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Ask Me Anything: What is the future of hitting in hockey?

Is hockey trending toward a bodychecking-free environment someday? Can we trust the New York Islanders' surprising start? And much more.

Readers really searched for meaning in this week’s packet of questions for The Ask Me Anything Mailbag. In a hockey context, they want to know (a) why things are the way they are, (b) who will matter in the future and (c) whether we can trust what our eyes tell us right now. These questions are (Keanu Reeves voice)… deep. I respect that. So let’s see if I have the philosophical bandwidth to answer them adequately. Only four questions this week, as I couldn’t stop writing about this doozie of a first one.

Reg Lansberry (@9Goals) asks…

Do you feel the NHL has become too much of the Ice Capades and that “heavy bodychecking” has fallen by the wayside?

The first half of this question is loaded. I put myself in a box if I check “yes” or “no” to hockey being the Ice Capades. So I’ll ignore that component and focus on the second half: has heavy bodychecking fallen by the wayside?

Before we examine the deep implications, we can start by simply studying the statistics. Last season, among players with at least 20 games played, 304 averaged at least 1.2 hits per game, and an average of 1.22 gets you 100 hits in an 82-game season. The season before that: 299, albeit with one fewer team in the league. In 2015-16, it was 334.

So we’re seeing slight fluctuations in terms of the number of players who are high-volume bodycheckers, but the changes aren’t significant. Still, you used the term “heavy” bodychecking, and you might be onto something there, Reg. When Matt Cooke essentially destroyed Marc Savard’s career with a headshot in 2010, it led to the creation of Rule 48.1 as we know it today. That was the moment in which every celebrated Scott Stevens hit suddenly got placed under a different lens. The NHL Department of Player Safety’s decision makers have always told me their goal is to change player behavior over the long term, and the advent of Rule 48.1 changed the way many players controlled their bodies while delivering hits.

It goes deeper than that. I was researching for a recent column in which I tabled the idea that the traditional elite power forward – the 50-goal, 200-PIM bruiser/scorer combo in the vein of Brendan Shanahan and Keith Tkachuk – may not exist anymore, at least not when we peruse a list of upcoming NHL prospects. Plenty of them can still hit, but not as many are valued for that particular skill. In this new era of crackdowns on obstruction and slashing, teams want guys who can operate in space with their speed and puckhandling. And as TSN scout and former NHL GM Craig Button suggested to me while I worked on this project, many of today’s best players are so young that they were born into the new value system and never even watched guys like Scott Stevens.

“We’re starting to see now, the players who were born in 1997 and 1998, when the lockout ended in 2005, these were players who were seven or eight years old,” Button said. “That’s when they really started to form. And the game changed dramatically and has continued to change with the emphasis on skating, the emphasis on speed, the emphasis on making plays with the puck, the emphasis on carrying the puck. You’re not going to have as much of a power element when there’s not as much of an emphasis on ‘Get the puck, grind them down.’ It was more what I would call ‘hand-to-hand combat’ because of the interference and the holding and the clutching and the grabbing. “

Think about how big Auston Matthews is, for instance, and how little he uses his body to forecheck. He’s all about his stick, whereas fellow mega-prospect Eric Lindros ran over people like a freight train. I really do think heavy hitting is being phased out of the game, and the guys who take the body throwback-style, like Tom Wilson, are more frequently punished for doing so.

I constantly use the cigarette analogy when it comes to hitting and fighting. Much of the world adored both, but once we discovered the consequences of each, we could never unlearn that. Even if we relish the thrill of a thundering hit, we now know what concussions do to long-term brain health, so we have to accept that the way players hit has to change. That may mean fewer monster open-ice collisions. Someday, it may mean very little hitting at all.

Last year I spoke with Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man credited with discovering CTE and the subject of the movie Concussion, and he theorized that hitting would change at the youth level because parents, now more educated about concussions, won’t want to put their kids at risk early in their lives. One thing he said really stuck with me, to the point I featured this quote in a previous AMA Mailbag.

