I’m a huge fan of rugby, having played it for a few years.
There’s always a section of the population who’s astounded by the fact rugby players wear little to no protective gear (personally, I don a scrum cap to keep my ears looking normal). The reason is pretty simple- without gear, if you hit someone; it hurts you just as much as it hurts them. This somewhat ties into the old adage that rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.
The point of that quick anecdote is that even though rugby is characterized by its rough nature (and one can tell that it is indeed rough simply by looking at my medical files), the value of each individual player is not measured by how he or she hits. It’s not measured by your speed or any one thing in particular. There are no specialists aside from the kicker, but even then, he has to play regular minutes and be effective in those minutes.
I find it odd that we do not apply that same kind of thinking in hockey.
When looking at players, many people will use descriptors like “defensive specialist” or “power play quarterback” or whatever. The perception of the player, more often then not, is that they are so good at this thing, the other things they do don’t matter as much because they give value to the team in ways that we cannot count or sort. In reality, it’s more that the player gives negative value in so many ways, but old-school thinking discounts this negative value because of what common people think a team needs to have in order to win.
That brings us to Cory Sarich. Beloved by many a fan for his hitting ability, many seem to overlook the fact that Sarich cannot skate and has little to no offensive ability to speak of. However, when there is talk of this year’s free agent class, people say that they would want him back because the Flames blue line- Jay Bouwmeester and Chris Butler, in particular- don’t “punish” their opponents enough. The thing is, often times punishing your opponent’s means punishing yourself as well. You spend more energy hitting someone than you would if you just poked the puck away. You increase your injury risk by letting your body lose control, among other things. I cannot tell you how many times I would absolutely destroy an opponent with an open ice hit and come away from the encounter winded or having my jaw tweaked or suffering bruising on my shoulder.
The game today is about speed. The players who are most effective- guys like Crosby and Datsyuk and Giroux- are guys that avoid contact using their speed and agility. Sarich often times takes himself out of position to punish his opponent- that in turn punishes the other four guys he’s on the ice with.
Now, I don’t mean to be picking on Sarich, because he’s not the only subject of this type of thinking around the league. The point is that people want a defensive corps to be physical, and I guess that’s OK- but I would rather have one that can move around. Like I said, the game today is about speed and like it or not there has been an impassioned attempt by the league to make the game less violent through stricter hitting regulations. This has de-emphasized the impact of hitting in the game.
Another thing of note is that players who rely on their physicality more then their skating ability often tend to get penalized more (see this) than players that don’t. This is obviously a huge issue, because one out of every five penalties against means a goal against.
Basically, it comes down to this for me – if you can’t catch a player, I don’t care how hard you’re going to hit him because your lack of skating ability hurts the team so much more.