Monday, February 2, 2009

Energy Guys, Agitators, Pests (and Enforcers)

Just as the Cal Clutterbuck love fest was getting up to warp speed, one of the engines fails.

Having just garnered the ultimate endorsement - a lambasting by Don Cherry on HNIC - Cal then went out and boarded Alex Burrows in the Wild's game against the Canucks on Saturday night. He earned a 5 and a gamer for his troubles, an early shower and the consternation of Wild fans who now must ask themselves if their new hero is truly heroic, or just another Matty (Cooke)-come-lately.

The main questions before Wild fans in L'affaire Clutterbuck are whether or not Cal should take off his helmet when he fights (he wears a visor), and whether or not he deserves to be placed on a higher pedestal than some of the dirty, cowardly players in the league.

Given how his old man apparently hammered respect into Cal's brain, I am not surprised in the least that he has fought a few times this season.

One of the rites of passage of moving up to the big leagues for a player with Cal's skillset SHOULD be having to establish your manhood by dropping the mitts a few times.

Just because the Ruutus, Cookes, etc of the league haven't fought very often doesn't mean they weren't challenged to - or should have, if they cared about being respected by their peers, that is.

The fact that Cal is willing to man up and answer the bell that is going to be rung simply by his playing this way separates him from that other class of player in my book.

Should he have to take off his pot to fight even when his opponent chickens out and refuses to (looking at you Keith Yandle)? No.

On the other hand, and not to be a Burrows apologist, I challenge any of you to stand along the boards in a hockey game, see an opposing player coming in to check you, and NOT want to turn away from that player to protect your face and absorb the hit with your back.

Now, I fully accept that some of these guys are doing it because they know they can get away with it and draw a penalty. And maybe (subconsciously?) they're hiding behind the "it's a natural protective reaction" thing. And that's obviously lame with a capital L. And, there is certainly an element of these players taking their careers (not to mention their lives) for granted by tempting hockey Darwinism by intentionally putting themselves in harm's way (getting boarded head-first being more dangerous than getting your back slammed into the glass, or so goes the theory, anyway.)

But since you could never legislate that, much less accurately judge whether or not that's what's going through that player's mind at that moment (Ref: "Hey, were you trying to draw a penalty or where you just trying to protect yourself?" Player: "I was just trying to protect myself." Ref: "Good enough for me...",) the only action available is to continue to penalize the hitter, not the hittee.

And it seems like Cal admitted as much, saying, "It’s probably my fault for continuing on with it even though I knew who I was going to hit."

If Cal had pulled back from Burrows on that play, would JL have reamed him when he got back to the bench? Probably not. And that should be enough to justify the penalty (actually, since Burrows was bloodied on the play, THAT was enough to justify the major; the gamer, though, was at the discretion of the refs.)

So, what is the difference between a pest, an agitator and an energy guy?

To me, and this is by no means either scientific or definitive, an energy guy today is a 3rd liner, good for 15 minutes of hard skating, dumping and chasing and then nailing the defenseman in the corner, 10 goals a season, will fight when necessary and they'll get some PK time. They're not really going to engage in egregious extracurricular activities - unless it's called for by the situation. And, when it is, they're not going to wait until the linesmen are there to throw a (gloved) punch at their adversary.

In the salary cap world, you're going to have to have a couple of these guys and you're going to need them to be willing to play for relatively cheap money. You like to be able to put them out there right after a goal, or as the final step before having to pull your goalie when the team is flat. Bonus points if your energy guys are among the vocal leaders in the room/on the bench. These are honorable, honest, respectful hockey players who realize they don't have top six skills, but also that they can absolutely contribute in their own way. They are also known as "heart and soul" guys or "lunch pail" guys. Examples: Ian Laperriere, Ethan Moreau.

Agitators, to me, are a step down the evolutionary ladder. These are guys with the skills to hold down a NHL job (albeit on the fourth line) and warrant single-digit minutes per game, maybe chipping in single-digit goals. But, perhaps due to a numbers game (only so many minutes to go around,) or perhaps because their brain gets in their way, they don't. These are the guys that can't back down from a challenge, as long as their boyz (or the zebras) are there to make sure they don't get into any real trouble. They'll trash talk, but they won't back it up. They'll drop, but only if they get caught, and then it'll be a bunch of co-jersey adjusting and the odd-open hand slap. There isn't a lot of honor amongst agitators, but they leave fans shaking their heads because you just know they could be so much more. Examples: Alex Burrows, Matt Cooke.

Finally, the pest. The pest is an agitator sans natural ability. The pest is only there to get under the opponent's skin. Put them out there on a power play and they'd look like a deer in headlights. They are guys whose jobs wouldn't survive contraction. Whether out of cowardice or lack of honor, they won't fight. The pest may also have enough ability to lay claim to the agitator role, but are so obviously disrespecful of the game that they void that claim. Example: Jarkko Ruutu.

Now, there is a separate class of player reserved for the true enforcers. The difference between a pest and an enforcer is that the enforcer respects the game, and willingly fights. These are the mid-single-digit minutes, bench door openers who won't get a sniff when the game's on the line. Examples: Derek Boogaard, Zach Stortini, Chris Neil.

Obviously there is some blurring of the lines here. Like everything in hockey, there's no clear cut delineation between whether a player is part of one group or another. I mean, Sidney Crosby has a fighting major on his record, for the love of God. And I am pretty sure Colton Orr has scored a couple goals in his career (actually, he has scored 4.)

But, in addition to trying to outline the caste system among the lower lines on a hockey team, the point of this exercise is that you can have a player that conducts himself in an honorable manner - which is not to say Lady Byng-worthy manner - even the vast majority of the time, but who makes the odd bad decision without it totally ruining his rep. It's not like Alex Ovechkin scores on every shot he takes.



Ms. Conduct said...

Good stuff, Nick. And I guess the thing I've always loved about Cal is that he really defies categorization. He's a pest, he's an agitator, he's an energy guy, he runs his mouth, he hits hard, he fights if he must, he defends his teammates, AND he's a definite offensive threat because of that sniper's touch and instinct to put the puck on the net.

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