“We wouldn’t benefit from attacking the leagues, NFL, NHL,” Omalu said. “No, no, no. These guys are corporations. They are there to make money. So the focus should be on the consumer: the parents. Adults are free to play as long as they have the ability to give consent. But not children. And parents should know this.”

So yes, Reg, I think heavy hitting is on its way out, though it will take decades for that to happen. We don’t have to be happy about that, but we’ll eventually have to accept it. Actor Jay Baruchel put it best when I asked him about his love of fighting:

“I can’t argue in its favor. I can argue that I’ve enjoyed it. It’s one of these things, although I do think it there’s a lot of complaining of cheap shots and head shots and boarding and all these f—ing horrid injuries that come from that stuff, that becomes placated when guys fight for a long time. Obviously long-term damage to a brain is long-term damage to a brain, period. If it’s better for the players for there to be no fighting, than that’s the end of the debate, right? I can’t sit here and be pro-concussion, right? That’s insane.”

Claudia (@NY_luvs_DDUB) asks…

Can the New York Islanders continue to play as well as they have? Also, is the combination of a coach/GM (Barry Trotz/Lou Lamoriello) more important to a team’s success than a star player such as John Tavares?

Hey Claudia. First off, those Isles. I did try to tell fans on July 1 that there was hope for the franchise. They still had Mathew Barzal as their star center, a relatively deep forward group, a promising young defenseman in Ryan Pulock and some exciting prospects in Kieffer Bellows, Noah Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom. Fans didn’t want to hear it from me, as the wound was still fresh, but this franchise was not devoid of talent even after Tavares left.

That said, much of the talent to get excited about doesn’t yet reside on the NHL roster. It’s mainly the veterans carrying this team right now. Josh Bailey averages a point per game, Brock Nelson leads the team in goals, and the Isles have gotten shockingly excellent goaltending from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. More on that later.

I see more of a lucky team than a good team so far, to be honest. The Isles literally rank dead last in 5-on-5 Corsi For per 60 minutes, meaning they attempt the fewest shots of any team in hockey. They also allow the sixth-most attempts. They’ve permitted 165 more shot attempts than they’ve generated at 5-on-5, giving them the 29th-best ratio in the league. They lead the NHL in shooting efficiency at an unsustainable 11.54 percent mark at 5-on-5. To give you a sense of how lucky that rate is: if we look at the past 10 non-lockout seasons, we get a 301-team sample, and the highest season-long shooting percentage belongs to the 2009-10 Washington Capitals at 10.39. The other 300 teams finished below the 10 percent mark. So there’s no way the Isles keep converting shots at that rate. Factoring in their save percentage, too, the Isles lead the league in PDO, a stat that combines shooting and save percentage to measure “puck luck.”

So, in short, the Isles are the luckiest team in the NHL so far this season and due for a major regression. Not only are they scoring way more than they should, they are also attempting fewer shots than any team, so when the correction comes, it might be particularly harsh. Even if that happens, don’t worry. I still think the Isles have a bright future.

As for the second part of the question: coaches and GMs certainly help. Trotz and Lamoriello have tremendous histories. Don’t forget about goaltending guru Mitch Korn, either. He mentored Dominik Hasek, Pekka Rinne and Braden Holtby. It’s probably no coincidence the Isles are getting great puck-stopping since Korn joined the organization. But who helped Trotz win the Cup? Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson and company. Lamoriello won his Stanley Cups with Stevens and Scott Niedermayer anchoring the blueline and Martin Brodeur as the last line of defense. The common denominator between championship teams is elite players more so than it is great coaches and GMs, though it does typically take a combination of all three to get a team to glory.

And look at the Leafs right now. No Auston Matthews, no William Nylander, no Lamoriello, but they have the third-best record in the NHL, largely because Tavares has played so well for them. A star player has the greatest impact on any given team.

Long Sean Silvers (@seanms22) asks…

What rookie/young player is flying under the radar?

