The Penguins Have an NHL Problem, Not a Ryan Reaves Problem

Ryan Reaves

Photo Credit: Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

The Penguins, on Friday, traded one seldom-used prospect and one spot in a draft that, compared to last year’s, looked ordinary, for one notorious knuckle-dragger with pedestrian NHL skill. If you hopped on social media at the time without knowing the details of the trade, you’d think Jim Rutherford sold Crosby to Philadelphia for the entire ’75 Flyers, or that we had fallen into a wormhole back to 2001, when Craig Patrick was peddling franchise players for Kris Beech and some used puck bags.

Rutherford, in reality, had one thing in mind: stick up for Sid.

Well, okay, maybe two things. That, and taking the chance to look Gary Bettman and his cronies, along with select Eastern Conference brass, in their collective eye and tell them, “Fuck you.”

Adam Gretz, a great syndicated hockey writer who has written in-depth pieces arguing the effectiveness of a player like Ryan Reaves is myth, called it “insane” when we chatted about it on Twitter. Insanity, as Albert Einstein famously said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

“Just play” is a sound philosophy. It helped the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups. Hell, it even looked cool on a t-shirt. Sometimes “just play” just isn’t enough of a deterrent.

These aren’t hockey-playing or hockey-watching robots. These aren’t gods (debatable in Crosby’s case, perhaps). These are humans with jobs who get bothered by the same things at their workplace that would bother you or I at ours.

Imagine being critically injured at your job by a careless coworker who was wholly at fault, and being told there would be no reparations because, miraculously, you didn’t miss any work. Or because the incident was inconsistent with the coworker’s reputation. Or because your body changed the “wrong” direction when you were injured. Or because your company deemed the coworker’s intentions innocent, even though it likes to tell its employees you can’t prove intent. This is the crap the Penguins have had to put up with, and Rutherford got Reaves because the Penguins had had enough.

It’s okay to admit GMJR overpaid for Reaves. He did. It’s okay to dislike Reaves. I wasn’t a fan by any stretch of the imagination when this went down. It’s okay to think this was a rare lapse in judgment on the part of a historically successful and ironically progressive-minded team builder. But is it any more nonsensical than the game the Pens have been more or less forced to play when it comes to protecting their greatest asset?

During a regular season visit by the Columbus Blue Jackets and after another unpunished cheap shot by Brandon Dubinsky on a defenseless Crosby, Rob Shick, an erstwhile passenger in the NHL’s clown car who, today, serves as a supervisor of officials, suggested to Paul Steigerwald off-air that the Pens should get someone like Reaves to better take care of their captain. The scary part is, Shick, who refereed in the league for 24 years, wasn’t kidding.

That should tell you all you need to know about the culture the NHL has blindly refused to change. It should tell you all you need to know about the NHL, period.

This is not a drill. The zombies have taken over the mall, the inmates are running the asylum, the dinosaurs are out of containment. Mario tried to warn us a generation ago, Rutherford put the Garage League™ on notice during the playoffs. Both were ignored, and before you chalk this up to the idle whining of a spoiled franchise and fan base, remember that Bobby Orr, one of the old guard’s greatest living legends, also complained on Sid’s behalf, as first reported by Josh Yohe.

I didn’t think, after this spring, I would yearn for the blasé postseason officiating of 2016, but here we are. The Penguins prevailed because, again, they refused to go tit-for-tat with various opponents who, at various times, went the extra mile to try their patience, starting with the Jackets in round one.

Dismissing Columbus in five, however, didn’t stop Alex Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen from targeting Crosby in round two. Giving the Caps their comeuppance didn’t stop Kyle Turris from tackling him without the puck in the conference final. Outlasting Ottawa didn’t stop P.K. Subban from–well, you remember. So Rutherford, whose team lost roughly 300 man-games to injury this season–and believed in next-man-up Oskar Sundqvist so much it dressed him for ten, none in the playoffs–lost patience.

The Pens reached their destination by taking the high road, but the Ferrari still got its doors keyed, tires deflated and windshield smashed. Their response, after it became clear through the words and (in-)actions of the NHL that it doesn’t care about the hijacking of its own product, was to get a player who isn’t afraid to take it out in the alley.

Don’t hate the player (or executive), as the kids say–hate the game.

If you still hate Reaves, you might want to hear out the Blues fans who expressed their own dissatisfaction with the trade. Some say it’s a bigger loss than letting ex-Penguin David Perron get snatched up by Vegas in the Expansion Draft. That might not mean much coming from fans of a team allergic to success, but there is evidence to suggest Reaves improved his conditioning and better channeled his toughness this season.

Forget Rutherford’s remarks for a second, and while you’re at it, suspend your statistical disbelief temporarily. I’ve said before and I’ll say again that you are who your coach is. Mike Sullivan is something of an alpha-male himself, but he’s also as no-nonsense as they come. History says he can be trusted to shorten the leash on Reaves if he lacks discipline.

