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November 21, 2019
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The NHL’s three tiers of hatred

The NHL's three tiers of hatred
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I watched a Los Angeles Kings vs. Calgary Flames game this week. Not by mistake. Not because I fell asleep with Center Ice streaming. I watched it because of pure, uncut, mutual animosity.

The rivalry between Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk managed to surpass the trash-talk-laden hype leading up to the game. It’s a feud that has spanned a few seasons. Doughty, who once said he has no respect for Tkachuk, recently said, “I think we both know who the better player is, so if he wants to compliment me first, I’ll give him one back.”

Tkachuk had two goals and an assist, including the tying goal late in the third period. Doughty had two assists and the winning goal in the 3-on-3 overtime.

“When you buy a ticket, you’re going to watch those two closely,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “Nobody went home disappointed with Doughty or Tkachuk’s performances tonight.”

Well, maybe Flames fans did, depending on their tolerance for theatrics. After Doughty scored in overtime, he skated over to the glass, arms outstretched in an “Are you not entertained?” manner, followed by a discernible (but NHL-endorsed, given the league’s reaction) pro wrestling crotch chop. Doughty further got his WWE on by cupping his glove to his ear to capture every jeer being showered upon him from the crowd.

“As much as I love getting booed every time I touch the puck, you kind of want to shove it in their faces,” Doughty said.

Yes! This is exactly what should happen in hockey. Emotions. Anger. Hatred. Stakes. The personal rivalry is real, and it made the team rivalry simmer.

Hate sells. Not the prefab forced rivalries that network marketing departments try to shoehorn into a random night of the week, but the real animosity that arises from playing the game at its most competitive level.

As mentioned on ESPN On Ice this week, there are three tiers of player vs. player hatred:

Tier 1: Competitive juices. These are the rivalries borne out of pure competition. I’d put Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby in this one. They were born into a rivalry as rookies, playing for two franchises that already had heat in the Capitals and Penguins, respectively. But their hatred was purely competitive, based on accomplishments. It’s the kind of rivalry that can eventually get to the point where the two currently reside: off-ice camaraderie. Especially when they’re just sitting on the boards, watching the young’uns during the All-Star skills competition.

Tier 2: On-ice animosity. This is like a Tier 1 rivalry but with the existence of a pest as an accelerant. Brad Marchand and P.K. Subban are a good example during their brief “frenemies” feud when the latter was with the Montreal Canadiens. This is also where Doughty vs. Tkachuk resides. They poke and prod on and off the ice, taking a competitive rivalry and turning it supernova.

Tier 3: Actual IRL hatred. The thing about Doughty vs. Tkachuk is that it’s mostly about what happens on the ice. Contrast that with the most intense player vs. player rivalry in the NHL right now, the SharksEvander Kane vs. the Golden KnightsRyan Reaves. They trash-talk like few do — Reaves has called Kane “weak”; Kane once called Reaves “the muffin man” after a fight — and their hatred extends well beyond the rink. “We haven’t liked each other for a long time,” Reaves said. “I don’t think me and Kane are getting a beer anytime soon.”

Their feud has helped amplify the league’s best rivalry: San Jose and Vegas. So did that controversial major penalty on the Knights when Joe Pavelski cracked his head on the ice in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs last season, with the man advantage leading to a historic Sharks rally.

These flashpoints can change the trajectory of a feud: Recall Claude Lemieux‘s hit on Kris Draper in the 1996 Western Conference final, which set the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings on a bloody, brutal, yearslong rivalry that would define the 1990s for the NHL as much as the trap did.

And, in the process, created appointment viewing for fans.

The NHL is better when teams and players lean into the hate. When Marchand gets hated for licks and sticks on opponents. When Tom Wilson of the Capitals gets hated for taking out foes with borderline hits. Even in small doses, it’s such a catalyst: Would James Neal have scored six goals in three games were it not for his palpable animosity for the way in which he was treated by the Flames last season? (Of course, skating with Connor McDavid helps, too.)

I wish we had more hate in this league. I wish these guys didn’t all have the same agent or all hang out at Biosteel camp every offseason. I wish the NHL were more like the NBA, wherein the players can be defined by their interpersonal rivalries. It seems like every pair of teams have their own Doughty/Tkachuk, to the point that entire lists are compiled around NBA social media beefs.

I realize this is treacherous territory, when I start hoping that the NHL could be more like the NBA, because some hockey fans have this archaic notion that individualism and ego are somehow antithetical to the game’s alleged virtues. But in the constant search for ways to create a buzz for hockey, there are few more effective than good old-fashioned hatred and the theatricality that comes from it.

I watched the Kings and Flames this week. I watched Matthew Tkachuk on a mission to annoy. I watched Drew Doughty, fueled by snarky animosity, play the heel. And they’re going to get me to watch again.


