Monday, May 9, 2011

The "Rivet Rule-Of-Thumb"

Former Sabres' d-man, Craig Rivet
Just what is the "Rivet Rule-Of-Thumb?"

Basically it involves using two key factors--two that led to the sharp decline in former Sabres' defenseman Craig Rivet's play-- as a barometer when looking to bring in (or keep) a tough, gritty stay-at-home-type defenseman.

For the last three seasons, we Sabres' fans have watched the decline of the rugged defenseman and former captain.

His early years in Montreal were marked by a style of play that endeared him to Montreal fans--as well as hockey fans in general. Rivet, at 6'2" 210 lbs. was the consummate team player, he was a defensive defenseman who was never afraid the throw a hit or grapple/joust with an opponent to clear the crease. Although he wasn't the biggest d-man, he did not back down when battling much bigger opponents.

An assistant captain with the Canadians, Rivet was also known for dropping the gloves with anyone to protect his teammates.

His career in Montreal stretched for the better part of 11 seasons. In the 2005/06 new-NHL, he was able to maintain that rugged quality while upping his offensive output as witnessed by his best production at that time.

The San Jose' Sharks traded for Rivet in the middle of the 2006/07 season and he continued his offensive output as well as his rugged style of play.

It was only after his trade to the Buffalo Sabres, at the age of 34, that the effects of his gritty game began to take its toll.

The Sharks traded him to the Sabres in the 2008 off-season in the second year of his recently inked four-year contract.

Heralded as a gritty player that would help toughen-up a Buffalo team that was considered one of the softest and easiest teams to play against, Rivet was voted by the team as captain.

He opened up the 2008/09 campaign as exactly the player that was expected--hitting, blocking shots, clearing the crease and dropping the gloves in defense of his teammates.

Although he had played 64 games that season, it's estimated that only the first few weeks were played injury-free. The rest of the season saw him endure injuries ranging from shoulder to knee.

The 2009/10 campaign saw him play in 78 games, at times playing some of his best hockey as a Sabre. It was widely thought that he played that entire season injured and his play at the tail end of the season showed it.

At the age of 35 he entered the 2010/11 season in the final year of his contract. Injuries once again plagued him and the speed of the game, which was present throughout his time with the Sabres, now even more evident as the opposition seemed to skate circles around him.

He looked real slow. He looked shot, and his body seemed to be failing him. This last season saw Rivet go from injury to press box to ineffective to press box to waivers, eventually ending up in Columbus with the Blue Jackets. In what may be his last game in the NHL, he was ejected after jousting and hacking at a Buffalo Sabre in the last game of the regular season. The player he engaged with was 5'9", 160 lb forward Tyler Ennis.

Two factors had contributed to Rivet's decline--his individual style of play and the overall speed of the NHL, which had really kicked into gear in the 2006/07 season.

The speed of the NHL is blazing which left, or is leaving, many of the big, tough NHL defensemen known for their hitting, in the dust in their early to mid 30's.

Here are a few players whose decline, like Rivet's, could be attributed to the aforementioned factors:

Derian Hatcher throwin' 'em down
Derian Hatcher--A bruiser on the blueline where he used his 6'5, 235 lb. frame to punish in his shutdown role. In his first season post-lockout he managed to hold his own, but the speed of the new-NHL really hastened his decline as witnessed by the Buffalo Sabres who ran circles around him and the whole Philadelphia Flyers team-building philosophy in the 2006/07 season. He and the team bottomed out, and while the Flyers rebuilt, Hatcher played half the 2007/08 season and spent the final year of his contract on injured reserve at the age of 36.

Mike Rathje
Mike Rathje--after 11 seasons with San Jose', the big, 6'5, 235 lb. defensman became a Philadelphia Flyer and joined the aforementioned Hatcher anchoring the blueline. He spent 13 years total in the NHL as a stay-at-home d-man, playing only one full year post-lockout. After only 18 games in the 2006/07 season, he, his injured groin and $3.5m contract were buried on the injured reserve list and Rathje was not heard from again. He played his last game at the age of 32.

Jason Smith
Jason Smith--Big hits and blocking shots. Those were the traits of this rugged 6'3, 220 lb tough d-man. Smith spent a total of 15 seasons in the NHL, his early years being formed by NJ Devils thundercrunch d-man, Scott Stevens. His years with the Devils and then the Toronto Maple Leafs were marked by defensive breakdowns as he went for the big hit which left him as a minus player during those years. At the age of 25 he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers. He spent the next five pre-lockout seasons playing the best hockey of his career. At the age of 32 he came back in the new-NHL, holding his own. The next season, though, he was left in the dust, his decline hastened by the speed of the league. He retired at the age of 36.