Furthermore, this gives the Pens a chance to reevaluate their bottom six forwards, especially with Nick Bonino about to dip his toe in free agent waters. They love Carter Rowney and, after this year’s playoffs, have no reason not to, otherwise Sundqvist would still be here. But the rest of those guys just didn’t seem to do as much heavy lifting offensively as they did a year ago, largely because the accidental magic of “HBK” disappeared.

This isn’t Rutherford’s problem. The NHL couldn’t be less interested in vigilance, leaving teams like this one with little choice but to pursue vigilante justice in order to give its stars peace of mind. Reaves’ presence might not prevent all the thuggery Crosby will endure, but the message it sends is still profound. Have all the analytics you want. People are people no matter what the numbers say, and people get tired of paying a physical price to hit what was previously believed to be an easy target.

Friday’s trade was not a sledgehammer to the Pens’ identity. It was a singular, low-risk, adapt-or-die move made by a frustrated GM. “Just play” is all well and good. Is it so wrong, after all they’ve been through, for the Pens to want to “just play” with a little bit more physical leverage?

And if it does end up being a mistake, then feel free to blow me a kiss at the Klim Kostin statue dedication.

If John Scott Scores, But No One’s Around to Hear It…

I turned on the NHL All-Star Game just in time to see Kris Letang miss on a breakaway.

Then the power went out.

A quick word about my neighborhood: We’ve been fortunate enough to maintain electricity through many thunderstorms, snow storms and the like. However, a squirrel enjoying a bright, beautiful day two houses down could fart in the general direction of a telephone pole, and everything would shut down for 45 minutes. Or at least it seems that way.

(Ya gotta love Duquesne Light, right?)

Point is, I missed John Scott’s coronation, as well as the definitive All-Star image seen above: a very tall man posing with a very small one.

But did fate conspire against me, or did it do me a favor?

I’m grateful Letang and Evgeni Malkin had a chance to represent Pittsburgh in Nashville. Count me among the unperturbed that Sidney Crosby did not.

Still, that didn’t stop the Red Wings–of all teams–from getting their digs in:

Oh, haw, haw, haw.

John Scott has also now played in as many All-Star games as one of the NHL’s perennial poster children. Which, even accounting for Crosby’s injury history, is just as telling as the fact Scott was the one posing with the novelty check and the fancy automobile.

John Scott seems like one of the good guys. He seemed to say and do all the right things throughout his All-Star journey, and he seemed very deserving of that watershed moment he enjoyed with his family. In any sport, however, the long haul doesn’t lie. The long haul says John Scott is also a glorified goon, and that putting such a player on a pedestal not only undermined everything an All-Star game should stand for, but precisely illustrates the kowtowing to marginal players that causes most Americans to treat the NHL as a second-class citizen of our sports nation.

Furthermore, it illustrates the antiquity of the event. I remember when All-Star selections were based on marketability and merit (or, better yet, both), not a bunch of wise-ass fans finding a willing participant in their successful plot to troll the system.

All-Star games were for a different generation in a different era, one in which fans jumped at the chance to see elite players they wouldn’t normally get to see on the same field, floor or sheet of ice. My generation, witness to the dawn of the digital era, can see any of those players anytime they want with the right cable package and/or other multimedia subscription. Even skills competitions, usually the redeeming quality of the whole production, just aren’t appointment television for me anymore. I’m not Pavlov’s dog; I don’t salivate at the hint of Jaromir Jagr canon (sorry, P.K.).

I remember when they meant something. When Pittsburgh hosted the NHL All-Star Game, it became one of the iconic moments of Mario Lemieux’s career. In fact, Mario’s first All-Star appearance, as a rookie in 1985, probably doesn’t get talked about enough.

Don Cherry, as only Don Cherry would do, called Lemieux “the biggest floater in the NHL.” Lemieux responded by leading the Wales Conference to a 6-4 win over the Campbell Conference All-Stars and becoming the only rookie to take MVP honors with two goals, including the game-winner.

“That game was for him,” Lemieux said after the fanfare had died down.

Today, with all we now know about the human body, as well as the increased physical commitment of hockey players to their craft, it’s just an obstacle in the way of necessary R&R, hence the frequent “injuries” that haunt the very players we turn to All-Star games to see.

How do we fix All-Star games? I don’t have a problem with the 3-on-3 play that was introduced this year, but if the league is welcoming further suggestions, I’d advise looking to and learning from history.

Let’s examine the return of the North America vs. The World format. As screwed up as hockey was in the late 1990s, that format brought a lot of intrigue and a lot of offense. It started as a prelude to the NHL’s participation in the Olympics, and, coinciding with two Olympic years, it gave both players and fans a nice pre-Olympic tune-up. In addition, that format produced one of the highest-scoring All-Star games ever. The NHL has since shied from playing All-Star games in Olympic years, but if this event is really about entertaining the fans, then it should continue to do what promotes offense, raw skill–the better side of the game.

