September 18, 2009
Dion Phaneuf's open-ice wallop on Kyle Okposo(notes) of the New York Islanders last night has sparked another passionate debate about the legality and morality of such a hit; but it also expanded the argument into one about what, exactly, preseason hockey should look like (or whether it should exist at all).
Was the hit legal?
Was the hit headhunting?
Did Phaneuf really need to hit the kid that [expletive] hard considering it's the preseason?
Two-Line says "yes, no and probably not," and he's nearly correct.
Was the hit legal? Islanders goalie Marty Biron said after game that "it definitely looked like feet went up," and they did -- but on impact, not before it. He didn't leave his skates to make the hit, at least from the angles I've seen. Did Dion lead with this elbow, as Lighthouse Hockey claimed last night? I don't believe he did intentionally, but that's not to say his elbow didn't make contact. Watch it again: Phaneuf appears to make contact with almost his entire back to Okposo. It's an awkward, awkward check.
Okposo's positioning plays into this thing, too. On the replay, Nigel Dawes(notes) jostles him from behind as he's carrying the puck, and that puts Okposo in a prone position for Phaneuf's hit. Those defending Dion are making the Lindros-ian "keep your head up" argument about the Islanders winger; it's less that than just being in a vulnerable position at the wrong time. It's a mitigating circumstance; it's not Brandon Sutter putting himself in a prone position before Doug Weight freight-trains him.
It's a legal hit. Debate it's morality or integrity, but it's legal.
Was the hit headhunting? Simply put, this is part of Phaneuf's job description. If he has the opportunity to remove player from puck with force, the team expects him to do it. As Phaneuf told the media after the game:
"He cut through the middle and kind of fumbled the puck and looked down," Phaneuf said. "I stepped up. I definitely thought it was a clean hit."
"You never like to see guys get hurt," Phaneuf said. "But from what our doctors say, he's OK. So that's a good thing. ... It's a big part of my game to play that physical style. When the hit is there, I'm definitely going to take it."
It's not headhunting -- it's a nasty, vicious play in a nasty, vicious sport. And Phaneuf gets paid to make them. But this is a Scott Stevens fan talking here.
Did Phaneuf really need to hit the kid that [expletive] hard considering it's the preseason? Here's where things get a little complicated.
Why does preseason hockey exist? Why does a sport whose regular-season is too grueling and whose postseason is too brutal play a series of fake games leading up to the real ones? We know it's mostly for profit, at least in cities where the franchise isn't tied up in bankruptcy court. But it's also to prepare for the season.
Maybe that means finding your shot or your pad save. Maybe that means finding chemistry with line-mates. For Phaneuf, it means getting prepared to play his style of hockey when the games count, and the Okposo hit is how he plays. Rick Rypien(notes) of the Vancouver Canucks has had two fights in games that don't matter; those are his hockey skills, and this is the time to sharpen them.
So yes, Phaneuf really did need to hit the kid that [expletive] hard considering it's the preseason, because hockey between opposing teams in front of arena crowds can't be played in some benign, half-assed, pacifist manner. Those are called "scrimmages," and if we're worried that players are endangered by inter-squad play then simply make the preseason intra-squad games ... and then make up the lost exhibition revenue by expanding the regular season or the playoffs. Bet the teams will come out ahead in the end.
One caveat: Phaneuf didn't answer the bell for a fight with Pascal Morency(notes), and he should have. Maybe he knew the Islanders player had just come off the bench, maybe he didn't. But lay out a team's Top 3 forward like that in a preseason game, and you need to fight. If it's not part of the Code, it's time for an amendment -- even if the "fight after a hit" trend is a plague on the NHL.
Phaneuf shouldn't be suspended; will Morency? Hockey Fights explains:
Pascal Morency jumped off the bench a little early (as a couple of Islanders were skating towards the bench for a change) and immediately went after Phaneuf. Morency never got his fight, but did pick up a double roughing and game misconduct for his troubles. From the one shot in the video, it appears the Islander players may have turned around and joined in the scrums that were forming. Why is this important? Any player who leaves the bench to fight receives a 10-game misconduct and a fine. Morency clearly wanted to fight, but with the line change coming and the fight never happening, it's unclear if the NHL will apply the rule in this situation.
Maybe they'll suspend him for 10 games that don't really count for anything ...