National Hockey League general managers will meet in Toronto Tuesday following the Hockey Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies and the future of fighting is once again in the crosshairs.
It almost always takes a tipping point for the NHL to consider any major rule change, and the tipping point on fighting may have been reached the week before last when Philadelphia Flyers’ goaltender Ray Emery chased down his Washington Capitals’ counterpart Braden Holtby to engage him in a fight. It is a matchup that would never be sanctioned in an actual boxing venue because Emery knows what he’s doing, Holtby doesn’t – and the size discrepancy and the differences in their respective weight classes wouldn’t permit it to occur anyway.
What happened was closer to assault than the boys-will-be-boys dismissiveness that permits the pro-fighting crowd to explain away the incident in a la-di-da way. No supplementary discipline was contemplated because, according to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, there was no particular rule that was contravened. Bettman then volleyed the discussion over to NHL GMs, who essentially are the gatekeepers for rule changes, and dropped it in their laps. GMs have been divided into hawks and doves for a while on this topic, and the fact that some – such as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steve Yzerman – have spoken out about the blemish that fighting inflicts on the game makes you think something could get done.
But will it be a minor patch – closing the loophole on goalies leaving the crease to join a fight, for example – or will they actually ponder the next logical move, which is to consider game misconducts for any player that fights under any circumstance?
Knowing the slow pace of change on this particular issue – and the fact that even if the league wants to move on it quickly, they will receive stiff resistance from the NHL players association, which has a lot of important voices defending fighting – makes you hold out little hope that much of any consequence will be resolved this time around.
THE OLYMPIC ROSTER(S): There are a handful of very good veteran players around the NHL that generally start slow and get going as the season progresses who are off to unusually fast starts – Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in Anaheim, Mike Richards and, until he was injured, Jeff Carter in Los Angeles – and it is hard not to see it as a function of Sochi, which will host the 2014 Olympics in February.
The presence of Sochi on the schedule – and the knowledge that in Canada and the United States, the competition for places on the roster will be fierce – has got a lot of players focusing far harder in the early part of the season than they might otherwise.
It doesn’t explain away Claude Giroux’s slow start with the Philadelphia Flyers, or the damage that long-term injuries will do to Rick Nash (New York Rangers) or James Neal (Pittsburgh Penguins) and their chances of cracking the final roster, but even if all three miss the cut, Canada will still have a wealth of quality players at their disposal.
Canada invited 47 players to an orientation camp back in August, and 45 showed up including all three Staal brothers, Eric, Jordan and Marc. For whatever reason, none is having the start they wanted. It seemed like a long shot that all three would make it, but unless Eric Staal picks up his game after a not-so-great first month, it could be that none of them crack the starting lineup.
The management groups for both the Canadian and U.S. teams will stay over in Toronto for an extra day following the GMs meetings to review what’s happened in the first five weeks of the season and to pare down their long lists as much as they can.
THE HHOF CLASS OF 2013: Penguins’ general manager Ray Shero is in town to represent his family on the occasion of his father, Fred’s, induction into the Hall of Fame as a builder. Shero was on a beach in the Carolinas attending the American Hockey League’s annual meetings and didn’t have his cellphone with him on the day his father’s election was confirmed. Eventually, his wife came out and told him that he’d had about six telephone calls from the 416 area code in about a 10-minute span. Shero’s first thought: Dave Nonis (the Toronto Maple Leafs’ GM) must be in a big hurry to make a trade. Eventually, Shero discovered the real reason was his dad was getting in, some 23 years after his death.
THIS AND THAT: James Neal, the Penguins’ right winger, has had a frustrating start to the new season – out with an upper body injury – but is back skating with the Penguins. Pittsburgh had penciled in Neal and Beau Bennett as the wingers on their No. 2 line with Evgeni Malkin, but both have missed extensive time with injuries. Both are back now – Neal playing 17-plus minutes in his return Saturday, Bennett about 11 – in the Penguins’ loss to the Bruins. Their return should help Malkin get going again. With a rotating cast of wingers, the former MVP and scoring champion was tied for 37th in the NHL scoring race after Sunday’s games, with 15 points in 17 games … The Ducks signed Dustin Penner to a one-year, $2-million contract as a free agent last summer, hoping that the chance to return to his original NHL team – where he won a Stanley Cup in 2007 – would get his career back on the rails. Penner was given a chance to play with Getzlaf and Perry in training camp and made the least of his opportunity. He wasn’t very good; he eventually was demoted to the fourth line and was a healthy scratch earlier in the season. But Ducks’ coach Bruce Boudreau isn’t a guy who holds a long grudge and believes in second chances, so after trying mostly Patrick Maroon up on the No. 1 line, he eventually put Penner back with Getzlaf and Perry. This time, it clicked. Penner had four points Friday night in a 6-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres, as did Getzlaf, but the most remarkable part of his turnaround is this: He is a plus-18 through his first 12 games of the season, which is the highest by any NHL player since the 1984-85 season when a trio of players, led by Wayne Gretzky, at plus-28, had better plus-minus ratings … The Ducks won Sunday over Vancouver without Getzlaf, who is out day-to-day with an upper body injury, but has soared to third overall in the NHL scoring race behind Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby. Perry is fifth. Anaheim is off to another great start this season, going 15-3-1, matching a club record established last year. Their 65 goals lead the NHL. … Two players at the other end of the statistical curve are the Flyers’ duo of Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen, each of whom recorded their first points of the new season last week in a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Flyers have just 26 goals in their first 16 games, by far the fewest in the NHL. Hartnell was a 37-goal scorer as recently as the 2011-12 season and Timonen has been one of the top scoring defencemen in the league for going on a decade, but both look like shadows of their former selves at the moment. The fear in some quarters in Philly is Timonen may never get back to his previous level and that the bottom is slowly dropping out of his game.
AND FINALLY: When the Vancouver Canucks parted ways with centre Manny Malhotra last season, it looked as if his NHL career might be over. Malhotra had never fully recovered from an ugly eye injury suffered back in March of 2011 and though the Canucks desperately needed his work in the faceoff circle, he played only a handful of games for the team last year before they put him on the injured reserve list and took him out of the lineup for the duration of the lockout-shortened season. But Malhotra wasn’t ready to pack it in and so he signed a contract with the Carolina Hurricanes’ minor-league affiliate in Charlotte over the summer and last week, made it back to the NHL. In his third game, he scored the breakaway winner against the Flyers. A heartening comeback. Hopefully it lasts.