If an NHL player is fortunate enough to have a long career, he will have to make changes to his game as rules and trends change around him. Even a player who does not play for a long time will make adjustments immediately as he enters the League, getting up to NHL speed and building his confidence at this new tempo. One particular aspect of the game can be hazardous in transition, both for a team’s success and the health of players: hits.
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Douglas Murray and San Jose Sharks forwards Tommy Wingels and Raffi Torres shared some thoughts about how and why their own game has changed or will change in the near future. I spoke with Murray back in January, and with Wingels and Torres this month. From what the three said, it doesn’t seem that fear of retribution determines how a player hits another player. No matter what the NHL overseers do or say, the right message needs to come from their team.
Douglas Murray is currently playing his tenth season in the NHL. His reputation for formidable body-checks has contributed to the nick-name “Crankshaft.” Over the years, he has maintained his hard-hitting style while making adjustments as rules change. How hard were those changes to make?
I didn’t find it all that hard. The good thing for me, compared to maybe a younger guy is that once the rules came around I was a fairly established player in the league and they knew what I brought. I didn’t have that pressure to … make an impression, looking for that hit that’s going to make me noticed as a guy who’s supposed to be physical and defense-oriented. For a young guy to come in and do that is a lot harder I think.
Asked what the keys are to a good, clean hit, Murray said:
One key is respecting the game and its rules. I take a lot of pride– whether it’s hitting or my overall play– in not taking a lot of penalties because that hurts your team a lot.
If you go back to when I first got into the league, I had hits that I would be suspended for today, because the rules were different. You were allowed to blindside a guy as long as long as he had the puck.
Murray mentioned famous hits by Scott Stevens as examples, hits on Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya and Slava Kozlov.
So you just have to change with the times. It’s done in steps too. First it was you can hit a guy square on the chest. And I know exactly one hit that I would be suspended for today, a Chipchura hit, that was legal before … the first rule change. But now you can’t have the head as the principle contact. Just got to be respectful, and try to make a fair hit. That’s all.
Respect is a word that we hear frequently in discussions of hazardous or reckless hits. What is it?
Either you have it or you don’t I guess. Some people are respectful, some people are not. The guys that keep doing it all the time…
It’s really good to see certain players changing too. Take a guy that I played with that was a villain in this league, Matt Cooke, when I played with him in Pittsburgh. He really changed his game around. He said it himself: “I need to change.” He didn’t change with the rules, but I think Pittsburgh as an organization did a good job as far as supporting him and helping him in that change.
I think… a lot of guys do it, keep doing the bad hits because they think they’ve got to do it to stay in the league, to keep their jobs. I think if the clubs help these players to change and support them through it I think it’s a lot more effective.
Before, a player might have broken the rules out of fear of losing his job. Murray believes that the opposite is becoming more true now.
Just play within the rules and you keep your job. People have always gone a little bit over the line because that’s your job. It’s a tough business. It’s a tough business to get in and it’s a tough business to stay in, so everybody’s going to try to do that little extra to keep them around.
Tommy Wingels entered the NHL five seasons after Douglas Murray did. The first time he was called up, he only played five games, and got credit for a paltry six hits. The next season, he played 33 games and got credit for 102 hits. That put him fourth on his team for the season, with everyone ahead of him playing 60 or more games. Since then, he has lead the Sharks in hits by a sizable margin. His game has also developed depth, revealing skill and versatility that are earning a steadily increasing number of points. But those hits are still important:
I think, I enjoy the physical part of the game and I think that is part of what makes me effective as a player. So I need to continue to do that, whether it brings energy, or creates turnovers or creates space for myself, it’s an effective part of my game.
Asked about the role that respect plays in the game, Wingels said:
I just think… our game happens so quickly and there are times where maybe someone is in a vulnerable position, or you know that a situation is going to be…a vulnerable situation will arise. At times you’ve got to stay aggressive but you have to be aware of where guys are on the ice, of your positioning. I think a lot of it is on the player giving the hit but at the same time you know the guy receiving, you don’t know what he’s going to do at the last second, so you’ve got to be prepared both ways.
During the lockout, he played in Finland and was suspended for a hit on Sami Kautto. Did the suspension in Finland have a lasting influence on his game?
No, not at all. I think whether I was a bit high in that situation I don’t know but I play physical, it’s the way I like to play the game. Like I said you’ve got to be clean about it. You know, keep your arms, elbows, shoulders down but it doesn’t change I think if guys get a penalty, or I think multiple suspensions maybe you change the way, but you’ve got to still play aggressive.
Experience has bred confidence and accuracy in all aspects of Wingels’ game. Where his physical style might contribute to a relatively high number of penalty minutes, his points are rising at an equal rate. It took time to develop this increasingly seamless blend of physicality and offense. Adapting his game to the NHL was a process of honing his instincts:
As you become more experienced and feel more comfortable, things become second nature. At times when you’re first up here, in the NHL, you give yourself a mental checklist: one, two things I want to do every shift. As you get more experienced, comfortable, that kind of eliminates itself, you kind of do it second nature, your instincts and skills take over.
Raffi Torres returned to the Sharks lineup this week. He was sidelined by a knee injury sustained in a pre-season game. Before that, he missed the Sharks’ last 2013 playoff games due to a suspension for a hit on Jarret Stoll. His priorities coming back after the long absence were all about staying in the game:
Ultimately I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a force out there and to be on my game. But I understand that it’s a process and it takes some time and I’m cool with that. What I’ve been working on, is to kind of like hey, if things aren’t going right it’s okay, you know, just keep getting better. Play the right position, play the right zones of the area, try not to run around out there too much and just kind of, you know, play the game.
There is no escaping the fact that hits are an important part of Torres’ game. What goes into a good hit?
Just be explosive, you know. For me personally, with my track record, I usually get in trouble when the hits are a little bit high, more of that east-west clipping hit. That’s something I’m just going to have to try and veer off of, you know. It’s more, for me, it’s just kind of focus on stick on puck and rubbing guys out as opposed to going for the big hit right now.
The adjustments Torres needs to make are not all subtractions:
There’s days when I don’t have my legs and those are probably days when I’m a little bit more physical… When I have my legs I feel like I can make plays, skating up the ice, holding on to the puck a little bit more. So I think there’s a few different things I can do to help out this team.
Indeed there are. A strong skater, a big body that is hard to push around, and an awareness of how to read a play can easily be adapted to other purposes than big hits. Coincidentally, his team is in need of scoring right now. Two goals in his first game back is an excellent start.
Torres has gone through this process before, staying out of trouble for long stretches. Only time will tell whether he has put the recklessness behind him, and whether his team has sent the correct message clearly enough.