If only they could do it for the games that count…

Let’s also examine the fact the earliest All-Star games were charity games for the benefit of injured or deceased players. This would be the perfect forum for showcasing the great community work many of these players do. In the best of all possible worlds, the NFL’s Pro Bowl would be a game to raise funds for player assistance. Why can’t the NHL one-up them? At least have them agree on a couple of charities and give the winning team a donation. How hard could it be?

Let’s also examine what Major League Baseball did. In 2002, Bud Selig made the unpopular decision that the MLB All-Star Game would end in a tie because both teams ran out of pitchers, rather than using his power to bend rules due to extenuating circumstances. Fox, the All-Star rights-holder, pitched a fit to Selig because it was losing money on its coverage. Instead of doing the responsible thing, which would have been to tell Fox “caveat emptor” (“buyer beware,” for the Latin illiterate), Selig did the Selig thing, caving and basing home-field advantage in the World Series, going forward, on the outcome of an exhibition game, without regard to the majority of participants and teams represented who had no realistic chance at that prize.

In other words, don’t do what Major League Baseball did. Can you imagine how much more laughable the NHL would become if mid-season pond hockey determined the site of a Game 7?

There’s a reason the NHL has made All-Star games as gimmicky as the one played Sunday. Just like there’s a reason the NHL is constantly putting them in Sun Belt cities like Nashville and other markets in need of something to draw out closet fans. Ratings were up, perhaps because of the new format, but probably because of a story the NHL will try to delude us into taking credit for.

All-Star games still serve a purpose, and being invited, as a player, is still a nice honor. Nowadays, though, it’s an artificial honor.

For the real All-Stars, the real honors don’t come until June.

(Featured image courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images.)

How the NFL, for One Night, Sucked Less Than the NHL

I want to love the Steelers as much as I used to just like I want to love the NFL as much as I used to. Sports have always been and always will be part of my livelihood. But first and foremost, I’m a hockey person. And hockey people, by nature, don’t like to lose. I don’t like that hockey fans, like football fans, have lost respect from a league that insists upon insulting their intelligence.

That’s not to say I don’t care about Saturday’s result. If anything, historically, I’ve made the common yinzer mistake of caring too much. Sure, I was happy the Steelers won, and I would’ve gone to bed that night kind of bummed if they hadn’t, because I’m a Pittsburgher by blood, and it’s in my blood to wish my town–and all its teams–prosperity. Where I come from, winning football, economically, has always been better for the greater good than the alternative. But between the oversaturation of pro football (I can count on one hand the number of Thursday night games that have actually been good) and its overly ostentatious players, the ethically questionable player signings amid hypocritical bleating about “The Steeler Way”™ and the things I now know about Roger Goodell, I just can’t be as emotionally invested as I once was. Having said that, maybe, just this once, I should stop shaking my fist, and instead, clap my hands.

Maybe I should give the NFL, the most corrupt outfit in North American sports besides the NCAA, its ironically due credit for doing something the NHL hasn’t had the spine to do.

I realize sports were never meant to be a morality play. But I have been told repeatedly that they are entertainment. I am not alone in saying that, as a fundamental principle of entertainment, I am entertained when the victim gets justice, and the villain gets what he has coming. Don’t expect that to happen in Gary Bettman’s NHL.

To be fair, until the very (merciful) end of a Wild Card game at Paul Brown Stadium that would make its namesake spin in his grave, I wasn’t expecting it to happen there, either.

Don’t get me wrong. Bettman and Goodell are two sides of the same wooden nickel. They’re tricky political tycoons and shameless corporate apologists who have only really worked to make their respective products better when they’ve absolutely had to. But there’s a reason why pro hockey, in most places beyond Pittsburgh, is treated as a second-class citizen, and why pro football, universally, is not.

Let’s briefly shift our attention to the other corner of Ohio, where Brandon Dubinsky has shown flashes of brilliance as an assistant captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Still, Brandon Dubinsky doesn’t draw ratings and put asses in the seats like Sidney Crosby does. For all his flashy moves, Dubinsky has an equally robust history of dick moves, especially against Crosby.

Go ahead, Columbus. Bang your narrative drums and troll Crosby all you want for so-called petulance; God knows Dubinsky’s delusional head coach did. What Dubinsky did here is unacceptable (also, water is wet, and your team, last I checked, is still in last place):

In any context, it was a cheap shot, and based on where on his body Crosby absorbed the blow, it could have aggravated the concussion problems he’s had. Dubinsky knew what he was doing. He should have known better.

