Monthly Archives: April 2013

One-on-one with Chris Nilan

Earlier this week, I wrote about agitators and enforcers over the last 40 years, and the changes in their productivity (HERE is the link to that post). The statistics showed that players are almost half as productive as they used to be 30 years ago, and they are also taking fewer penalties. I found these results very interesting, and I had a few theories as to what has changed, although I had no proof to back them up.

What could account for the transition in statistics we have seen over the last 40 years? I decided to get in touch with someone who has first-hand experience in the field, Montreal Canadiens’ former tough guy Chris ‘Knuckles’ Nilan. Chris is a former Stanley Cup champion (in the 1985-1986 season), and is one of only 9 players to crack the 3000 PIM milestone, with a total of 3034 penalty minutes. He showed up in my research 6 times, topping the league in PIM in the 83-84 and 84-85 seasons. If anyone knows about high penalty-minute players and their roles on the team, it’s Chris.

I asked him about the clear changes in the statistics over the last 40 years, and what has changed. “Well, I think that the rule changes that the league has made over the years has had an impact on the way tough guys can play the game. They have made rule changes to tone down fighting, such as the instigator rule, because they want to discourage the staged fights. Taking out the red line also sped the game up. There are rule changes to make the game faster, and that makes it difficult for the tough guys to keep up.” He also pointed out that there has been a change in the way the game is played. “In today’s NHL, to be competitive you need to have 4 functional lines. You can’t have a guy who sits on the bench, and only goes out and fights. It’s difficult to win when you have players who you can’t put on the ice for 10-15 minutes.”

He also touched on the fact that players who can both fight and play are rare. “There’s players like Neil, Clarkson, Lucic, Prust. They can all fight, but they can also score. Back in the day, teams liked to have three or four tough guys on their team. In Boston, they usually had about five, and they still do. They have Lucic, Chara, McQuaid. These are all guys that can fight and play at the same time. You’re lucky if you have players like that. It means that they can react to what happens on the ice at any time. Before, you had to wait until the next shift to put your goon out. These days if Lucic is on the ice, he can respond if a player on the other team crosses the line.”

I asked Chris if, as an enforcer, he felt that his role was to simply bring energy and defend his teammates, or if there was still an emphasis on producing offensively. “Well, first and foremost, I was a hockey player. I had a role on the team. I knew my role, I knew how to do my role, and I liked my role. As an example, when I played with Guy Carbonneau and Bob Gainey, we were always put up against the other team’s first line. We had a defensive role, which was to shut down their best players. But when you could help the team offensively, I did. And I was effective for the team offensively. I scored 21 goals (In the 84-85 season) and 19 goals (in the 85-86 season), so I also helped the team when I could.

I then asked Chris what he thinks the future holds for the enforcer role. “To be honest, I don’t know, I can’t predict the future. But I don’t see them banning fighting anytime in the near future, I think they would have a hard time justifying that. I think we might start seeing less and less emphasis on the role of enforcer. Unless they change the rules again, I don’t see it going back to the way it was in the 80s. “

“The NHL doesn’t like showing fighting on their networks or in the highlights. It makes them look violent. No other sport has fighting like that, except for boxing. Showing fights also bring up the debates about fighting in the NHL.”

“It also seems like these days, guys are dropping the gloves at all the wrong times. Every time a guy does a clean hit, they have to defend themselves. It’s almost as if teams are on edge, and that they’re too eager to drop the gloves, even after a clean hit. On the other hand, players don’t always go after another team’s player after a cheap shot. When I was playing, if a guy gave a cheap shot, he was damn sure he’d pay for it. And in those days, we didn’t see the types of concussion problems we have in the current NHL. It might be the speed of the game, but how fast has it really sped up? Maybe it’s because guys aren’t afraid of retaliation after cheap shots. They can get away with it without having to pay the price.”

I just want to thank Chris Nilan for doing this. I think it’s worth sharing how I got the chance for this interview. I emailed the information section of his website, asking for his opinion on my research. I suggested an email or I could meet him in the coming weeks. The next morning I check my phone, and I see that there is a voicemail. The voicemail was from Nilan himself, saying that he wanted to talk about the article, and to call him back. He then gave me a ten-minute interview, answering any questions I had. He had no obligation to help me, and he took time out of his day to help an amateur blogger with an article. He is an incredibly nice man, and I really appreciate the time he took to help me. I just thought you should know how nice of a guy ‘Knuckles’ is. He is the kind of guy who’s heart is as big as his fists.

