by SENShobo on 11/03/10 at 12:15 PM ET
It didn’t take long for Chris Neil’s cheap shots towards Boston’s Seidenberg in the dying minutes of Ottawa’s 4-0 loss to Boston on Saturday to make news.
Less so because of the incident or the players dressed that night, and instead because of a few comments from Neil’s former teammate, Brian McGrattan (from TSN),
“I heard about it,” McGrattan told Boston.com. “That’s typical Chris Neil. I had to protect that guy for three years when I was there. He’d do that and I’d have to fight all his battles for him the next time we’d play a team after he’d do something stupid like that. It doesn’t surprise me.”
“That’s the way he does it,” McGrattan told Boston.com. “He’ll do something where he knows he’ll get kicked out of the game and won’t have to come back and fight anybody. I’ve been around him long enough to know he does that. Then I’m the one who usually has to fight his battles the next time. It’s typical.”
Quickly, as happens in the hockey universe, voices came out both for and against his comments (sometimes both from the same place). Set aside for a moment the question of whether or not agitators have a place in the game, which I’ll get to at the end, and ask yourself whether or not McGrattan’s role helped Neil; to look at the numbers, was McGrattan even right?
As far as the NHL has come, from tracking the plus minus stat to looking at advanced statistical undertakings such as Corsi numbers and Goals Vs. Threshold, there are always intangibles and things that can’t be measured. Acknowledging that, numbers can draw some effective pictures for you.
Take McGrattan’s comments. While you can’t easily determine if his fights were spurned by Neil’s actions in the previous game, at the heart of the thought is the notion that Neil won’t fight or back up his agitating. But Neil most definitely fights, so let’s have a look at his battles while playing with McGrattan as his teammate, courtesy HockeyFights.com.
In their first season together, the post-lockout year, Neil fought nine times, and while some may have picked him in the fight, he would also have fought some to stand up for his actions. Seven of those times, McGrattan played and could have fought, but more than half of those times (4), Neil was the only one to drop the gloves. The following season, Neil would fight eight times, with McGrattan present for four of them but only joining in on the glove dropping once. Their final season together, despite playing in three of the nine games in which Neil fought, not once did McGrattan fight. While not a host of Boogaards on the list, neither is it a host of Seidenbergs that Neil took on.
While you could look at the reverse for McGrattan, he was the heavyweight, fighting on behalf of everyone else, and it would be harder to narrow down those numbers to being because of Neil. In the case of Neil’s fights, however, you have to assume that he did something to draw the ire of the opponent and did not back down, or stepped up in place of McGrattan doing so.
The second of McGrattan’s points, that Neil does something to get tossed from the game to avoid having to own up to it, suggesting McGrattan had to mop up the rage with his fists, should bear in mind one little detail: Neil received just a single Game Misconduct in their three years together, against Los Angeles on December 2nd, 2005, for checking from behind. McGrattan would receive a five minute major, but not for fighting, only a little roughhousing after cross-checking Avery. Chara and of all people Kelly were the two who would fight after the bruisers had done their part.
But who should do the fighting, does agitating have a place in the game, and why bother with any of it in the first place? Once again, statistics at least hint at a purpose.
In the years he played alongside McGrattan, Neil had success in his role: a couple 30-point seasons are nothing to scoff at, nor is placing anywhere from 12th to 1st in the entire League in hits. You may notice that Neil’s best season, 2005-06 with its 33 points and 4th overall in hits, occurred when McGrattan fought a whopping 19 times to Neil’s 9. When they evened out to 10-8 and 8-9 in the following seasons, the points dropped off. Maybe that’s what McGrattan was supposed to be doing for Neil and others, and why he was able to get that many fights while averaging less than 50 games and 4 minutes of ice time in each over his three seasons in Ottawa.
