HARD HITS: Make Hockey Great Again


Four-time heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield put the gloves on in a playful celebration KO of Jordan Martinook of the Hurricanes. AP Photo via Getty Images

Okay. Before you stop and cringe at the cheesy title, let me just point out that it was the easiest thing I could come up with. Basically, the first thing that entered my mind, I used.

Why do we need to Make Hockey Great Again? For a variety of reasons. Look. This isn’t so much a criticism of everything we’ve seen this season. Scoring is up. Games are more unpredictable. That’s a good trend.

If only it were that simple. While it’s a lot of fun to watch exciting teams like the league best Lightning, Maple Leafs, Flames, Sharks, Jets, Penguins, and Blackhawks play the game with world class skill that some area locals would die for (wink wink Devils and Rangers), the issue is that not every city gets to see that kind of special talent.

So, if they’re going to be quick to celebrate Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mark Giordano, Matthew Tkachuk, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Timo Meier, Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin, etc., then what about the NHL’s lower scoring teams that must play differently just to be competitive each night?

I look at what Barry Trotz is doing with the Islanders and what Rick Tocchet is accomplishing in Arizona with amazement. Neither team have the firepower to win 6-5 games such as the teams we listed above. They play systems and rely largely on the goalies.

For the Isles, it’s been both Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss while scoring has dried up for Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee and Josh Bailey. That’s why they were outscored 7-2 this weekend by the Caps and Flyers at Nassau Coliseum following a 6-1 coronation of the Tavares pajama Leafs on Thursday. A couple of more slip ups and suddenly, the feel good season could be in jeopardy.

If you think goals are hard to come by on Long Island, imagine being a Coyotes fan. Their leading point getter is struggling sophomore Clayton Keller with 41, and a team worst minus-20 rating. Alex Galchenyuk is second with 36 in 55 games. They’re followed by Oliver Ekman-Larsson with 35, and ex-Blueshirt Derek Stepan, who’s only at 13-19-32 despite missing only one game. If not for the brilliant play of backup Darcy Kuemper (20 Wins, 2.54, .918), they would be long out of the wildcard race. Instead, they’ve reeled off six straight wins and trail both the Stars and Wild by two points with 17 games remaining.

It’s interesting to note that those teams don’t score much either. They also rely heavily on the goalies. In Minnesota, it’s largely dependent on Devan Dubnyk with Ryan Donato (2-5-7 in 6 GP) making a immediate impact since coming over from Boston for Charlie Coyle (0 Pts in 4 GP). For Dallas, they’ve had to do it mostly with backup Anton Khudobin due to injuries limiting starter Ben Bishop. Without Mats Zuccarello, they’re finding ways to win aided by a huge hat trick from returning captain Jamie Benn.

Teams like the Avalanche are top heavy due to Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog scoring the bulk. The only consistent secondary scoring comes from Carl Soderberg, Tyson Barrie and J.T. Compher. They can hang around as long as their dominant top line score goals and Semyon Varlamov is healthy.

You have the messy Oilers, who boast the great Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That’s it though. They have virtually nothing else. With so little balance, it’s no wonder they are where they are in the standings. How many more prime years of McDavid can they waste? Draisaitl meanwhile has 40 goals.

If you don’t have semi decent goaltending or a competent defense, you’ll never succeed. The Golden Knights are proof. Even after adding Mark Stone at the trade deadline to Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, they run on Marc-Andre Fleury, who leads the league with eight shutouts. Without him, they’d be cooked. The same can be echoed of the Blues turnaround thanks to rookie sensation Jordan Billington. Even with Vladimir Tarasenko rediscovering his scoring touch and Alex Pietrangelo picking it up, Binnington is the main reason they’re third in the Central Division.

Some teams fighting for a playoff spot have magic. It’s happening for the Hurricanes thanks to the combination of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Justin Williams, ex-Wild Nino Niederreiter, Dougie Hamilton, along with the unlikely tandem of Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek. Dem Bunch Of Jerks don’t care what hockey purists like Don Cherry say about their fun postgame celebrations following home wins. Even if you disapprove of the random wackiness, it’s not hurting anyone. Evander Holyfield celebrated with them!