Jersey Fouls

From Brad:

This Blues fan has decided to celebrate many of the Nos. 7 in franchise history: Red Berenson, Garry (sp) Unger, Joey Mullen and Keith “Walt” Tkachuk. Forget the Patrick Maroon snub — this disrespect for Cliff Ronning and Nelson Emerson will not stand!


Three concerns about the Penguins

The Winnipeg Jets had the honor of embarrassing two different Metro Division teams in the past week. They rallied from a four-goal deficit to beat the New Jersey Devils in a shootout on their opening night, and then they humbled an already humbled (thanks to injuries) Pittsburgh Penguins team despite having a blue line consisting of Neal Pionk and five non-playable characters.

(I don’t want to say that the Jets’ defense was decimated by departures and injuries, but it was one scratch from re-signing Teppo Numminen.)

The loss stung for the Penguins. Yes, they were missing Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad, but a critical assessment of the roster indicated they might not have made much of a difference. Here are three concerns about the Penguins, early on:

1. They acquired the wrong speed. To his credit, GM Jim Rutherford identified a deficiency in the offseason and addressed it. “We lost our speed,” Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We lost our depth at forward over that period of time. Now, we’re back. We should have good speed and the type of player who can bring the determination. … We have to see how it all comes together over time. How much does everybody like each other? How hard are they going to play for each other and support each other? That’s what every team looks for. We’re in a much stronger position for that to happen now.”

They added Brandon Tanev, Dominik Kahun, Alex Galchenyuk, Marcus Pettersson, Bjugstad and Jared McCann in the past year. Some of these players would be OK pieces on better teams, but on the Penguins, they’re being asked to play bigger roles. Bjugstad hasn’t hit 20 goals since 2015. Galchenyuk hasn’t since 2016. Maybe they’re solid investments for pieces that no longer fit (Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan), but it feels like the rest of the conference is buying Fortune 500 stock while the Penguins are playing hunches.

2. The defense was never addressed. Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz are keepers. The rest of the blue line, not so much. Rutherford acquired Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and, according to recent reports, is trying to trade both. The Penguins were 22nd in expected goals against since the last month of last season. The group lacks anything close to quality depth.

3. They picked the wrong goalie. Not to pick at this wound again, but Marc-Andre Fleury has an expected goals saved above average of 22.17 since 2016, while Matt Murray is at minus-9.22, per Evolving Hockey. Yes, there are mitigating circumstances, including Murray’s health and other factors. But he’s one Tristan Jarry hot streak away from not being the starter, while Fleury is the backbone of a Cup contender. Yes, it’s revisionist history. But the debate rages.

Rutherford has earned his grace period. He built back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. NHL equilibrium dictates that those who orchestrate the rise are usually there for the fall. This season seems like it could be a stumble, especially given the injuries. Next summer, he’ll have some salary-cap space to work with. The Penguins might not make the cut this season, but don’t write them off. Rutherford just needs to continue to fix some of his mistakes.


Winners and Losers of the Week

Winner: Buffalo Sabres

No, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen them sprint out of the gate. But under Ralph Krueger, they look more cohesive and a lot tougher to play against. The fact that they’ve done this with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner on different lines is impressive. We’re not sure if this just means they’re a bubble team vs. a basement team, but so far, so fun.

Loser: New Jersey Devils

A pathetic blown four-goal lead against the Jets on home ice was the appetizer for getting outscored by a combined 11-2 against the Sabres and Flyers. In other words, they’ve been outscored 15-2 since opening the season with a 4-0 lead. They’re a structural mess, getting outpossessed dramatically. Jack Hughes looks overmatched. John Hynes was given a contract extension in January. Good times.

Winner: James Neal

As mentioned before, the “Real Deal” turned his angst in Calgary into a volcanic start with the Oilers, with six goals in three games. He felt he was never given a chance to shine under Bill Peters. Edmonton put him with Connor McDavid. He’s shining.

Loser: Milan Lucic

Sure, James Neal is leading the NHL in goals scored. Well, the guy he was traded for leads the NHL with 26 penalty minutes. No points. But lots of PIMs. Which was the point for the Flames, we guess.

Winner: Gritty

This is just savage:

Loser: Eugene Melnyk

While this could be a listing for any week, we’ll pop the Senators’ owner here, both for Katie Baker’s “yes, even worse than Daniel Snyder” column and people being so desperate for him to sell the team they invented a granddaughter for New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft who might buy the Ottawa Senators.


Listen to ESPN On Ice

New! Emily Kaplan and I chat with Matt Duchene of the Nashville Predators, talk NHL player rivalries, overreact to early returns and more! Listen here.


Puck Headlines

Looking at the convoluted history of the Winnipeg JetsHeritage Classic jerseys.

Steven Stamkos attempts to rally the Lightning, or at least prevent them from making the same mistakes. ($)



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