Phaneuf-gate .. Dion Has It Right

September 19th, 2009 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

I’ll be the first to admit that the bone jarring hit absorbed by Kyle Okposo on Thursday night was a little tough to watch.

The kid hit a wall, and hit it hard. I cringed. Then I “hooted” and returned to cringing. The last time the Islanders were in town Okposo was quoted in both Calgary papers as idolizing Jarome Iginla growing up. It was a good story, he is a good kid.

You don’t want to see people hurt.

But in the wake of “the hit”, an oddity that it’s being referred to as “the hit” when the man has about a dozen of such on youtube is beyond me, I feel it necessary to put my foot forward and get into the fray as the story itself is getting out of hand.

It’s one thing to see American media on ESPN discussing it when they pronounce the player in question as “fanuf”, their opinion matters little in the discussion.

But when a storied Calgary newspaper writer steps in with a time to man up mantra for #3 I just can’t sit idley by and ignore the argument.

As is it stands the NHL doesn’t have a rule against stopping a player in his tracks in full flight. They’ve toyed with the idea of banning head shots, a tough thing to do in a league that has 5’6″ and 6’9″ players, but to date no rule has been put in place.

This hit was elbows down and feet on the ice.

Dion Phaneuf is an offensive defenseman with a physical side to his game. In the preseason he needs to work on his timing on the powerplay, but he also needs to work on his timing and judgment of opportunity for hits like the one laid down on Thursday. The presence of such a hit in his first turn on the dome ice tells me that that element is being reintroduced to his game, likely by coach Brent Sutter, and a sign of things to come this fall.

In the aftermath Phaneuf had his gloves off and did tangle with a player that came off the bench. It wasn’t a punch up, but his gloves were off and he wrestled the player to the ice. Call answered.

He doesn’t have to take on every jack ass in Islander silks that wants a piece of him any more than Steve Moore should have been forced to fight Todd Bertuzzi in Vancouver 5 years ago after already tangling with Matt Cooke in the first period. He answered the damn call.

The article in the paper today mentions how Denis Gauthier used to have similar incidents but answered the call, and was often handed his face. Not to my recollection. Talk to a few Oiler fans about how often he answered the call and I think you’ll find a few exasperated faces.

A look at theĀ  numbers?

Denis Gauthier played eight seasons in the NHL and had 22 fights, for an average of 2.8 fights per season. Dion Phaneuf has played four seasons in the NHL and has 21 fights. I’m not math wizard but the same number of fights in half the seasons doesn’t suggest to me that it was Gauthier standing in and Phaneuf running like a frightened child.

Scott Stevens is also mentioned. Stevens played 17 seasons and had 4.3 fights per season (73 total). The article suggests that he fought often in his early days thus giving him the room to avoid such later in his career. Well Stevens had a 13 fight season early in his career, while Phaneuf tangled 10 times in one season. Phaneuf’s 5.3 fights per year at this time exceeds Steven’s pace, though Phaneuf will also slow down later in his career.

Clearly I’m not trying to paint Scott Stevens as a player that wasn’t willing to tussle, he was a warrior. But Dion Phaneuf has a pretty solid record of dropping the gloves over his four seasons in the NHL. He’s fought the likes of Bill Guerin, Mark Bell, Barret Jackman, Ethan Moreau, Todd Bertuzzi and Ian Laperriere.

He doesn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud as a player that won’t answer the call of honour in the modern National Hockey League.

Hammer the kid for being a little too cocky off the ice, for not having an answer other than a cliche to the media, for staying on the ice too long on shifts, or for making poor decisions in his own zone resulting in goals; all of which are more fair indictments than to go after his manliness in fisticuffs.

Dion Phaneuf is an elite player by design and pay (and hopefully an elite player in play as early as this season), and thus he’s required to be on the ice for close to half of most games. You can’t do that from the penalty box.

By pushing him into that corner you are either telling him to drop those hits from his repetoire or to hurt his team by answering all invites and spending a lot of time trading off against terrible hockey players from the opposition.

Clearly neither make sense.

He’s a physical defenseman, but he’s also a player that through style and demeanor is a pest that gets under the skin of opposing players. Arrogantly skating away from the odd donney brook adds to that reputation and makes him more effective.

So leave the criticism to the Eastern unwashed, the player shouldn’t have to read that line of diatribe in a hockey market.

Change the rules or leave the player alone.

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