Without the grit, Sean Avery would be less of an asset for the Rangers. (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)
We often hear hockey people talking about how certain players need to play on “The Edge” to be effective.
Guys such as Matt Cooke, Jarkko Ruutu and Sean Avery are all extremely effective players, but if you sanded the grit from their games, their value would be cut in half.
Players of that ilk tight-rope walk across the top of a metaphorical knife - if they fall to one side, they’re well within the rules. But walk that edge enough and it’s inevitable they’ll occasionally fall to the other.
It’s an interesting thing, that edge.
When normally passive players get angry and climb up on that thing and walk it for a few shifts, they seem unstoppable. Anyone who’s seen Alex Kovalev suddenly get aggressive and decide to take over a game knows what I’m talking about. And fans are left wondering: why doesn’t he always play like that?
But for a lot of players - myself included when I played - not only did it take a lot to get to that point, but it wasn’t a mindset I wanted to play the game with.
You have to feel like you don’t care about the safety of yourself or others - it feels reckless, careless and out of control.
When I played angry I’d be great physically, but weak mentally. I remember getting the puck in that mode and all I wanted to do was skate wide as fast as I physically could, drive to the net and try to stuff the puck in. Most people are thinking “sounds great,” but I’d inevitably miss my teammate wide open for a back door tap-in.
That mindset left me with blinders on, so I chose to be composed. It’s hard to have it both ways.
For those guys who have made the decision to scrap composure for The Edge, suspensions, injuries and fights aren’t shocking, they’re a part of the role they’ve accepted. They want to be NHL players, they’re best playing that role and that’s the reason they don’t and won’t change. They made it doing what they’re doing and if the cost of being a wealthy, professional athlete is the odd media tirade, what of it? Excuse me while I take this check to the bank.
Playing on that edge is effective for the reason I outlined above: anger is blinding and a skater who plays the ‘oops did I clip Ovechkin’s knee?’ game is bound to fit more than a few of his opponents for their own sets. A focused Washington Capitals team is scary, but when their focus shifts to chasing down a player instead of scoring a goal, they become a little easier to play against.
This type of player is at the center of why we’ve all been discussing the Islanders-Penguins brawl differently than the other ones in recent days. We’re OK with the natural checks and balances the game of hockey provides, in that players who fall off the wrong side of the edge too many times occasionally need to be punched in the face. But we’re not OK with guys who stand on that knife’s edge and intentionally swan dive to the wrong side, as a few players did.
We’re all still free to shout down to this type of player from the stands, even the ones who effectively walk the fine line between gritty and cheap, given they’re the ones who made the decision to play like near-villains. These guys make the game fun and give us targets for a little bit of good old-fashioned sports-hate, to use a Bill Simmons term.
But it isn’t going to change the way they play, or the fact teams will continue to employ them. These guys simply aren’t going anywhere. Playing on the edge isn’t for everyone, but having a guy on your team who will is.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.