acquire them -- trade partners will undoubtedly ask for such talent as David Pastrnak, Frank Vatrano and Ryan Spooner -- and in what they'll be seeking in new contracts, since those demands are what's pushing them into the trade market to begin with.

Ultimately, there’s no guarantee that Sweeney and Co. will close the deal for any of these defensemen, given how hard it is to acquire young talent in trades in the NHL. There's also no guarantee the Bruins will target the right guy in a blockbuster trade, seeing how their scouting staff has whiffed on players like Hayes, Zac Rinaldo and Brett Connolly in recent years.  

The Bruins can hope their amateur scouting and development group can unearth a gem. After all, the Blackhawks probably didn’t know they had a future Conn Smythe winner in Keith when they selected him 54th overall in the 2002 draft. The Penguins got a diamond in Kris Letang with the 62nd overall pick in 2005 NHL. The Bruins, too, struck gold when they acquired Johnny Boychuk from the Colorado Avalanche in a deal for energy forward Matt Hendricks. Within a few years, Boychuk developed into a top-pairing stud on a Stanley Cup championship team. 

So perhaps one of the young prospects currently in the Bruins system is the ultimate answer as an eventual replacement for Chara.

But that’s something tough to count on, especially since -- even if it happens -- it's unlikely to happen in time to provide help next season. Sweeney and Neely need to pull off something in the epic-acquisition category this summer, whether it’s a deal for Kevin Shattenkirk and/or something worked out with a team like Winnipeg for a stud like Trouba.

Both their jobs, and the immediate health and well-being of a Bruins organization currently in distress, may very well depend on it.