Monday, May 27, 2024
Seventeen years and over 1,200 games ago, Andrew Cogliano remembers how difficult it was to traverse the state of California. The Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and San Jose Sharks were three of the biggest, heaviest teams in the league. If you had to play all three in succession? Good luck. Not only were those teams willing to play a punishing brand of hockey, but they were all highly skilled and generally successful, too.

After a few years in Edmonton where he broke into the league, Cogliano was dealt to the Ducks as a free agent in the summer of 2011 and was part of a team that qualified for the playoffs in six straight seasons from 2012-13 through 2017-18. Those California road trips became regular intrastate battles. And they were vicious.

“My first couple years in Anaheim, physicality was one of the biggest things talked about in terms of game-planning,” Cogliano said. “We used to play L.A. and San Jose and have just wars in terms of physicality.”

There are several ways NHL teams can be physical. One of them, of course, is throwing devastating body checks that can have the effect of both separating the opponent from the puck and making him more trepidatious when he’s heading into a corner or stick-handling through the neutral zone with his head down.

No one denies that body checking is still an important part of today’s game, and can often be a key to success, particularly in the playoffs. But Cogliano admits that hitting, and the fear of being hit, has declined since he was a rookie or when he was in the thick of those California clashes. There’s less of an emphasis on that part of the game coming up as a kid and teenager through developmental leagues, he figures. And it’s noticeable when he’s on the ice, now as a veteran forward with the Colorado Avalanche.

“When kids are growing up now, they’re probably less talking about being physical and more about playing with the puck — skill and talent,” he said. “I just think that the (way the) league is now, there’s probably just more room out there.”

Winnipeg Jets defenseman Brenden Dillon, one of the more feared hitters in the league, agreed with Cogliano’s rationale.

“The new-age player, definitely there’s more emphasis on the skill and the stick-handling and the shooting than it is on the body contact,” Dillon said. “Guys that are coming into the league, there’s definitely less physical players.”

The result, according to former Blues and Flyers coach Craig Berube, is that young players today are less equipped to deal with the potential of getting run over by those who, like the 33-year-old Dillon, 12th in the league in hits since 2015-16, still adhere to the seek-and-destroy philosophy.

“One hundred percent,” Berube said in an interview prior to being fired in St. Louis. “There’s not big hits (in junior and minor leagues). It’s just the way hockey has been played and how they’ve been taught. They don’t have much awareness for that.”

John Tortorella touched a nerve throughout the NHL community following a collision in a Flyers-Devils game last month, when Garnet Hathaway was issued a five-minute major and game misconduct for plowing into Luke Hughes, temporarily sending the young defenseman to the dressing room for repairs.

The Flyers coach was upset that linesman Brandon Grillo blew the whistle too late on a potential icing (something confirmed by replays). He argued it wasn’t Hathaway’s fault; that he was simply finishing his check on the rookie in an attempt to gain possession.

The next day, after time to reflect, Tortorella mentioned he was thankful Hughes didn’t suffer any significant injury on the play. But he also used the opportunity from his news conference pulpit to offer some deeper thoughts on the state of hitting in today’s NHL.

“That’s a problem in our league right now. Our players in this league do not put enough emphasis on making sure you’re protecting yourself from hits like that — making sure you absorb hits like that,” he said. “We’ve kind of tried to turn this league into a No Hit League. Now people aren’t ready to be hit. I think it’s a lost art in how you take hits. I do think looking at the clip, (Hughes) thinks it’s icing.

“There is nothing wrong with the play. It shouldn’t even have been a penalty. It screams to the athletes in our game, be prepared to be hit because big hits are allowed. Nowadays, I’m not so… 

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