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Will 2011-12 be a nasty NHL season?

Raffi Torres and Shawn Thornton had a few run-ins during the Stanley Cup final. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

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Raffi Torres and Shawn Thornton had a few run-ins during the Stanley Cup final. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

It has been said the NHL is a copycat league. That is, whichever team wins the Stanley Cup will influence how their rivals build for the next season. Based on both the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks, that means we’re headed for one dirty year.

In fact, the imitations began much before the 2011 Cup was even hoisted. David Steckel’s “oops, didn’t see you there,” collision with Sidney Crosby - the beginning of the end for The Kid’s campaign - was mirrored almost perfectly by Andrew Ference on Jeff Halpern in Boston’s playoff victory over Montreal a few months later.

But there is no better example of this than new Phoenix Coyote Raffi Torres. Snapped up on Day 1 of free agency this summer, Torres made several runs over the line of good sportsmanship in the playoffs, beginning with his terrorizing of Chicago’s Brent Seabrook’s head while still a member of the Canucks.

It’s a classic case of the guy you hate until he’s on your team. I’m sure Phoenix players saw red on certain occasions when they had to go up against the rock-hard hitter and grinder, but they’re sure happy to see him wearing the color now.

On a related note, if your team still needs a fighter in its lineup, your choices are limited. Players such as Wade Belak, David Koci and Mitch Fritz are still out there, but Zack Stortini, Cam Janssen, Darcy Hordichuk and Ben Eager were snapped up long ago. Meanwhile, skill players such as Kyle Wellwood and Chris Campoli wait by the phone. I’m not saying this is wrong, but it is interesting to see where the market was this summer.

The big question will be the league’s tolerance for the diving and antics that characterized what was otherwise an excellent final (in terms of emotional bang for your buck - the blowouts were a bit weird) between Boston and Vancouver. Yes, finger-biting is never going to be encouraged, but with players finding ever more creative ways to hurt each other - pasting Mason Raymond into the boards after folding him up like a lawn chair, for example - the NHL must be prepared to “think outside the box” when it comes to discipline and how the game is governed.

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This week’s Research and Development Camp was a great step, particularly the advent of the “Bear-Hug Rule,” which was posited as a way to curb hits from behind. At this point I think it’s fair to acknowledge the speed of today’s game puts attacking checkers at a disadvantage when they go in for a big hit. The puck possessor can look awfully innocent even when he turns slightly away from his attacker, as the aggressor slams into him for an inevitable hitting-from-behind penalty. But if the checker was allowed to grab said puck carrier and guide him into the boards, he has both neutralized the offensive threat and spared his fellow man an in-game snack of plexiglass.

Is it a return to clutch-and-grab? Nah. Just a pragmatic view on something that is becoming obvious: A lot of these plays are a game of chicken between the puck carrier who dares the checker to hit him from behind and the attacker who probably never liked that guy anyway.

The diving is the biggest thing. The Canucks cried wolf a few times too often and it cost them when the refs stopped listening. It would behoove the NHL to make sure teams don’t go all “soccer” on us in October, because that’s a season of hockey I don’t want to see.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.

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