Enforcers & agitators, and their role in the NHL over the last 40 years

Being in my mid-20s, I never had the chance to see the great hockey players of the 70s and 80s in person. However, I have seen quite a few movies and clips from the internet, the NHL network, and ESPN classic to get a relative idea of the style of hockey played in the past. The good, old-fashioned hockey style featured enforcers shadowing the talented players, making sure the other team’s goons did not injure them. From watching hockey these days, I have noticed that this tactic is rarely used. The primary strategy is for the top players are on the first line together, and the enforcers tend used more as energy players on the fourth line. This made me wonder if the enforcers are scoring fewer points than the enforcers in the past, for one reason or another. To find the answer, I decided to do some research.

I looked up the ten players who had the highest Penalty in Minutes (PIM) in each year, from the 1970-1971 season to the 2011-2012 season (courtesy of hockeydb.com). I then checked the points for each player in that season, and then calculated the ratio of PIM to Points. I then calculated the average of each decade.

hockey - table 1

Table displaying the average PIM, points and PIM/points ratio for each decade

We see from the 1970s right up to the 2000s that there was a steady rise in the PIM to points ratio. This means that for every point an enforcer scored, he spent more and more time in the box. Enforcers were scoring twice as many points in the 70s and 80s than in the last 20 years. However, the amount of PIM has only dropped in the last 10 years.

To put it in perspective, enforcers in the 1970s would be in an average of two fights for every point. In the 1990s, they would be in five fights for every point. In the 2000s, it would drop to just over four fights for every point. Zenon Konopka had the highest PIM/pts ratio last year with 38.60. That’s almost 8 fights for every one point (keep in mind that not all these penalty minutes are from fights; it is simply an analogy to compare the amount of penalties taken compared to the offensive production of these players).

hockey - graph 1

A graph looking at average PIM and average points for the last 4 decades

The results show that there has been a transition in the type of enforcers used in the NHL. The statistics show that players are scoring fewer points than in the past. We are seeing that enforcers are becoming less productive offensively, and are being used more as energy players. Over the years, the offensive production of enforcers has dropped significantly, while the amount of penalty minutes has only dropped slightly, and only in the last 12 years.

What kind of picture does this paint, concerning the current NHL? The statistics suggest that tough guys are scoring fewer and fewer goals, while at the same time taking fewer penalties. The last decade had the lowest average penalty minutes in the last 40 years. Even though they are taking fewer penalties, they are also producing less offensively for their team. There are of course exceptions, such as Chris Neil and David Clarkson. These two are energy players who still manage to produce offense for their team. There is the complete other side of the scale. There are players like Cam Janssen, who in the 2009-2010 season had 190 penalty minutes and not a single point. Players such as Trevor Gillies, Georges Laraque, and Paul Bissonnette are not big offensive contributors. They are still important to their team by being energy players, used to swing momentum in their team’s favour, back up their teammates, and send a message to the opposition.

We may be seeing the start of a greater use of agitators; players not necessarily there to just fight, or to shadow star players as in the past. These “hybrid-enforcers” have their own role, which is to bring energy, grit, and when the time comes, to fight for their team. Coaches love players that can produce offensively while simultaneously protect their teammates and bring energy. I am suggesting that in the next few years, we will see a rise in points from high penalty minute players. We will start seeing more and more players who can fight and score at the same time, bringing points up and keeping PIM around the same number. In my opinion, tough guys who cannot keep up with the speed of the game will be replaced with more talented players who can still fight, players like Chris Neil, David Clarkson, Milan Lucic and Steve Downie (prime examples of “functioning” agitators). The problem is, that these players are extremely rare. Players who can score and fight are very hard to come by, and most teams would love to get their hands on one. Will teams start drafting bigger, more talented players instead of pure tough guys? The next decade of hockey will be very interesting to watch.

On Thursday, I will be sharing with you my discussion on these statistics with one of the best tough guys of his time, Chris ‘Knuckles’ Nilan. I had a phone interview with Chris this week, and he shared some invaluable input as to what has changed in the last 40 years. Drop by next Thursday for his take on the issue.

