By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBS 2) — They say the sport of hockey has changed, that fighting and goonery has been shelved in place of more skill, more speed and more gentlemanly play.
The New York Islanders seem to want to believe all this and have for years built teams in this mold. And as a result they’ve been pushed around NHL rinks for a decade. They have very little toughness and size and have left themselves open to the type of incidents that happened Saturday night in Philadelphia.
And it has to stop.
Now, it would be easy to call the Flyers’ Danny Briere a punk for trying to chop Frans Nielsen’s head off in the waning minutes of the Islanders’ embarrassing 6-1 loss. It would also be easy to go after Dan Carcillo, Philly’s resident tough guy and all around nuisance, because he almost looked like he relished pummeling Nielsen, a player with very few, if any, pugilistic tendencies. Nielsen is from Denmark for crying out loud.
But yet there were the Islanders getting humiliated in the ensuing scrum like they had for nearly all of the prior 58 minutes of actual hockey — you know, when guys try to score more goals than their opponents. One would have figured the mere fact that the Islanders, currently mired in a four-game losing streak, have won just one of their last 17 regular season games against the Flyers (1-13-3) would have lit a fire under someone to do something.
Hey, at least goaltender Rick DiPietro was ready to go.
For his actions, Briere was hit with a three-game suspension by Colin Campbell, the NHL’s dean of discipline, on Monday, so he won’t be around when the two teams have the rematch this Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum.
And that, to me, is an absolute shame — not that the Islanders would actually do anything to him anyway.
I say this because back in the preseason Montreal’s Mike Cammalleri decided it was okay to go lumberjack on Isles rookie Nino Niederreiter not once, not twice, but three times within a few seconds. The Isles then faced the Canadiens in a home-and-home set this past Wednesday and Friday.
And what did they do to exact a pound of flesh?
You got it, nothing.
What has to happen for this team’s front office to understand that hockey has not changed? I can’t even get mad at Briere and Carcillo because they did what countless players before them have done for decades. It’s pretty much ingrained in players’ minds that if someone steps out of line it’s totally okay for you and your biggest and baddest buddy to beat the living daylights out of the opposition, regardless if the subject of the beatdown is a softer player who may or may not have been involved in the initial dispute in the first place.
This is hockey. It’s a generally accepted part of the game. It’s been going on for 90 years and it’s not going to stop, regardless of all the rules changes to increase scoring and the influx of more skilled — and less nasty — players from around the globe.
The Islanders’ front office, for its part, really didn’t listen to the fans’ clamoring over the previous few seasons to infuse more enforcer-type players into the lineup on a nightly basis. As a result, the Isles have gone out and traded and drafted admirably and have sold their souls to build a winner with young, skilled players, but along the way have sort of sidestepped the cold, hard fact that for every baby-faced star in the making you cultivate, you need someone to protect him or, in this case, them.
Now, Garth Snow did add some toughness this past offseason. The acquisition of Zenon Konopka has been a power move in every respect because this guy takes on all-comers, adds grit to any line and wins a ton of faceoffs. But after him, the Isles don’t have much in the way of guys you simply don’t mess with. Trevor Gillies can certainly throw hands, but he’s relatively inexperienced on the big stage, and Jon Sim, bless his heart, was more of an agitator and instigator than he was a finisher of what he started before he was inexplicably placed on waivers on Monday so the Isles could bring back another skilled player with little toughness in Rob Schremp, who had been out all season with a back injury.
And in fairness, both Konopka and Gillies were nowhere to be found during the late stages of Saturday night’s stupidity because one had been ejected earlier in the game and the other was in the penalty box. So, the question isn’t so much why didn’t the Islanders defend themselves on Saturday as much as it is what do they have planned in the future to make sure payback ends up being that female dog?
I was talking to a good friend of mine the other night on Twitter and I’ll tell you the same thing I mentioned to him. Who on the Islanders is going to sit in the locker room before a game and say, “Hey, no worries, guys. I got Carcillo,” ah la Bobby Nystrom? The answer right now is no one. But make no mistake the Islanders need that guy, or maybe two of him. They need someone whose mere presence acts as a deterrent in the face of the type of nonsense that went down in Philly.
The Isles have a lot invested in guys like John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Blake Comeau, Kyle Okposo (currently injured), Nielsen, Niederreiter and they can’t have relatively little toughness to defend them all. Teams will continue to take shots and they won’t be anywhere near the net, if you get my meaning.
If the Isles truly want to send a message that they will not be taken advantage of going forward they will put the five toughest guys they have in their entire organization on the ice to start Saturday night’s game. They will put Dwayne Roloson in net because he’s tough and crazy enough to take on anyone. They can put an end to this in about 30 seconds, regardless if the big, bad Flyers have bigger and badder players. The Isles will earn a measure of respect simply by presenting the illusion they are ready to do what is necessary. The NHL, of course, thinks barring Briere from the game will go a long way toward heading off potential problems, but it shouldn’t. The Isles still need to take umbrage on someone.
And then find Briere at a later date. It’s the right thing to do.
Monday was legendary Islanders coach Al Arbour’s 78th birthday. If I’m current coach Scott Gordon I call him to wish him a belated birthday and I beg him for his knowledge, because Arbour would know exactly what to do in this situation and would’ve never stood for what happened to Nielsen, Neiderreiter before him and Okposo at the hands of Dion Phaneuf last preseason. Then if I’m Gordon I Fed Ex him a case of whatever it is he’s enjoying during his retirement in Florida.
Now some will say I’ve used this space to advocate violence in sports, but my response to that would be, hey, I didn’t write the NHL’s unwritten rules.
All I’m saying is it’s high time the Islanders start enforcing them. Put on the foil and defend your honor or find guys who will.
I think you’ll find in the long run that the respect and fear factors often go hand in hand with a commitment to winning.