We’ve had loaded, star-studded rookie races in recent seasons, whereas so far this season it’s been the Elias Pettersson show, to the point I have to think for a second just to recall who the other prominent freshmen are right now. That’s how good Pettersson has been, so I really like your question, Long Sean. It almost feels like every rookie not named Pettersson is under the radar, which is fascinating in a season featuring Rasmus Dahlin as a rookie and even a big-market rookie forward in the Montreal Canadiens’ Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Brady Tkachuk will be a high-impact NHLer and already is so far, averaging a point per game, but he might seem under the radar because injuries have limited him to eight games. Puck-moving blueliner Henri Jokiharju has received a significant opportunity with the Chicago Blackhawks, often paired with Duncan Keith. The best rookie not named Pettersson right now is probably Dallas Stars blueliner Miro Heiskanen, greatly admired for his poise and veteran-caliber smarts. Andrei Svechnikov, the 2018 draft’s No. 2 overall pick, is getting plenty of chances, so a goal-scoring streak will likely come soon. But if we want guys more under-the-radar than that…we can’t forget about one rookie who hasn’t even debuted yet in the NHL: Filip Zadina of the Detroit Red Wings. He has three multi-goal games with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins. He’s a Marian-Hossa-like talent who might only play 50 NHL games this season but could make a significant impact in that time.

As for under-the-radar rookies actually toiling in the NHL: keep an eye on another Ottawa Senator, Drake Batherson. It’s pretty clear the Sens intend to give their young players lots of runway, as we’ve seen with Tkachuk and fellow rookies Colin White and Max Lajoie. Batherson tore up the AHL with 20 points in 14 games. Upon his NHL call-up, he parachuted onto a scoring line with Mikkel Boedker and Matt Duchene. Batherson saw power-play time, too, and scored his first career goal on his first career shot Thursday night. He’s a sleeper to have a great debut season.

Terry Cain (@tcain47) asks…

Which goalies have a real chance to steal starting jobs: David Rittich, Casey DeSmith, Chad Johnson, Jaroslav Halak or Mikko Koskinen?

Can I answer “all of the above”? Seriously, though, this list is a stumper. I can understand the case for each. The least likely is actually the one playing the best: Halak. He’s been as good as any goalie in the league this season, but he’s 33 and signed for just two seasons. Tuukka Rask has his detractors despite owning the NHL’s No. 3 all-time save percentage, but he’s signed through 2020-21 at a $7-million AAV. You don’t keep that kind of money on the bench – teams are simply too proud to – and trading Rask would be very risky unless Boston gets a goalie with upside coming its way in a deal, as Halak, talented but also small and inconsistent, can’t be your only option. DeSmith has been mostly excellent in relief of oft-injured Matt Murray, but the Pens are committed to their two-time Cup champ and will keep giving him the net whenever he’s healthy.

Johnson looks like he’ll become this year’s Carter Hutton, the latest Blues veteran to push Jake Allen, who has struggled year after year living up to his prospect billing. Still, Allen always seems to figure it out at some point in the year and ends up getting the net when the Blues have to pick one goalie for crunch-time games.

The netminders I’m watching closest are Rittich and Koskinen. The Calgary Flames don’t owe Mike Smith much. He’s 36 and in the final year of his contract, so the consequences of relegating him to permanent No. 2 status wouldn’t be grave. Dating back to his return from injury last season, he’s 7-13-1 with an .878 SP over his past 21 games. Rittich has won five of six decisions with a sparkling .935 SP. The Flames’ top farmhand goaltenders, Jon Gillies and Tyler Parsons, have been lit up in Stockton, so Rittich might be the best current goaltending option Calgary has.

Koskinen bears watching, too. He’s a mammoth goaltender who returned to the NHL after a dominant run in the KHL. He’s soundly outplayed Cam Talbot so far this season, the Oilers are in a desperate state right now, and Talbot is a pending UFA, like Koskinen, so there’s no reason this can’t be an open year-long competition.

So to me, the Alberta backups are the two most likely to become their teams’ No. 1s by season’s end.

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