A Touch of Deftness Is Required


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. 

  • Vintage Flame

    We can hopefully find better options in free agency……..this article basically sums up my opinion on Sarich. I love the guy and how he can actually just destroy people, but honestly.. he is just too slow!!! And I’m not all too sure if I really want Scott Hannan back either. I would say he probably is no longer able to play top 4. That being said, if he were to be re-signed for a similar contract then I would be okay with it. This would allow for Brodie to slowly transition to top 4 and let Hannan take a step back.

  • Vintage Flame

    Agreed. As you said, it’s not to pick on Cory, but he’s a good example of a one dimensional player who will be hard pressed to find NHL employment after July 1. Too many times we have seen him (and others) make a decision to go for the hit or to make the play that could negate an opponent’s progress, only to manouver themselves out of position and not have the speed to recover. My hope is that Feaster allows him to walk.

  • Vintage Flame

    The guys who are the most EFFECTIVE physical defencemen are alomost always guys who can skate. Guys like Weber, Gio, Kronwall, and such have bruising checks, but they also can skate pretty well.

    • MC Hockey

      Gotta agree with this additional point by fb89 and in general with the fine article by argyle-sweater-vest-guy too! If the Flames decide to replace Sarich and Hannan via free agent and cannot get a all-around talented stud like Suter, Wideman or Carle, then maybe a stay-at-home D-man like Barrett Jackman, Greg Zanon, or Bryan Allen would make sense but all are over 30 already (and why would BJackman come here?). Thus, I bet cheaper younger D-first guys would be more likely to be signed like Carlo Colaiacovo or Shaone Morrisson or Shane O’Brien.

  • thymebalm

    Giordano is the basically the mold I’d like for the defense on our team. Hits, blocks shots, skates, generates offense. Good at match ups. He’s not perfect, but he doesn’t lack in any part of his game as to hurt his team.

    Obviously Shea Weber is a good prototype for a defenseman, as is Nik Lidstrom, but really, it’s about having guys that are dangerous in every zone.

    And if we believe we need a “shutdown” pairing, it shouldn’t come from hitting alone, but speed, size and a strong defensive system.

    If a guy can’t score, he’d better be damned good in his own 100 ft of the ice. Sarich can hit, but he’s no defensive stalwart.

    I don’t want anymore Pardys. I want Brodies.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    This article reminds me about how good the Wings have been since the lockout. To me, it’s a reflection of how far ahead Ken Holland is compared to his peers. The Wings haven’t had a bonified pugilist in years, the don’t have a feared defensemen hitter(a la Regher or Sarich), no real agressive forcheckers like Dustin Brown or Clutterbuck, with a hit first mentality. Physically speaking – no real threats. I’ve never seen anyone accuse the wings of being passive, or soft, but they are feared. The Wings have continued to see success, because they are faster and more skilled than there opponents. The game has changed, and the type of player that is effective has too.

    Nice to see a different angle here Justin. Good read.

  • thymebalm

    This doesn’t have to do with the article, but does anyone know if Sportsnet is showing any of the Abbotsford vs Toronto Marlies AHL playoff series on any of it’s regional channels?

  • everton fc

    If they bring back the red line… Sarich would not be so adversely affected by the speed of today’s game.

    Like Stevie Y, I support the return of the red line. And with a red line on the ice, I thinK Sarich is a decent 6-7 d-man for the Flames next season.

    All that said, I have been thinking about Shane O’Brien in the same role. Allen would also be an okay fit here, in a similar/same role.

  • everton fc

    Don’t know. But Danny Taylor’s play seems to be impressive. I wonder if we trade Kipper and give Leland a whirl… Would Taylor get an opportunity to back Leland up?

    I know… an insane gamble…

    Also – Kolanos keeps scoring… As does Walter… and now Nemisz…

    Good to see.