In the past few years or so we've gotten to see entirely too many hits doled out by the true villains of the NHL against some of its better players. Patrick Kaleta on Jack Johnson and Maxim Lapierre on Dan Boyle obviously stand out the most, mainly because they were committed by itinerant and inveterate scourges on the sport and happened within the last week or so.
This has obviously led to a never-ending discussion on how we get "the rats," who play only to hurt and serve little to no other purpose as hockey players, out of the game for the good of the sport. It is they the fighters are meant to protect star players from, and it is they who seem wholly undeterred by those fighters presence. In this way they not only disrespect their opponents — what with the constant attempts to injure — but also The Code, and that is perhaps their greatest crime of all.
Another massive crime that players in this sport can commit, which was recently illustrated by the case of Nail Yakupov being healthy-scratched by Dallas Eakins, is if they do not show a commitment to the game in all three zones. People seized on Yakupov's declaration that he doesn't like to backcheck — and wholly ignored his lack of fluency in the language in which he spoke those words — as evidence that the Oilers should (nay, will) trade the No. 1 overall pick less than a full season after they drafted him.
Who cares if the rumored return for a potential star forward would be a 30-year-old left wing who would create a bit of a logjam on their top line what with Taylor Hall already being the elitest of the elite at that position and a 33-year-old goaltender with a no-trade clause? Who cares if both of those guys are going to be UFAs and likely want no part of spending the next seven or eight winters in Edmonton as if Buffalo's weren't bad enough? Did you see that thing he said about backchecking? It's unforgivable.
It's been said before (in this space and just a week ago, no less) that hockey's value system is perhaps irreparably broken. That if even a guy scores a bunch of goals, which obviously Yakupov hasn't to this point in the young season despite scoring at roughly a 55-point pace last season, all the other virtues in his game must necessarily drive him to be pushed to some decaying winterscape. For most team's malcontented cherry-pickers, this threat usually involves Edmonton, but in Yakupov's case the only reasonable substitutes would probably have been Buffalo or probably Winnipeg. In these cases, too, little consideration is given to what could possibly be done differently with this player. He has to pack his bags and go, and one lucky media member even gets to drive him to the airport and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with definitively not-saying "good luck."
Meanwhile, guys like Matt Cooke, who made a career of putting people in the hospital in addition to his ability to effectively kill penalties, are given chance after chance, with their virtues defended unto the bitterest reaches of logic by local media and fans alike. In some ways, they represent all three Gashouse Gorillas fanned by Bugs Bunny on that one pitch. Nine strikes, and the loutish boor is out. Maybe.
Cooke was recently quoted as saying he would be more than willing to help Kaleta understand the importance of not trying to cripple his opponents at the slightest provocation, as though this should in some way be a thing you have to be told. Sure, it's a nice gesture from Cooke, who knows all too well how the reputation you build up over the course of your entire career for this type of thing follows you around. But in following you around, all it effectively does is draw the ire of people who don't make decisions. It didn't lead the Penguins to send him packing, and it didn't deter the Minnesota Wild from signing him this summer (though his efforts to reform himself didn't hurt).
It will be interesting to see if Cooke extends the same offer to Lapierre, who's rightly built a reputation of being just as dirty even if the actions don't necessarily back that up (check the suspension history). Lapierre is one of those guys who feels like he's been on half the teams in the league, and it's not exactly because he fills the net. Instead, he fills a role: he's defensively responsible and can pop the puck in the net a little bit; "One time he scored 15 goals, and yeah that was five years and four teams ago, but still!" Even after this, he's still going to be used in the Blues lineup regularly, just as Kaleta has in Buffalo. It's tough to say the last time either one was a healthy scratch.
Which is far more than you can say for Yakupov or any number of players whose defensive games are in some way deficient for their coaches' liking. It seems that in teams' minds they'll look past checks to an opponent's back as long as you backcheck. That Kaleta and players like him can pick up five and a game in the first period on the regular, effectively shortening his team's bench and thereby increasing the chances that they won't win, and get more of a pass than a player like Yakupov would for not getting all the way back after he misses the net on a 2-on-1 is crazy. Isn't it? For the most part, you'd think that teams would value the guys who can put the puck in the net at a pretty high rate over guys who run a pretty high risk of putting them on the penalty kill, but you'd be wrong, because hockey is stupid.
The European professional ranks and probably a good number of Ontarian beer leagues are positively littered with players who had decent enough points-per-game totals but whose reputation for failure to focus on defense did not come with the ability to win a Rocket Richard (Ilya Kovalchuk, Rick Nash). Kyle Wellwood is a recent and prime example of this. He was fifth on the Jets in even-strength points per 60 minutes last season behind guys like Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler and Brian Little and Evander Kane, despite some pretty tough zone starts, and drew penalties without ever taking any. He was also fourth among Jets forwards in relative corsi.
But now he's pretty much been forced into retirement because he's "soft" and "fat" or whatever and no one will pay him $1 million to play fourth-line center for them despite the fact that he won 55 percent of his draws last season. Wellwood's career points per game, incidentally, is more than 50 and 100 percent better than Lapierre's and Kaleta's, respectively.
Look at just about any KHL roster and you'll see at least one guy exactly like this. Most of them — I'm sure not coincidentally — are Russian or Eastern European. Your Alex Frolovs and Nik Zherdevs and so on.
Obviously teams aren't going to stomach repeated lack of effort. "Filly don't do rebounds" proclamations win you no friends. However, one gets the feeling that the amount of crap a team will go through trying to get that particular type of leopard to change those particular spots is a lot less significant than another creature from the genus Panthera. That old saying about not wanting to paint the stripes on a kitten and call it a tiger holds true in the NHL, obviously, but they're more than happy to get out the orange Benjamin Moore and try to convince everyone this particular man-eater has been domesticated.
Each have their own merits. Kittens are safe and rewarding, but occasionally frustrating. Tigers are all power and useful, but deadly. To that end, the people in the wake of the Kaleta suspension who decried the decriers, saying they wish they had a roster full of Kaletas because of all the try-hard they bring were in a lot of ways reflective of the culture in the league.
But any smart manager would take a team of Wellwoods or Frolovs or Zherdevs over a team of Kaletas every day of the week. Trying hard is usually no substitute for talent, so maybe concentrating on getting the skill players into the game, rather than the "rats" out, will sort out the latter problem on its own.