Maybe a bit of a stretch, but Neil’s worst season would come in 2008-09, when his 14 fights edged out second place Ruutu’s 4. Suddenly his worst season — 10 points, -13 when he’d been at worst -3 before, and 43rd in hits — isn’t so shocking after all.
Nor is his return to some of his old form in 2009-10, with 22 points, up to just -1, and 8th in hits. Oh, and despite 13 fights, he would now find himself trailing Carkner and his 24.
I’m sure it will be a stretch to some, but I’ll work with what I have. It’s still hard to say that Neil isn’t a more effective player when putting up 33 points compared to 10, or that it isn’t a boost to have him leading the League in hits, something that wouldn’t go unnoticed by players on either bench when he plays.
Nobody is going to argue that Avery quoting Danny from Disney’s Grease in context is helping anyone, but when he’s scoring 20-30 points, or the 7 in 11 so far this year, filling out a roster that can’t be all Crosby’s with him isn’t such a bad proposition. Even the rest of the pest’s game, it’s not all late hits, active sticks, dives, and trash talk, parts of many players on up to (a favourite moniker of others in my area who happen to cheer for the winged wheel) Crysby’s game that has been distilled a bit more in a guy like Neil. Why, if we know the strategic value of an inspirational captain, or the power of the right words — taking as an example Canadiens coach Kirk Muller‘s line during game 7 in round 1 against Pittsburgh last season, “You’re already heroes in Montreal. Are you satisfied with that? Or do you want your legacy to be even greater?” — why can’t we acknowledge the power of some to throw others off their game? It can happen with words, just as it can with a timely hit, a demoralizing shift of a fourth line penning an opponent’s top guns behind their own net, or a crucial goal.
If it only took pure skill to win, then teams would load up all lines and defence pairings, proportionally and still within the salary cap, with nothing but skill. Yet somehow, with a highly skilled but oft-criticized as being too soft roster, I have seen Washington fail in the playoffs, the same as I endured game five of the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals in a bar in Toronto, Giguere’s, Perry’s, and Getzlaf’s play as critical as that of guys like Parros, Pronger and his elbow to concuss McAmmond’s head, and the Moen line. Somehow, Byfuglien will be remembered as much for his goals last spring as for being in Luongo’s kitchen and sleepless nights, standing forever in his crease. Somehow, Matt Cooke has a Stanley Cup ring after playing in the same number of playoff games in 2009 as Sidney Crosby.
Lines get crossed, and this was one such incident on Neil’s part that served no good purpose. There have been and will likely always be other incidents where a coach or Colin Campbell will wish a particular pest had not been on the ice for a particular moment. But there are skilled pests and agitators who are useful in more than one situation, why Avery is 5th in Rangers team scoring and Boogaard averages less than four minutes a night, why Ruutu played more shorthanded minutes per game than any forward not named Chris Kelly for the Senators last season while McGrattan played less than that per game one season in Ottawa.
I was as happy as anyone to see McGrattan get a Gordie Howe hat trick in his third game in a Flames jersey, but that doesn’t mean I agree with him today. Off the ice, in any case, you can be sure that Neil’s doing everything right.
“It’s just a shrug-my-shoulders type of thing,” he said. “I’m not really too concerned. My teammates know the way I play, the whole league knows the way I play. That’s why I’ve been around here for this long, and I’ve got a couple more years left in me, too.
“That’s the way I play. It doesn’t matter who I’m out against. I’m a guy that plays hard, plays tough. It doesn’t matter who if you are. If you punch me a couple of times in the face, you’re going to have to answer the bell.”
Neil also complimented his former teammate, who, since being traded by the Senators to the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008, has also been with the Calgary Flames. He signed with Boston only a few weeks ago. “Brian was a good teammate when he was here,” Neil said. “We got along great. I have nothing bad to say about the guy.
“He has been through a lot of adversity himself. It says a lot about his character to get another opportunity to get in the NHL. He’s just trying to get in the lineup. That’s the way he knows how. He’s a tough customer himself.”
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