A new take on NHL suspensions

There has been a lot of talk about suspensions in the NHL as of late. Although suspensions are a good way to penalize a player when he breaks the rules, it is debatable whether it truly has an impact on his team. The current trend is that the players getting suspended tend to be easily replaceable: it is not the star forward or key defensemen sitting in the press box. More often then not, the players who get suspended are the players who sit on the end of the bench and play very limited minutes. If you look at a list of last season’s suspensions (courtesy of HFBoards), it was players like Patrick Kaleta, Jordan Tootoo, Andy Sutton (twice), Daniel Carcillo, Aaron Asham and Raffi Torres that received substantial suspensions. Of course, there were also key players such as Kris Letang, Max Pacioretty, Shane Doan and Jeff Skinner who also picked up suspensions throughout the season, and their absence was probably noticed by their team. But does not having Raffi Torres in your lineup have the same impact of missing Shane Doan? Of course not. The problem is more often then not it is the Raffi Torres of the team being suspended, and not Shane Doan.

So what can be done to make a suspension really affect a team? Recently, I heard a very interesting suggestion, courtesy of my brother, James. He called me up one night after a game, and told me that a panel of experts had been discussing a way for suspensions to have more of an impact on the team. The suggestion was this: If a player is suspended, the team must dress one less player for each game that the player is suspended.

If you really think about it, it seems to make sense. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle. It happens every now and then that a player gets injured in warm-ups, and the team needs to play one man short. The coach adjusts, and the team fights on. But it’s significant enough the coach needs to work around it and plan accordingly. It is an obstacle nonetheless. It would make players think twice about doing something reckless or dangerous enough to get suspended, knowing that it won’t only be him being punished.

When Trevor Gillies was suspended twice in the 2010-2011 season (9 games for elbowing/taunting an injured player, 10 games for boarding), I highly doubt that the coach lost sleep over who was going to replace him for those 19 games. Being a player who played a very limited number of minutes per game, his absence was not a big issue, and therefore the team was not necessarily punished. If the team then had to play those 19 games one man down, that would be difficult for the team to deal with. Whether it’s 11 forwards or 5 defense men, the team would have to adjust. The coach and the team would hold Gillies much more accountable for his actions, knowing that each loss in those 19 games may have been avoided if the missing player were there.

It should not just be the player that is held accountable, but the team as well. Players never want to let their teammates or coach down, and an enforcer being suspended doesn’t necessarily directly affect their team. However, if their reckless play gets them suspended, resulting in the team playing one man down for x amount of games, then the suspended player has let down his team. His team is held accountable for his actions, and winning becomes that much more of a challenge. Chances are we would less and less plays that result in 1 or 2 game suspensions, such as boarding, kneeing and so on. Players would be forced to think before they did something reckless, knowing that their team will also be punished for their actions. I think this idea should be further considered by all hockey leagues. By making players think before they act, we might see less and less of these reckless plays that seem to be in the sports highlights every night.

Quebec’s National Hockey Team

Since the Parti Quebecois was elected as a minority government last year, discussions on the possible separation of Quebec have resurfaced. As a hockey fan, I decided to run a “what if” scenario, for the whole Quebec thing, but with a hockey twist. If this separation were to happen today, what would Quebec’s National Hockey Team look like?

I went through all the current NHL rosters and picked out all the Quebec-born players. I then selected what I considered to be the best lineup available out of these players. Here is what I came up with:

