Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I wasn't initially going to bother with this, but at the urging of my only two regular readers who apparently noticed that I've spewed a fair amount of words pleading for the firing, beheading, or defenestration of Bruce Boudreau, and with him being terminated yesterday, apparently want some form of schadenfreude soaked obituary, an orgy of I-told-you-so feasting on the bloody carcass of a defeated foe. But alas, I don't really have much to say. Yes, I think he ruined the Caps' last two postseasons by not putting together Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin together despite that trio being Corsi- and scoring-dominant over the past three years. And his giving Semin less PP time than Brooks Laich last postseason and this season was asinine. And yes, his team played loosey-goosey and he didn't seem to pick up on the newer tactical developments around the league, e.g. the pp-breakout-drop-pass thing that Van and Det and other teams do. But that said, Boudreau was probably a not-good-but-not-terrible-coach-either. He was mostly hokey and sincere and inarticulate and caring. His biggest crime against me was his mistreatment (i.e., playing him with a revolving door of ill-fitting, unready, and/or inferior linemates) of Alexander Semin, whose abilities and style of play have become largely the only joy I derive from watching the Capitals, or the NHL for that matter. So for that, I certainly but hesitantly celebrated BB's departure. Hesitantly because of what has come next.

While Dale Hunter does have a reputation for playing the fuck out of his stars in junior, I would have preferred the nerd/tactician type. The Bylsma/Babcock/Vigneault breed of coach who understands data and goes on more than just gut, who are if not educated, at least articulate and thoughtful. But most of all, I want a coach that understands that Alexander Semin is probably the best intercepter of opponents passes in the league (whereas Datsyuk is the best thief of puck carriers), is a dominant player along the boards in maintaining and obtaining puck possession, and is a unique offensive talent that needs to be paired with a certain type of center that instinctively plays the European, combinational style to maximize his effectiveness. I don't know if the Caps got that in Hunter - my guess is no - but I do know Hunter is one of the dirtiest players in the history of the sport. Second all-time in penalty minutes, yes, but moreso shit like this:

Am I happy that Boudreau's gone? Sure. Am I optimistic about the future? No.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Foes Before Bros

Staal did not realize whom he had leveled until after the play. Immediately after that game, Marc told Eric he was “upset” and “disappointed” at being hit like that. Marc missed a handful of games last season, although neither he nor the Rangers revealed he had sustained a concussion. Marc’s symptoms worsened over the summer, and he has not played this season. There is no timetable for his return. “It’s tough for him; it’s tough for me; it’s tough for everyone in the family.”
- Staal on Staal

I think this is the most interesting and illustrative of all the stories regarding the problem of concussions in the NHL. Yes, the sine qua non of NHL sales and marketing and golden boy-related marginalia hasn't played a game in 10 months due to a (2) concussion(s), and the daily updates regarding his condition and prognostications as to his return is one of the bigger storylines of the season thus far, and rightfully so. And, yes, what happened to Him is super important and instructive and can't be over emphasized enough and should probably have resulted in greater action by the league and its asvertisers et al., etc., but the bro on bro crime aspect of the Staals hit is just too good to ignore. Two of the more popular explanations of the increasing acts of brain musherry in the league are that players don't have enough respect for each other on the ice and that players put themselves in vulnerable positions. I think Eric's hit on Marc pretty clearly debunks both of those notions. This is the play:

More than the plain consanguinity of the participants, the particulars of their family - they are the eldest siblings of a sort of fairy tale-esque and notoriously close-knit Canadian hockey clan comprised of three NHL stars and a fourth brother in the minors, raised in a place called Thunder Bay where the family business is sod farming, and each with the blue-eyed, blond-hair, farm boy countenance that registers as good looking in a completely non-threatening and uninteresting way - make the hit and its fallout particularly sad or illuminating, depending on one's perspective.

As to the respect explanation, I think it's fairly self-evident that the Staals are not dirty players: while they may engage in some in-scrum pushing and face washing, they don't take many minor or major penalties, they don't do a lot of hitting, and I've never seen any of them do anything I'd consider maliciously violent. If "respect" is just a word to signify playing the game in a way that places a reasonable amount of concern for the safety and well-being of your opponents, then whatever respect the Staals have for their individual opponents should be and probably is dwarfed by the respect they have for each other. Nevertheless, Eric crushed Marc with an arguably clean hit. (Because that's the way the game is played, because if he doesn't, he'll hear it from his coaches, because it won't be penalized, because the players - due to enhanced training and shortened shifts - are basically flying around the ice at near full speed nearly all the time.)

And as to the victim's awareness or ability to protect himself, Marc Staal emerged last season as one of the elite shutdown defensemen in the game. If a player as skilled and adept as him at putting himself in the right position with the appropriate amount of control, balance, and vision can still let himself get hit with his head down like that, how much hope is there for the average player? Right now, the game is outrageously violent and dangerous, and it has to do with larger institutional and systemic issues more than individual or cultural failings. I hope Marc Staal gets better, but more than that, I hope the game becomes safer.