We’re just about two months away from the start of the new NHL season and a drop in free agent signings and trades has ushered in a wave of preview and predictions for the upcoming campaign. One of the main story lines from last year that is still ongoing is Sidney Crosby’s questionable health after suffering multiple concussions.
Crosby is arguably one of the greatest in the game right now and to see him become the next “star who could have been” because of his injuries would be an outcome that no one is hoping for. While Crosby has been practicing and expects to make a return to the lineup by opening night, there are still many questions surrounding the Penguins’ captain.
Most notably is, how can this be prevented in the future?
Many fans of hockey know the importance of each player’s role on a team. Some may argue that the goalie is the most important, being the last line of defense, and in many instances the best overall talent, on their team. Others may argue that the defensive pairings or scoring leaders are the players that lead towards success. However, there is another vital role that seems to be overlooked in many instances: the enforcer.
Toughness and grit are as much a part of hockey as sticks and pucks, and when used correctly they can be very important to a team’s overall play. Some teams use their enforcers for intimidation, others use them to amp up the other players following a board-rattling hit. These may help the morale and intensity of the game, but enforcers are best used as protection.
Wayne Gretzky had McSorley, Bobby Clarke had Dave Schultz and Darryl Sittler had Tiger Williams, to name a few examples. Who does Crosby have? Well, that seems to be the million dollar question.
Pesky little forward Matt Cooke led Pittsburgh in trips to the sin bin this past season, so could we say that he should be stepping up and protecting his captain? Unlikely. His mark of 129 penalty minutes, also his career high, isn’t even a third of the 472 that Dave Schultz racked up protecting the Flyers en route to a Stanley Cup. Sure Schultz fought to intimidate other players, but he also did it to show the other team that his Flyers weren’t there to screw around. No, I believe that Matt Cooke is more of a pest than the answer to Crosby’s problems.
Crosby’s problems are also very much Pittsburgh’s problems as there may not be a suitable enforcer who is available in the league. In fact the enforcer role that McSorley, Schultz and Williams portrayed so well may only be part of NHL history now as the most physically dominant in the league are either in that category because of their size as opposed to their edge like Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Philadelphia’s Chris Pronger. On the other side of the spectrum, the guys leading the league in penalty minutes would be considered pesky thugs as opposed to enforcers. In short, it’s slim pickings for superstar protection these days.
Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero added some depth to the club in free agency and is excited for the return of his star forwards, but he must also address the overwhelming lack of muscle on his team. Every other team’s enforcers will be gunning for Sid the Kid come October and unless he has some protection, Penguins fans could be feeling some intense deja vu come wintertime.