FORWARDS

Simon Gagne     Vincent Lecavalier      Martin St Louis

Alex Tanguay       Patrice Bergeron      Danny Briere

David Perron            Mike Ribeiro      Jason Pominville

Alex Burrows      Paul Stastny      P.A. Parenteau

DEFENCE

Stephan Robidas                 Kris Letang

Marc-Andre Bergeron            Francois Beauchemin

Bruno Gervais           Alexandre Picard

GOALTENDERS

Marc-Andre Fleury

Martin Brodeur/Roberto Luongo

I’ll start of by admitting that I made a very rookie mistake of initially having Claude Giroux on my list, before realizing that he was born and raised in Ontario (wishful thinking, I guess). I double-checked the rest of my team, making sure I didn’t just pick players with french-sounding names. There were a few difficult decisions to make on this list, after having to cut Giroux. Quebec has a decent amount of depth and the center position, so I was forced to leave off players like Maxime Talbot, Antoine Vermette and up-and-comer Jonathan Huberdeau, to name a few. At the goaltender position, I think it’s noteworthy that these are the same three goalies that were picked for Team Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics, so it just goes to show the amount of depth and talent coming out of Quebec. Leaving off Corey Crawford was difficult, especially given the way he has played this year. I couldn’t decide between Luongo and Brodeur, because both have been playing quite well as of late. The only issue I have with Brodeur is his age, but he’s been proving me wrong all year.

The next question is: how would this team do when up against other national teams, like Team USA, Team Russia and a (Quebec-less) Team Canada. In my opinion, they would be considered the underdog. Comparing it to Team Canada, if you’re going up against top forwards like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, Claude Giroux (yes, he’s on the right list now), Ryan Getzlaf, and Eric Staal, combine with a defense stacked with Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, any team would have hard time against them. Even in nets, Canada may have an edge over a very strong group of QUebec goalies. Team Canada can choose from Mike Smith, Carey Price and Cam Ward , which is a pretty solid goaltending core.

After looking at all this, I think that Quebec would have a tough time competing with other elite national teams. They would still be one of the better national teams, but they would not be a medal-favourite, in my opinion.

What would your team look like? How do you think they would do in the World Championships or Olympics?

Live from the Nosebleeds: Rask’s Meltdown, Daugavin’s Shootout, and Crosby’s Broken Jaw

GALLAGHER SCORES SHOOTOUT WINNER, RASK TRIES TO SHOW HIS FRUSTRATION AND FAILS

Tuuka Rask of the Boston Bruins has a history of post-shootout meltdowns (and by a history, I mean two incidents). When Brandon Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens scores the shootout winner against Rask, he tried to show his frustration, and failed. It’s right at the end of the video, so be patient.

Now this isn’t nearly as funny as his meltdown in the AHL a couple of years ago (link HERE), but it’s still a good one. Hockey players will tell you that goalies are a special breed. They’re usually the quiet one in the corner with the strange pre-game rituals. So when they get angry, they usually show it in a strange (and often hilarious) manner. I’m allowed to say that, cause I’m a goalie (but don’t tell my girlfriend that we’re weird, she doesn’t know yet!). I think that broadcast companies should have a camera for each goalie, just to capture their meltdowns. 99% of the footage would be useless, but that 1% of solid gold would be totally worth it.

KASPARS DAUGAVINS SHOWS GUTS IN HIS SHOOTOUT ATTEMPT AGAINST TUUKA RASK

If you ask hockey fans about the shootout, it’s pretty well divided as to whether it’s exciting or not. A lot of people think that it’s a crappy way to win a hockey game, while others think it’s a really exciting way for the team’s to decide a winner. In my opinion, what makes it exciting for me is when people try different moves or tricks to score. Kaspars Daugavins of the Ottawa Senators, tried something new against Tuuka Rask of the Boston Bruins.

Daugavins has been highly criticized for this shooutout attempt in the hockey world. A lot of people are saying that it’s making a mockery of the shootout, and that it’s ridiculous and cocky for him to try it. I disagree. I thought it was highly entertaining, and it took guts for him to try that in an actual shootout. This isn’t just a trick he decided to try out, he actually works on it a lot in practice. And as you can see, Rask has to come over and make a very difficult, acrobatic save. If he had scored, we wouldn’t be talking about whether it was stupid or not.

Just a side note, Rask and Daugavins are now teammates, with the Bruins picking up Daugavins off waivers earlier this month. My theory is the Bruins picked him up just so his new teammates could make fun of him even more for the shootout attempt!