Former Sabre's d-man Jay Mckee blocks
a shot with the Blues at the tail-end
of his 14-year career
Jay Mckee--A Buffalo Sabres fan-favorite due to his hard-hitting/shot-blocking style of play. His prime years were spent in Buffalo before signing a lucrative contract in the 2006 off-season with St. Louis. The 2006/07 season saw the beginning of the decline with McKee being felled by a rash of "lower-body" injuries to his knees and hips. Already considered somewhat slow, at the age of 29, the speed of the new-NHL had passed him up and for the final years of his contract with the Blues (eventually seeing him waived by the club) along with one on Pittsburgh, he was relegated to third-pairing minutes and spent many games as a healthy scratch.

Sheldon Souray (left) goes at it
with Calgary's Jarome Iginla
Sheldon Souray--The 6'4" 233 lb. d-man with serious offensive (in more ways than one) acumen was an above average skater with a big shot and an edge. After an injury-plagued start to his career in NJ, Souray was traded to the Montreal Canadians at age 23. The injuries continued throughout the first few years with the Canadians and he missed the entire 2002/03 season with a wrist injury. Souray followed that lost season with the best offensive output of his career peaking in 2006/07 at the age of 30. Injuries hit once again in the first year as a free-agent signing by Edmonton. He played only 23 games in the 2007/08 season yet followed that with his second most productive year as a pro only to see him succumb to injuries--and attitude--the following season. He spent the entire 2010/11 season in the minors after no club wanted to trade for him or pick him up on waivers. He is now 34 yrs. old.

"JovoCop" in Phoenix
Ed Jovanovski--The #1 overall pick in 1994 by the Florida Panthers was considered the prototypical defender with size, grit and scoring prowess from the back-end. "Jovocop" was set to patrol the Panthers blueline with a "Scott Stevens-type" edge while putting up big offensive numbers. His pedestrian output in Florida, though, lead to an eventual blockbuster trade to Vancouver (Pavel Bure' being a part of the deal.) At the age of 23, he began what was to be the best overall hockey of his career. But, the post-lockout 2005/06 season saw injuries begin to creep in, mostly "lower body" of the abdominal and foot variety. After signing with Phoenix in the 2006 off-season, groin injuries started to creep into the occasion as well and he only played in 54 games. The latter part of his career in Phoenix (he's now a UFA) was marked by solid offensive numbers and a decidedly negative plus-minus. This past season, at age 34 (after two injury-free seasons,) the "upper-body" injuries limited him to 50 regular season games, and relegated him ineffective in the playoffs as the Yotes were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.

Looking ahead towards next season, here are a few big, tough, gritty d-men who are at various stages of their prime years. These stay-at-home, crease-clearers seem to be entering into that time where injuries may start having an adverse affect on their ability to play their game in a faster NHL:

Anton Volchenkov, NJ Devils--29 yrs. old. Has not played a full NHL season to date. After playing 78 games in the 2006/07 season he has played in 67, 68, 64 and 57 games the following respective seasons.

Mike Komisarek, Toronto Maple Leafs--29 yrs. old. 82 games in the 2006/07 season, 75, 66, 34 and 75 the next four seasons.

Robyn Regehr, Calgary Flames--31 yrs. old. Post-lockout played in 68, 78, 82, 75, 81, 79 games respectively.

Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins--34 yrs. old. Played in 80 or more games three of the last four seasons, no less than 71 since  2000/01.

Brooks Orpik, Pittsburgh Penguins--After playing in at least 70 games from 2006-2010, played in 64 last season with groin and finger problems.

Eric Brewer, Tampa Bay Lightning--A trade-deadline acquisition by the Bolts, seems to have found "fresh legs" at the age of 32. The two years prior to the 2010/11 season saw him play in a total of 87 regular season games.

As we look forward to the 2011/12 season, with Sabre's Head Coach Lindy Ruff expressing the desire for a "shutdown" d-man to pair with Tyler Myers, we may need to keep the "Rivet Rule-Of-Thumb" in mind.

The speed of the game relegates any big, tough, defensive/shutdown d-man to a window that limits their effectivenss to their prime years. As they get up there in age, the body, while trying to keep up with the game, starts breaking down. Although the will to keep up is there, the muscles stretch and tear trying to do things beyond their capabilities, with their sharp decline in performance being directly attributed to the speed of the game.

We're also going to keep this in mind when looking long-term at the Sabres' own players, including Myers (and possibly Mike Weber) who's one player that looks to be headed for a lucrative long-term contract with the club.

The "Rivet Rule Of Thumb":  Be very wary of physical d-men and/or shot-blockers once they are into their 30's, odds are they're gonna end up road-kill sooner rather than later.

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