Tuesday, March 5, 2013

NHL realignment, and eventual expansion, presents a player safety concern

Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta received a five-game "Shana-ban" for his hit from behind/into the boards against the NY Rangers Brad Richards.

Kaleta, though, is a useful player outside of his penchant for antagonizing the opposition. He plays bottom-six minutes (10:02/game) with a good chunk of it on the penalty kill. His 2:10/game on the kill is tied for tops on the team with captain Jason Pominville.

Despite the hate thrown at him by his detractors, he can play the game.

So can some other pests/antagonists like Kaleta:  Chris Neil (OTT,) Brandon Prust (MTL,) Jordin Tootoo (DET,) Matt Cooke (PIT,) Shawn Thorton (BOS,) etc.

In a 30-team league, these players, and those of their ilk, can at least play a regular shift and find a niche outside of being merely a total douche' on the ice.

In fact, Kaleta has been focusing upon actually playing the game more and staying away from the dangerous hits like he threw at Richards. He even commented (via Bill Hoppe, Olean Times Herald) that the refs have taken notice and have provided him with encouragement, "The referees have came up and said, ‘Hey, we respect what you’ve done so far. As long as you keep showing respect toward us, then we’ll respect you,’” Kaleta told reporters Monday in Raleigh. That was before the suspension was handed down.

But there are a lot of roster spots to fill, nearly 700 in all, that range from the elite to top-line/top-pairing all the way down to reserve/depth/role players. And when you get down to the bottom four or five spots on the team, those are inevitably filled by borderline NHL'ers, or even worse, career AHL'ers who are simply a body.

In the latter instance, those career AHL'ers want to make an impact for the coaching staff when opportunity knocks. A ticket to the NHL, by whatever means necessary, is a ticket to a six-figure salary.

Some borderline NHL'ers/AHL'ers play the game as muckers and grinders, Kevin Porter, Matt Ellis and Cody McCormick of Buffalo come to mind.

Flyers Harry Zolnierczyk launches
himself at Ottawa's Mike Lundin
Others are there to punish their way into the NHL.

Which brings us to the case of the Philadelphia Flyers Harry Zolnierczyk.

Before Kaleta's five-gamer, Zolnierczyk landed the longest suspension in the NHL this season at four games for launching himself at Ottawa Senators defenseman Mike Lundin.

The hit was viscious as Zolnierczyk homed in on Lundin, left his skates and landed a brutal shoulder to head hit at the Flyers blueline (although Flyers coach Peter Laviolette defended his player actions.)

Zolnierczyk is no dummy. He's Ivy League educated and knows that his ticket to the big show has nothing to do with his very limited skill set. Destroy!

And the NHL already has a ton of players like him looking to turn their limited skill set into a professional bankroll via outright brutality.

Which begs the question, why, as rumor has it, would the NHL want to expand to 32 teams allowing openings for more Harry Zolnierczyk-type players? (well, we all know the answer, nine-figure expansion fees, that's why)

The NHL's latest realignment plan has two conferences and four divisions. It's unbalanced layout has 16 teams in the east and 14 teams in the west. And they can balance it out one of two ways--by adding two teams or contracting two.

The former would be a financial boon for owners and it would also add 46 NHL jobs for the NHLPA.

Contraction would mean no expansion fees, an owner or two out of the club and would subtract 46 NHL jobs.

You do the math.

But, should the NHL be adding 46 more Kevin Porter's, Matt Ellis' and Harry Zolnierczyk,s in a diluted league that allows for too many of them already? After all, as players move up the depth chart out of necessity, those reserve roles will need to be filled by someone. Like 46 players who have no business being in the NHL taking those spots and 46 marginal AHL'ers moving up the minor league ranks who will eventually get their shot at making an (dubious?) impression in the NHL.

There's no way in hell the league should expand, there's just not enough talent to fill the spots. And the league, as well as the NHLPA, should ultimately be held responsible for allowing more foxes in the hen house and more damage to the careers of their upper-tier players.

If the NHL and the NHLPa were truly concerned about player safety, like they claim to be, at maximum status quo should be the order of the day when it comes to the number of teams. If they really wanted to help both the league and player safety, they'd contract two teams. (But everyone pretty much knows that won't happen.)

So for now, same number of teams, same conferences, same divisions, some moves to balance things out.

And if they need realignment, maybe this would work.

With all due respect to the Detroit Red Wings, who were said to have been promised a spot in the eastern conference, for the betterment of the league they'll need to stay put.

And with all due respect to the perpetually rebuilding Columbus Blue Jackets--who are in, possibly, the toughest division in the NHL--they'll need to stay put too.

As laid out nearly two years ago when the move from Atlanta to Winnipeg was a foregone conclusion, a little juggling with attention to proximity could balance out this 30-team league in their present six divisions.

Unchanged divisions:
  •  Northeast--Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto
  • Atlantic--NJ Devils, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh
The moves:

  • Nashville moves to the South joining Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay and Washington
  • Dallas moves to the Central joining Chicago, Columbus, Detroit and St. Louis
  • Colorado moves to the Pacific with Anaheim, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Jose'
  • Winnipeg to the Northwest with Calgary, Edmonton, Minnesota and Vancouver
It's not crazy, but backdoor deals aren't involved either and it would keep the league from going to their proposed unbalanced, four-division scheme which may be a harbinger of more expansion.

Someone needs to stop Commissioner Gary Bettman from further diluting the league with his Napoleonic plans. NHL talent, despite the influx of highly skilled players from around the world, still hasn't caught up with his previous expansions.

Adding any more teams, even five years down the road, still won't fill the league with players better than the Porter's, Ellis' and Zolnierczyk's of hockey.

And that's not a good thing for the health of the game on the ice or the health of its players.


Addendum:  March 11, 2013

NHL posterboy Sidney Crosby chimed in on the winds of expansion blowing through the hockey air (via Brian Stubitz, cbssportsline):
"It's only two more teams. I don't see it as that big an issue," the Penguins captain told Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "The league's found a way to stay competitive with 30. It can do 32."

Ummmm...how's the air up there, Sid? Pretty sweet, eh?

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