Why does Daniel Carcillo still have a job in the NHL?

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BOSTON, MA - JUNE 24: Daniel Carcillo #13 of the Chicago Blackhawks carries the Stanley Cup following their 3-2 win against the Boston Bruins during Game Six of the Stanley Cup Final on June 24, 2013 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

2013 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 24: Daniel Carcillo #13 of the Chicago Blackhawks carries the Stanley Cup following their 3-2 win against the Boston Bruins during Game Six of the Stanley Cup Final on June 24, 2013 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Chicago Blackhawks winger Daniel Carcillo was suspended for six games by the NHL on Monday, after his after-the-whistle cross-check to the arm injured Mathieu Perreault of the Winnipeg Jets. It was deliberate, potentially calculated and brutal; Carcillo comically argued it was a “hockey play"; but hey, that's technically correct, given that it involved a stick and they were both on skates ...

It was Carcillo’s ninth suspension in nine NHL seasons, which is really remarkable. When you break it down, Carcillo has been suspended once for every 42 games played. That’s a higher clip than Raffi Torres, Pat Kaleta and Chris Pronger, who was suspended nine times in his career, which was OK because he had the requisite ice time to avoid "THROW THAT GARBAGE OUT OF THE LEAGUE!" criticism. 

The worst of Dan Carcillo:

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Jan. 2015: Chicago Blackhawks (Six games for cross-checking Mathieu Perreault)

May 2014: New York Rangers (Six games for abuse of officials)

Jan. 2012: Chicago Blackhawks  (Seven for boarding Tom Gilbert)

Oct. 2011: Chicago Blackhawks  (Two games, hit from behind on Joni Pitkanen)

May 2011: Philadelphia Flyers (Two games off-ice actions; engaged in “aggressive behavior and inappropriate conduct directed at the officials between periods)

March 2010: Philadelphia Flyers (Two games for an illegal cross-check to the head of David Clarkson)

Dec. 2009: Philadelphia Flyers (Four for punch to face of Matt Bradley)

April 2009: Philadelphia Flyers (One game for a punch and/or butt-end of the stick to the face of Max Talbot off the faceoff.)

Oct 2008: Phoenix Coyotes (Two games for leaving bench to fight with Ben Eager)

I’m not a Carcillo apologist, but let’s be real about his record: It's a total that’s pumped up by two suspensions for abuse of officials, one for leaving the bench for a fight and two more for punching people in the face, which is sorta Carcillo’s job description.

(The politics at play on that April 2009 suspension vs. the Penguins can’t be ignored either.)

However, nine suspensions are nine suspensions, leading some to wonder if Carcillo should be handed a picture book so he can better understand NHL rules.

But there’s a disconnect here. Carcillo is seen as the human incarnation of waste products by many fans and pundits; an injurious half-wit that can’t avoid suspensions, who “doesn’t belong” in the NHL.

And yet his three most recent employers: The multiple Stanley Cup winning Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, and reigning Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers.

This is like a kid who keeps oversleeping for his shift at Burger King and serves old fish filets to customers getting a middle management gig at Apple.

Why do people keep hiring Dan Carcillo?

***

In 2008, the greatest goal-scorer in NHL history endorsed Dan Carcillo as a goal-scorer.

Wayne Gretzky was (poorly) coaching the Phoenix Coyotes, for whom Carcillo played. The Great One told SI that he could see Carcillo scoring 30 goals in the NHL, which is a little nuts, but he captured the spirit of the thing: The young forward reminded him of a “poor man’s Rick Tocchet” who could skate in a team’s top six.

Yet as the great Michael Farber wrote at the time:

“Gretzky had to initiate several chats this season about skating the fine line between combativeness and chaos, something the fractious Carcillo, who led Columbus rookie Jared Boll by 40 penalty minutes in that dubious statistical category, crossed far too often.”

The rest of Carcillo’s career has lived up to this conundrum: Here is a player with undeniable hockey skill that seems incapable of not acting like a bonehead.

The Flyers acquired him in a trade for Scottie Upshall in 2009, and the immediate reaction was “FLYERS TRADE FOR GOON," because Carcillo was a league-leader in penalty minutes. Yet his first season saw him mesh well with Ian Laperriere and Blair Betts under John Stevens, while also playing up with Mike Richards. He scored 12 goals in 76 games, but was scratched in four of the six games against Chicago in the Stanley Cup Finals – a harbinger of things to come. 

The next season … not so good. His ice time was a miniscule 7:46 per game, finishing with six points and a minus-14 in 57 games. He wasn’t re-signed after inking a one-year deal in the previous summer, and moved on to the Chicago Blackhawks.

“He’s a very versatile player. Can play a physical game, but has a lot of talent too,” GM Stan Bowman said in 2011.

But the reason he was added to the Blackhawks was obvious: Because their skill players were being taken advantage of, and old school thinking is that a guy like Carcillo can prevent that.

