Monday, November 19, 2007
After another controversial on-ice incident, NHL again fails to do right thing
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
Why is it that the NHL seems to do all the right things when it is forced to respond to drinking, doping and gambling issues, yet it still doesn't seem to know how to handle the players whose on-ice actions do far more harm to the game?
Players like Vancouver's Mattias Ohlund, whose baseball swing to the back of Mikko Koivu's exposed leg Friday night fractured the Minnesota Wild center's left fibula.
Ohlund was suspended four games for his grotesque attack on the defenseless Koivu, who happened to be skating away from the defenseman at the time of the slash.
Mattias Ohlund (background) was elbowed by Mikko Koivu before he slashed the Wild forward in the leg with his stick.
Yes, we know Koivu launched an elbow at Ohlund that presumably angered the normally peaceable player enough to go Babe Ruth on the Wild player.
But we care not what Koivu did. You want to suspend Koivu for the elbow? Go ahead. Of course, it's a moot point given that he has a broken leg.
Did we mention that? A broken leg. In the mind of NHL czar of discipline Colin Campbell, that equals four games or a paltry 5 percent of the season.
Given that Campbell went all soft on Randy Jones a couple of weeks ago by giving the Philadelphia defenseman just two games for a hit from behind that may have ended Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron's season, four games seems just about right on the NHL's sliding scale of mayhem.
There is no doubt that the same arguments that surfaced when Bergeron was pasted against the end boards and had to be carried off on a stretcher will be trotted out on the Ohlund slash.
Some then suggested it was Bergeron's fault because he put himself in a vulnerable position (he didn't). No doubt some will suggest Koivu got what he deserved because he elbowed Ohlund on the play.
But what seems to be missing here is that if the NHL wants hockey not to be considered a fringe sport in much of America, it ought to take seriously disciplining the players whose actions reinforce that mentality for so much of the sporting public. If you do the crime, someone needs to make sure you do the time.
Ohlund broke another man's leg with his stick. On purpose. Watch the replay. Thousands have on YouTube.
Start with 10 games and go from there.
The only thing separating Ohlund's slash from Chris Simon's samurai attack on Ryan Hollweg late last season is that is was about five feet south.
So, Ohlund had the presence of mind to whack his opponent's leg, not his neck, when he was angered. Bravo. Guess Ohlund gets four games for showing such restraint.
The difference, of course, other than the geography of the slash, is Simon is a repeat offender and, well, he's Chris Simon. Ohlund is a valuable member of the Vancouver Canucks.
The intent? How can it be anything but the same? An NHL player gets ticked off and seeks justice with his stick.
Why the league finds it so hard to mete out discipline with any kind of force when the acts clearly call for a heavy hand remains one of the questions for the ages.
Campbell was right on with his suspensions of Philadelphia Flyers forwards Steve Downie and Jesse Boulerice, handing out 20- and 25-game suspensions, respectively, for their misdeeds.
The league has also stepped in with harsh penalties for off-ice misbehavior. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suspended Toronto forward Mark Bell for 15 games in relation to Bell's drunk-driving charge in San Jose a year ago. And former Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet will be prohibited from coaching for what amounts to two years for his gambling charges.
So why does the league have alligator arms when it comes to suspending everyday players like Jones and Ohlund? Beats us.
At least with Jones (and, for the record, his two-game suspension was a disgrace), it was a check. Ohlund? The only thing missing was him yelling out, "Timber!" at the end of the play.
Good thing Ohlund wasn't making an illegal bet or taking steroids. Now that would have really landed him in hot water.
Remember all the angst over the difficulties Scott Gomez seemed to have fitting in on Broadway with his new pals, the New York Rangers? Well, looks like the comfort zone has been found; Gomez is in the midst of a nine-game points streak. Playing with Sean Avery and Brendan Shanahan, Gomez has two goals and 10 assists during the run. The Rangers, by the way, have lost just once during Gomez's streak, occupy first place in the Atlantic Division and are the hottest team in the NHL.
First, Phoenix netminder Alex Auld got shelled against San Jose, giving up three goals on 18 shots before being yanked in favor of Mikael Tellqvist en route to a 6-0 loss. Now, it looks like that will be Auld's final moment as a Coyote. With Phoenix picking up former Anaheim Ducks goalie Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers, and then seeing Bryzgalov shut out the L.A. Kings in his first game, something's got to give in the Coyotes' crease and it appears it will be Auld. The Thunder Bay, Ontario, native has given up 21 goals in his past five starts for the Coyotes and is expected to be waived with Tellqvist settling in as the backup. Hard to believe that Auld was the man expected to take over for Roberto Luongo when the Florida Panthers made that fateful trade at the 2006 draft.
Stuck in Neutral
Kudos are obviously due for New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur, who became just the second NHL goalie to reach the 500-win plateau (Patrick Roy is the other) with a 6-2 victory over Philadelphia on Saturday night. The fact that it took Brodeur four tries to finally reach the milestone speaks volumes about the struggles facing the Hall of Fame-bound netminder and his Devils teammates. Brodeur is just 6-10-1 with a 2.70 goals-against average and .894 save percentage. The Devils? They're mired in 12th place in the Eastern Conference as they struggle to adjust under new coach Brent Sutter.
Our top story lines of the week
1. We love all the boo-hooing over what Sean Avery may or may not have said before last week's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre that nearly sparked a brawl. What was more offensive was the gem from Toronto deep thinker Wade Belak, who predicted someone was going to "kill" Avery. Nice. But back to Avery. Whatever the state of the marbles rolling around in Avery's noggin, the Rangers are without a doubt a vastly different team with the agitator in the lineup. Indeed, the Rangers were boosted after his arrival last season from Los Angeles at the trade deadline and they are now 7-1 since his return from a shoulder injury.
2. Just how hot is the Tampa Bay Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier? Well, the super center has six goals and 13 assists in his past seven games and is the NHL's leading point-producer with 32. He is an absolute force, adding a dose of fearlessness to his already impressive size and skill that suggests not just an Art Ross Trophy is in his future, but a Hart Trophy, as well. It sets up an interesting battle of the titans when you throw Lecavalier in with Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. The Lightning, by the way, have won five in a row and begin the week just six points back of Southeast Division-leading Carolina with two games in hand. Wonder if GM Jay Feaster will have to answer any more questions about whether he's thinking of trading Lecavalier. Probably not.
3. It looks like the Nashville Predators' arena deal is going to get done. We still don't believe the team is anything but doomed in the Music City, but you can't accuse the Preds of being distracted. After a rough start, due in no small part to significant injuries, the Predators are 7-2-1 in their past 10 games and begin the week in seventh place in the Western Conference.
4. Sorry, we just can't consider the Colorado Avalanche a legitimate Western Conference power until they prove they can win away from Denver. The Avs gave up the Northwest Division lead to Minnesota after the Wild's 4-1 win over Colorado in the Twin Cities on Sunday. The Avalanche are now 2-6-1 on the road and have scored a league-low 16 goals in nine road games.
5. It's kind of sad that Toronto captain Mats Sundin is off to such a terrific start only to have his accomplishments buried beneath the tawdry news that dominates coverage of the Original Six franchise these days. His 27 points have him tied for fourth in league scoring and he tied former Leafs great Frank Mahovlich with his 533rd career goal Saturday. What got more headlines? There was the dust-up with the Rangers' Avery last week, rookie Jiri Tlusty's -- ahem -- camera phone self-portrait and the hysteria over the future of GM John Ferguson.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.