If you can get the four-time heavyweight champion on board, that’s winning. Sports are supposed to be fun. Not only have they embraced Cherry’s criticism, but they’ve adopted it as their nickname. The Carolina Hurricanes Twitter account is a must follow on social media. They have also honored tradition by having a Hartford Whalers Night which included wearing the classic green jerseys and playing the memorable Brass Bonanza following goals. The latest big event was an alumni game featuring former Canes including coach Rod Brind’Amour suiting up.

If more teams were that creative, hockey would be more fun. I don’t know about anyone else. But I kinda get sick of the same boring answers during interviews from established stars like Crosby. Give me some personality. P.K. Subban probably is the best that I can think of. He recently gave a couple of sticks away to a lucky fan. Crosby is known for his generosity off the ice. Carey Price got it right the other day for this poor kid who recently lost his Mom to cancer. 😦

There are no classier athletes than hockey players. Think of how much more they should be marketed by the league and networks. They could generate a lot more buzz if they wanted to. It sure beats all the fan gripes over the inconsistency from referees due to league mandates. At least they’re disciplining more guilty players for stick fouls.

https://www.nhl.com/video/lowry-suspended-two-games/t-277440360/c-66513603

Hockey can be great. Especially when there aren’t many whistles with stricter enforcement on more egregious penalties that are too often missed.

It would also be much better without the shootout deciding extra points. Even if I believe the three-on-three is another artificial way to end overtimes, it’s way better than playing an exciting five minutes only to go to a skill competition. Enter Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella.

He’s loosened up a lot from his days where he coached on Broadway with the forgettable pit stop in Vancouver. He even took a phone call for a reporter during a press conference.

The pressure is on his team with 17 games remaining after an awful weekend that included a horrible shutout loss to Edmonton, followed by Wheeler scoring four times in a 5-2 home defeat to Winnipeg. With 75 points, they trail the Pens by two points with a crucial home-and-home series against their kryptonite later this week. Both Pittsburgh and Montreal are clinging onto the final two wildcards, up two points on the Blue Jackets, who hold the tiebreaker with three more ROW (36-33). If Columbus were to miss after going all in with key additions Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid, it could spell the end for Torts.

How else can we make the game better? Oh. Maybe by being a little more honest about player injuries. The silly secretive nature teams use for describing injuries is a joke. LBI and UBI shouldn’t be familiar abbreviations to press trying to do their jobs and fans. The dishonesty hurts the sport. Especially if you have a fantasy hockey team and don’t know how long a player will be out. Taylor Hall, anybody? Real bang up job by the Devils. Now, we know that last year’s Hart winner had arthroscopic surgery. Geez.

Tanking. This is a term I absolutely loathe. Even with both the NHL and NBA making it harder to land the first overall pick in drafts, it’s still relevant. They need to level the playing field. No tanks should be allowed. If it looks like a franchise is, they should be subject to investigation and possible forfeiture of their first round pick. No exceptions!

Bad management. There are two clear examples taking place in Ottawa and Edmonton. The way those teams have been run this season is a total disgrace. I don’t get what the Senators are thinking. They’re losing regularly and don’t have the lottery pick that can potentially turn into Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko. It’s Colorado’s. They opted to use last year’s pick on future star Brady Tkachuk. While he’ll be a good player, there’s a big difference between good and great. Both Hughes and Kakko have the potential to be franchise players.

The Ducks aren’t much better. With Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry declining, they’re a doomed franchise unless kids like Rickard Rakell and Troy Terry can bring them back. John Gibson has finally succumbed to a poor roster assembled by Bob Murray. Randy Carlyle was finally put out of his misery. They gave up on defenseman Brandon Montour, sending him to the Sabres for a package that included a first round pick. That’s okay. But Montour might’ve had the most upside of a current blueline that features oft injured Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and disappointing Josh Manson. Shea Theodore stars for Vegas. Max Comtois is the key to the future along with career underachiever Nick Ritchie. I would’ve traded Jakob Silfverberg instead of keeping him.