CROSBY BREAKS JAW, PENGUINS LOSE TWO IN A ROW

While playing against the New York Islanders, Sidney Crosby took a puck to the face, breaking his jaw. The puck was shot by Brooks Orpik, but it took a deflection and went right at Crosby’s jaw. This is bad news for the Penguins. They won that game, making it their 15th win in a row, but the next two games without Crosby, they lost badly. First it was a 4-1 loss to Buffalo, before a 6-1 thrashing by the New York Rangers. It’s a little ironic, because everyone was ready to give the Penguins the Cup after acquiring Brendan Morrow and Jarome Iginla before the trade deadline. Since picking up both players, they’ve snapped their winning streak and are suddenly having trouble scoring. They’re still a team to be reckoned with, and I wouldn’t want to face them in the playoffs. When Crosby gets back, it will be interesting to watch this team at full capacity. Hopefully none of their other stars fall before that.

Part 3: The pressure to perform in minor hockey

This is part 3 of a 3-part series on issues surrounding minor  hockey. For part 1 and 2, go to the archives

Kids love playing sports. It is a great way for them to have fun with friends while playing in a fun, competitive environment. On any given day during the winter, you’ll find kids spending all afternoon playing on the outdoor rinks until their parents call them home for dinner. Some children simply have a pure passion for sports, and a few of those may even have the skills to be quite successful in the future.

However, some parents feel that it is their responsibility to fuel their child’s passion. They sign their child up for summer camps, making sure that their child is playing hockey year-round. They make them do extra power skating, or play at the highest, most competitive level. These parents thinks that this will help the child fall in love with the game, and all the extra work will help them eventually go professional. The problem is that it’s not up to the parents to fuel the passion for the game; it’s the child who needs to love hockey in the first place. It happens too often that a child enjoys playing hockey, and the parents sign their child up for every known course, class and camp until the child is sick of the game. They are over-stimulated by too much hockey, and it kills the passion and love for the game.

It’s unfortunate that hockey has become an extremely competitive sport, especially at the minor league level. It starts off fun and relaxed, but it gets extremely competitive (and expensive) and an incredibly fast rate. The players need to make a very large commitment to their team.  There are many more practices and games per week, and there is much more pressure on them to perform. I have had parents tell me that when their child was selected for a higher level team, the pressure of it all just sucked the enjoyment right out of the game. They were talented enough to play at a high level, but the amount of time spent practicing and playing hockey was simply too much. They were benched by the coach when they didn’t have a few good shifts, or if they weren’t “competing” as hard as the coach would like. In their defense, there is a lot of pressure on the coaches from other parents, and they are sometimes put in tough positions. The system isn’t perfect, but unfortunately a lot of the pressure falls on the kids.

There is also too much emphasis on having a winning team, therefore many players are taught to focus more on winning instead of simply having fun. The enjoyment of the game is taken out of the game extremely early, and all that is pumped into their minds it to compete as hard as they can so they can move up to the higher level, instead of simply playing for the enjoyment of the game. There is more and more pressure on the kids from the coaches, their parents, and in bad cases, other player’s parents. I’ve heard stories of parents telling other parents that they should take their kid off the team, because they’re not good enough to play at that level. Some people argue that the weaker players make the team look bad, and hinder the chances of the better players moving up. I am quite confident that scouts at any level do not simply look at the win-loss record of teams to look for players. If a player is good enough to advance, he will be noticed. So encourage the good players, encourage the players who are trying their hardest, and encourage the players who are simply having fun playing a great sport. Do not get upset with the players when they have a bad shift or game.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t keep score, so the kids aren’t disappointed by losing. I think that winning and losing are important for people to experience, because it helps them deal with it in the future. Failure is an important lesson, and it can usually be the best motivator. I’m simply saying that the over-emphasis on winning overshadows the other lessons that hockey can bring. Winning is fun, but I honestly believe that learning to deal with losing is just as important. As I mentioned in last week’s post, many lessons we learn in sports can be used in everyday life. That should be the focus of minor hockey, at least in the beginning. When the players have learned the ins and outs of the game and still want to compete at the highest level, that is the time to start putting pressure on them. Before that, the pressure can smother a kid’s love of the game.

Hockey is a great sport, one that many are fortunate enough to play from a young age. The problem is that it becomes very competitive extremely fast. The transition from learning the game to playing at a competitive level should be slowed down, so that the kids can truly enjoy the game and understand the finer points of the sport. Being forced to do too much of something can destroy what makes it special, and that is unfair for young athletes who are playing for the enjoyment of the sport. The age where hockey becomes a serious commitment is currently too young, and there should be more emphasis on enjoying and learning from the great game of hockey.