"Stan kind of reached out to me and told me, 'These are the kind of players who can protect you and help you do your thing,'" said Patrick Kane at the time. "You want that protection and have in the back of your mind people aren't going to run all over the place to try to take you out of the game. If you look at the players we have, I don't think too many players will mess with those guys."

He was re-signed by the Hawks in 2012 for two years for $825,000 per season, after missing a good portion of the previous season when Gilbert landed on his leg following a hit for which Carcillo was suspended.

"Danny did a real nice job for us," coach Joel Quenneville told the Tribune. "It was a tough injury for us and for him knowing his contributions. He can play with some top guys and was very instrumental in making it work earlier on for him and for us. We look forward to having him back here. He gives some toughness, some abrasiveness and he has a purpose behind how he plays."

Said assistant general manager Marc Bergevin to the Tribune: "(Carcillo's) the type of player we need and have been looking for. Since he's been hurt we've been lacking that presence. He's a great fit with our team. Once you let him go you're looking to replace a guy like that, so once you have him, you might as well keep him."

Carcillo won the Stanley Cup with the Hawks in 2013. He played four games during their playoff run.

***

Carcillo was acquired by the Los Angeles Kings in July 2013. As Dean Lombardi said at the time:

“This is a guy who fit the type of M.O. we value on this team,” said Lombardi. “He’s played with some of the top players on our team. He can play a number of positions. He can move up and down the lineup: Play a fourth line energy role, but also play with Richards and Carter.”

If you detect a trend here, there is one: Carcillo was a player that was valued as a fourth-line plug because, as Gretzky predicted, he could also hang with the skill guys. The fact that he had history with Richards, Carter and coach John Stevens, a Kings assistant, no doubt helped. 

Lombardi still had reservations about his play, but felt like he’d be kept in check because of the Kings’ room. “I think it’s easier for him to realize what his role is and how he fits in,” he said.

“I hate playing against that guy, but I’d love to have him on my team.”

***

His Kings tenure lasted only 26 games, as he became a scratch and the team needed roster flexibility. The Kings found him another home with the New York Rangers, who were in need of a kick in the ass from a pain in the ass.

“He’s a player that can bring an element of toughness,” Coach Alain Vigneault told the Daily News. “With us losing [Derek] Dorsett for four-to-six weeks, that’s an area that we felt we needed to get a little bit better. Dan became available, and we picked him up.

“For us it’s a low-risk move. He’s in the last year of his contract, not very expensive, and hopefully he’ll come in and help us.”

Carcillo played just 8:47 per game for the Rangers in 31 games, scoring three goals with no assists. He did appear in eight playoff games, scoring two goals in 8:46 of ice time.

The Rangers moved on after the season. Carcillo was given a PTO by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2014-15 preseason, but didn’t stick; then the Blackhawks came calling again, and Carcillo played in 31 games for them (8:17 per night) before his suspension. He's played well, but fans were still baffled why the team went to this well again.

***

The answer is simple. Three very good front offices are slaves to the twin obsessions for NHL executives, which is the necessity for toughness and the tease of potential.

Well, that and complete affordability. 

The model for the modern enforcer, minus a couple of exceptions, is that of a player who has actual hockey skill but can also use those same hands for pummeling people. Look at the current leaders in fights this season; Derek Dorsett, Brandon Prust, Matt Martin and Tom Wilson aren’t exactly knuckle-dragging goons.

Neither is Carcillo, nor has he been. He’s less a poor man’s Rick Tocchet than he is a slightly lower middle class man’s Steve Downie: a physical player with impulse control problems who can skate on an energy line or hang with the skill players.

Or at least that’s how he’s been perceived by the teams that have hired him recently, along with the arcane notion that he can “protect” these skill players, which is outmoded thinking.

What isn’t outmoded is having a wild card in the deck. Having a player whose reputation precedes him. Having, as Quenneville said, a guy who has "a purpose behind how he plays."

Part of Pronger’s aura was the idea that he was as likely to put an elbow into your nose as he was to poke check you. Raffi Torres, Pat Kaleta, Matt Cooke … all of these players have elements of skill, of varying degrees, but also have that that reckless disregard for their fellow man. Carcillo has the same rep, and it’s only bolstered by this latest suspension. You don't like playing against them. It pisses you off that you have to ... until they're playing with you. 

When Pronger was traded to the Flyers, I asked a former player if the room would be wary about accepting a guy who had his reputation has a head-hunter.

“No,” he said, “because Pronger takes care of the things that have to be taken care of so you don’t have to.”

Until his body breaks down and he becomes a complete liability, Dan Carcillo will continue to find employment in the NHL, because he plays with a purpose, and that purpose to make those eight minutes a night he sees the ice as chaotic as possible. 

And thus, he'll continue to find himself in front of the Department of Player Safety, answering for his latest act of “grit.” 

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