Gaudreau injury a reminder as to how star players are defended and treated

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There has always been a perception among fans — and sometimes even among people within the game — that the NHL’s star players “get all of the calls” and get some sort of preferential treatment from the league.

Just think of how many times you’ve heard somebody say something along the lines of, “Well, if that had happened to Sidney Crosby, what would the response be? He would be suspended forever!”

And that’s not just message board fodder among fans, either.

That is a sentiment that has been shared by actual players and coaches in the NHL (Alain Vigneault literally made that exact argument once) . The likely answer to that question is that nothing would happen because in Crosby’s career he has been on the receiving end of exactly one play that resulted in a suspension. It was one game to Brandon Dubinsky for breaking a stick over his back on a cross-check.

While star players do tend to draw more penalties, that has more to do with the fact that they tend to have the puck more often than most players, and are usually defended “harder” than most players. All of that attention will eventually result in some penalties. But probably not as many as there could be. And it’s not because of some sort of bias from the league’s officials or preferential treatment.

If anything, the rest of the players in the league get an even longer leash against them than they would other players. It’s almost as if the skill works against the stars because there is a belief that they should be good enough to play through it, or that the playing field is somehow being leveled.

We were reminded of this when Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau was sidelined with a broken finger this past week, an injury that the team believes was the result of a slash from Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal (it was one of many slashes Gaudreau was on the receiving end of during the game).

The Wild’s approach to defending Gaudreau, by far the Flames’ most dangerous offensive player and one of the most dangerous in the entire NHL, wasn’t anything out of the ordinary when it comes to defending top players. Teams will be willing to do whatever it takes to slow them down, and it usually involves everything from tight checking, to “playing them tough,” to some active stick work like we saw on Gaudreau.

One of Gaudreau’s own teammates, veteran forward Troy Brouwer, didn’t seem to be as upset as his team’s general manager because of the way he himself goes after other team’s star players.

“I know in my game I give a lot of top players good whacks and stuff,” Brouwer said via the Calgary Sun. “You obviously don’t want to let it be happening to your team, but star players are going to be keyed on. It’s no different than what we do (to the opposition).”

Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane argued on Friday that it is a method of defending that really doesn’t serve much of a purpose, and that it needs to be called more.

“I don’t like the play, I don’t like the slash to the hands,” Kane said, via TSN, referring to the Gaudreau injury. “I don’t know what it’s real purpose is, even as a defender, slashing the hands of another player. I don’t know what you can really accomplish with that play. We are always taught in here to keep our stick on the ice and go after the puck instead of slashing the hands. Only thing it can result in is maybe breaking a stick or taking a penalty. I’m not a big fan of the play. I’ve dealt with it in the past  where your fingers get slashed, and I know a lot of guys have dealt with it in the league, it’s just something that, I don’t know if you can really do anything about but it’s something that should be called more and it should be a penalty if you’re going to do that.”

He added that it’s come to the point where a star player had to get injured for everybody to take notice and that perhaps it will now be called more often.

But that seems like a long shot because, again, this stuff has been happening for years (generations, even).

For a while there was a thought process that the teams themselves could do the job of the league and put a stop to it by employing enforcers that would serve as a deterrent (the Gretzky-Semenko/McSorley strategy). But teams eventually realized that along with wasting a valuable roster spot on a player that wasn’t actually helping all that much, the enforcer didn’t really prevent that sort of physical play from happening, and if anything, helped create even more violence. When the Bruins employed Shawn Thornton and Milan Lucic for all of those years they seemed to be on the receiving end of more cheap shots than any other team in the league (you surely remember Matt Cooke on Marc Savard and John Scott on Loui Eriksson).

The enforcer or team toughness didn’t stop it or prevent it.

Oilers coach Todd McLellan was recently asked on more than one occasion about the treatment Connor McDavid receives from other teams, and seemed to accept that it is simply the reality of the NHL. He added that they can not always have a bunch of guys going over the boards to fight every time their star player gets touched.

And even if they did, it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

The game is too fast and decisions are made too quickly for a player to stop themselves from using their stick on an opponent because they are fearful that somebody might respond physically. If a player has it in his mind that he has to take a couple of extra whacks at Johnny Gaudreau, or Patrick Kane, or Sidney Crosby in an effort to slow them down, they are going to do it no matter who is lurking on the other team’s bench.

In the end, the only thing that stops it is a more emphatic crackdown from the league when it comes to the way the game is officiated and supplemental discipline is handed out.

As long as things remain the same in those areas, the league’s star players are going to keep taking extra abuse.