It’s been an interesting week for the Calgary Flames and Milan Lucic. On Saturday in Columbus, Lucic had a physical altercation stemming from a player poking at his goaltender for a loose puck. On Sunday, Lucic was suspended for two games by the National Hockey League’s Department of Player Safety for the degree to which he got physical.
Sticking up for teammates isn’t a completely black and white set of circumstances, so it’s completely natural to feel a bit conflicted about how the weekend played out.
The 2018-19 Flames were a talented hockey club. They were superb in the regular season. They won a ton of games. They scored a ton of goals. Then they kinda got pushed around by a larger Colorado Avalanche squad in the first round of the playoffs. There are many reasons why the Flames lost in five games: the physical aspect of the series is one of them.
Hockey’s version of justice can be a bit dumb and primitive at times, but it usually boils down to this: if you step over the line, you better be prepared to fight. In previous seasons the Flames were criticized by some for their lack of physical response to, say, Johnny Gaudreau getting slashed on his hands to the extent he had to miss games. When the Flames signed James Neal, the logic was likely “Hey, he’ll score a ton of goals and if he doesn’t he’ll help add to team toughness.”
Now, the Flames probably would rather not have Sam Bennett or Matthew Tkachuk fight anymore. And it’s great that Travis Hamonic is willing to do it, but as perhaps the best defensive defender on his team he’s much more valuable on the ice than in the penalty box (or injured). Garnet Hathaway was the ideal pugilist: a bottom six forward on an inexpensive contract with a playing style more defined by his physicality and work ethic than dazzling skill. Simply put: if penalized or injured, Hathaway could be more readily replaced than most other Flames fighters.
That brings us to Lucic. Acquired from Edmonton in a “we’ll take your problem contract if you’ll take ours” swap for Neal, he’s been used in a bottom six role with his playing style being built around bashing and bruising, not sick dekes or sweet goals. He’s in Calgary to be a good teammate and to help out where he can.
David Rittich has been the Flames’ best player through their first 17 games. If you go by who we give the Red Warrior award to after each game, it’s not even a contest. It’s also probably safe to say that the Flames were rather miffed when Rittich got jabbed in the groin region by Erik Haula and nobody got penalized. They were probably furious when Carolina scored on the very next shift, because it’s not a stretch to imagine that Rittich’s ability to play the position might have been diminished given what had just happened to him. (That goal was the difference in a game the Flames lost.)
So a couple games later when Kole Sherwood jabbed at Rittich in a pretty similar circumstance, it’s understandable to see Lucic stick up for his teammate. (He may have also been trying to redeem himself after the turnover that led to Sherwood’s scoring chance.)
I’ve read the concussion literature. I’m familiar with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and the long-term brain issues a lot of former NHL players are experiencing. I’ve read the concussion lawsuit. Punching Sherwood in the face when the rookie was seemingly not sure what was going to happen – and probably didn’t even think to defend himself – was definitely crossing the line and deserved some kind of admonishment. But in the context of a Flames team that is still grappling with some compositional issues – their big players aren’t skilled and their skilled players aren’t big – having a teammate feel compelled to stick up for their goalie is a good thing in the wider view of things. Gaudreau, Andrew Mangiapane and Mikael Backlund won’t grow six inches over the season and it’s better to have Lucic sitting in the box (or on the sidelines) than Tkachuk or Bennett.
It’s easy to identify and endorse Lucic’s decision to engage with Sherwood as a means to telling the rest of the league “hey, stop poking our goalie.” It’s also natural to be taken aback a bit by the sheer force of Lucic’s defense. The rulebook, both regular penalties and supplemental discipline, is meant to mould player conduct: while they don’t want players stabbing at prone goaltenders with their sticks, they likely also don’t want unsuspecting players getting punched in the face, either.
Lucic hasn’t been an amazing Flame offensively, but he seems to be trying his best to contribute in whatever way he can. Seeing him engaging physically with the opposition so that his teammates don’t have to is part and parcel of what he’s bringing to the table. Getting penalties or suspensions may, unfortunately, be the price the club pays for his positive contributions. As observers of the team, we don’t need to love everything he does. One just hopes that the ways he helps the team makes up for the times he steps over the line.