In summary, a player with a dirty reputation who made a dirty play, and who should have gotten five minutes at best and an ejection at worst was allowed to stay in the game, which gave him the opportunity to do this:

No books thrown at the villain. No justice for the victim. Just follow-up discipline tantamount to a speeding ticket–a one-game suspension–after an elite player was unnecessarily targeted. Sadly, I’ve come to expect nothing less from the NHL; as a result, we, the fans, all become victims. This is where the NFL picked up the ball–or puck, as it were–than the NHL constantly drops, and ran with it to the bank.

I’m not going to anoint Ben Roethlisberger for sainthood, for widely-cited reasons, to say nothing of a number of his teammates. But let’s be honest: What grinds the gears of beer-tossing Bengals fans more than Milledgeville these days is Big Ben’s stardom. He’s one of the NFL’s modern greats, and on top of that, he’s a northeast Ohio native who, historically, has terrorized both of Ohio’s NFL teams. Antonio Brown, meanwhile, is a man-amongst-boys wide receiver who has been a subject of best-in-the-league-at-his-position debates all season long as Ben’s primary target.

Now, for a stark contrast, let’s look at the other side of the ball. One of the chief antagonists on this night were Pacman Jones, the gum-flapping cornerback who, among other things, has shot up a strip club before. His attitude has negated whatever talent he’s possessed since he played at West Virginia, and when the Cowboys had to put up with him, Jerry Jones tried to idiot-proof Pacman by hiring what he called “bodyguards,” but were really the grown-ass man equivalent of babysitters.

The other one was Vontaze Burfict, who, like Jones, has been a suspect player dating back to his college days. Today, Burfict enjoys(?) a reputation as one of the dirtiest linebackers in the game. Dennis Erickson, who was once head coach at Miami, benched him at Arizona State for taking too many personal fouls. That’s like getting kicked out of the KKK for being a bigot.

Again, I can’t exempt my team from criticism. Ryan Shazier should be ashamed of himself for celebrating Gio Bernard’s injury, as should Antwon Blake (keep your eye on the upper right-hand corner):

And I loathe to play the “he started it” card…but:

The loose cannon kept firing Saturday, right into Roethlisberger’s shoulder, then, inexplicably, with a shot straight to Brown’s head. That’s not even counting the aftermath, in which Steelers offensive linemen claim Burfict spit at them. In Brown’s case, a flag was thrown and the appropriate penalty assessed at a time when NHL referees would have kept their whistles in their pockets and let the inmates run the asylum–not that they already weren’t to some degree.

I call B.S. on anyone who says Joey Porter came out onto the field to “check on” Brown. Porter and Jones are of the same generation. They’ve played on the same fields. Porter, like Mr. Dubinsky, knew what he was doing and waited until just the right time to do it. He deserves every penny of his fine, and he should have been penalized at the time. Perhaps, while Peezy was being Peezy, he would have been eventually, if not for Pacman being Pacman.

Hey, Mister Instagram, you know how they say the delete key is your friend? Pro tip: the “ignore” button, when available, is also your friend.

Then again, it’s clear that the Steelers and UPMC have collaborated on a genetic mutation that turned Chris Boswell into Gary Anderson, so who’s to say a 47-yard Boswell kick would have had an outcome different from his textbook 32-yarder? And besides, glass houses and stones:

I don’t know who those officials were, though, regardless which dog you had in this fight (not an expression I’m comfortable using in a year that saw the Steelers voluntarily take on Mike Vick’s baggage), you’d think they were the same 90-year-old knuckleheads who mangled that Steelers-Colts game ten years ago. Nevertheless, the NFL, even if just accidentally, managed to send a clear message Saturday night.

The NFL will embrace its stars unconditionally. The NFL will enforce its rules in a manner that allows its most skilled players to show off those skills, and makes middling and/or openly insubordinate players pay a price–literally, in Burfict’s case, next season–for taking liberties with stars. The NHL is too busy playing antiquated politics and fondling itself to visions of Vegas (the Los Angeles of pro hockey’s parallel universe) to do either of those things. Guess which league, for all the negative attention it has deservedly drawn, has also, deservedly, drawn more of the positive kind?

Saturday’s wild Wild Card was one of two football games I saw over the weekend in which no team had any business winning. But even if they were merely the lesser of two evils, the Pittsburgh Steelers got justice for their stars, while the Cincinnati Bengals got their own football-equivalent Sid Bream moment shoved down their collective throat.

Now that’s entertainment.

Maybe the Steelers, who did not win without cost, will surprise us and gut out another one in Denver? Maybe the Steelers, who have extended their season in spite of themselves and their coaches, will see their good karma run out against the Broncos? Either way, we know both teams will get what they deserve this approaching Sunday. Hell, that might be enough to make me flip over from Pens-Canes at quarter to 5:00.

Wow, did I really just say that? Sorry, fellow hockey people. It’s wrong of me to give you the cold shoulder.

But hey, nobody’s Burfict.