When you’re bad, you don’t always make the smartest decisions. So, what should Devils and Rangers fans be looking forward to?

Well, New Jersey is closer to the bottom which could mean another lottery ticket punched. Mackenzie Blackwood is the goalie of the future. Cory Schneider looks like he’ll remain in Newark due to his contract. It’ll be interesting to see how that’s handled by GM Ray Shero, who has a very tough decision coming soon on Hall. His contract expires in 2020. The defense remains the Achilles heel. Shero recouped a pair of second round picks for Brian Boyle and Marcus Johansson. They’re waiting on last year’s first round pick Ty Smith to make the roster. Aside from Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri and possibly Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt, there’s not much else, which is why re-signing Hall becomes imperative. What about the injury?

The Rangers continue to pick up points by remaining competitive under David Quinn following the trades of Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes. Their lottery hopes are dim. There’s too many teams worse like the Kings and even the Blackhawks, who still boast Kane, Toews, and second round steal Alex DeBrincat. Imagine if they win the lottery. Yikes.

The first full year of the rebuild has seen Quinn unafraid to bench young players. Most encouraging is how they’ve responded. Under the first-year coach, who’s a strong communicator, Pavel Buchnevich, Tony DeAngelo and Brady Skjei have improved. Their strong responses to being sat out along with improvement from Vladislav Namestnikov, Jimmy Vesey and Ryan Strome bodes well. Filip Chytil was the latest Quinn Bin victim to return on Sunday, picking up a great primary helper to set up a Buchnevich goal. With other rookies Lias Andersson, Brett Howden, Libor Hajek and Ryan Lindgren getting a taste of the bigs, it looks like the Blueshirts are on the right track.

BODY CHECKS

-Even in a better year thanks to key additions Jeff Skinner and Conor Sheary, the Sabres remain a team that isn’t ready to return to the playoffs. After a great December that even saw them pass both Boston and Toronto for second in the Atlantic, the second half has been a big disappointment. Carter Hutton’s play has leveled off, which only shows that he can’t be counted on a starter. Linus Ullmark has also fallen victim to a poor defense that only boasts one true shining star in 2018 first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin. Still only a teenager, the smooth skating Swede is the future.

In a season where captain Jack Eichel is over a point-per-game and Skinner is increasing his value this summer with every goal, while Sam Reinhardt adds onto a new career high in points, 2017 first round pick Casey Mittlestadt isn’t ready to play a top six role. Tage Thompson has promise along with Mittlestadt. But their time hasn’t come yet. Rasmus Ristolainen should change his name to Mr. Minus.

The jury is out on coach Phil Housley.

-If the Sabres don’t pay Skinner, then what do they do? Would they kick the tires on ex-defenseman Tyler Myers or maybe look at another center that’s cheaper than Duchene?

-It is good to hear that Kyle Okposo is doing better after he was knocked out by one Tony DeAngelo punch. Given his recent injury history, you have to wonder if he should consider hanging the skates up. Better to be safe than sorry.

-Thursday was exactly what was expected from Long Island to Tavares at the madhouse of nearly 14,000 screaming Islander fans. I don’t think him going home to Toronto makes him a snake or traitor. Free agency means you get to choose. I don’t feel ownership has taken enough blame for refusing to consider trading Tavares with Garth Snow last year. You can’t really say the player controlled the situation. That doesn’t fly. Ultimately, it was a faulty management who decided to keep him.

-Just in case you thought it was over for some fans, they acted like a bunch of nuts due to the Maple Leafs introducing Tavares in the starting lineup prior to Saturday’s game to a standing ovation. That drew the ire of still a few bitter pills, who can’t seem to realize that once he returned and handled everything like a professional, it was over.

It’s interesting to see all the different takes. I think this is my favorite one.

-I’m pulling for the Sharks to win it all. They’re a likeable team that’s exciting to watch and still possess one of the most deserving superstars who’s never won a Cup. Jumbo Joe Thornton. He’s back at 39 playing great while moving up the scoring list, even recording a hat trick. The big bearded playmaking center remains one of the game’s best passers, who gets it. Here’s hoping he finally gets one.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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