By Damien Cox
It’s not exactly clear what Jordan Binnington was doing. Or thinking.
On Saturday night in San Jose, the St. Louis Blues goalie was yanked after allowing four goals on 19 shots, then seemed to lose his mind in a fashion rarely seen before by an NHL goalie.
It kind of made you laugh. You know, like old video of Mike Milbury in skates climbing into the stands at Madison Square Garden to club a patron with his own shoe.
At the Sharks’ home arena, the benches are too small for the backup goalie to sit with his teammates. Instead, he’s in a corridor on the other side of the ice. So when a goalie, Binnington in this case, is pulled he has to go through the ignominious process of skating across the entire ice surface, like a pitcher slowly walking to the dugout after being given the hook.
Binnington wasn’t in the mood for it. As he was leaving the ice he first stopped in front of the Sharks bench and took a poke at defenceman Radim Simek. Then he headed diagonally across the ice and took a swipe at Erik Karlsson.
Then he made a beeline for San Jose goalie Devan Dubnyk. The two came together and exchanged high sticks and gloves to the face, then Binnington skated off.
“I guess he was frustrated,” said Dubnyk. “I just told him to get off the ice and calm down. He’s 160 pounds and he’s out there swinging at guys like — I mean, we all get frustrated.”
The Blues were down 4-3 at the time. Naturally, when they stormed back to win a wild one by a 7-6 score, Binnington was given credit for “showing emotion” and “firing up his teammates.”
“He’s a fiery guy,” said Blues head coach Craig Berube. “He was trying to rally the team.”
Fair enough. Hockey history is written by the winners.
But it did raise the issue of emotion in hockey, particularly these days where comparing the NHL of today to the bench-clearing days of the 1970s is like comparing Formula One cars to the Model T. Montreal defenceman Ben Chiarot, who will never be mistaken for Tiger Williams, leads the NHL with 39 penalty minutes. In a full 82-game season, that would work out to about 160 minutes. A decade ago, Zenon Konopka led the league with 307 minutes.
That’s the kind of league it is now. There were 12 fights in 62 games last week, less than one every five games.
The enforcers are mostly gone, and there aren’t as many pests. The Tkachuk brothers, Matthew and Brady, stand pretty much on their own when it comes to players who actively seek to disturb every shift. With those two, every shift is an exercise in extra-curricular activities of some kind. They’re a high-event game all on their own.
When Matthew’s Flames met Brady’s Senators twice last week, there was all kinds of chatter about what might happen. Even their mother was worried. But all remained quiet.
Still, the brothers certainly stand out as unusual characters these days. It raises the question: Could one of them play for the Maple Leafs, the nicest team in hockey?
The obvious answer is yes, because they’re both elite players. Kyle Dubas would take one or both in a heartbeat. But would the Leafs embrace all the nonsense and showmanship and after-the-whistle stuff? Or would the Leafs love to have a goalie like Binnington who might lose his marbles after getting pulled?
Right now, the Leafs play a game in which they are only interested in activities that result in two things: taking the puck away from the opposition, and scoring. When it comes to all the other things traditionally associated with this full-contact sport — fighting, roughing, pushing and shoving after the whistle, “standing up” for a wronged teammate — they show no interest whatsoever.
It drives some of their fans crazy.
Analysts opine between periods about emotion and the importance of a physical response to all adversity. On “Hockey Night in Canada,” analyst Kevin Bieksa, a feisty player in his day, constantly urges the Leafs and all other teams to respond to every perceived slight. He means it honestly. That’s how he played the game, and he was a heckuva player.
The Leafs, however, just play. The most “fire” you’ll see from them is what you saw on Saturday night in Edmonton when they were obviously thrilled goalie Jack Campbell got the win. Beyond that, they play with an unusual aloofness, particularly for a first-place team.
You saw full evidence of that when they took no penalties against the Oilers in a much-hyped game. At one point William Nylander was pinned against the boards after he moved the puck, but he didn’t push back. He just waited to be released. Alex Kerfoot got punched in the chest after the whistle by Darnell Nurse. He just stood there. No teammate jumped in to assist.
The Leafs don’t have a pest-like player. The closest thing is Zach Hyman, and that’s more because he just won’t turn his engine off. Wayne Simmonds had a fight earlier in the year, and the Leafs have three of those. Zach Bogosian occasionally gets a little ornery, but these days he’s more noticeable for the surprising skill he’s bringing to the Leafs’ third defence pair.
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Auston Matthews is hitting a little more. But after all the talk about the Leafs needing to get tougher, they’re really not.
It really is fascinating to watch. The Leafs are an excellent possession team, and that’s where their total focus is. Having the puck and getting it back. That’s it. All the extra-curriculars don’t interest them much.
So far, the formula is working.