A Way Forward for the Caps After the Koci Hit on Green

December 17, 2009 | Ed Frankovic

There has been good news for the Washington Capitals on the ice the last two days as defensemen Mike Green and Shaone Morrisonn practiced at both sessions in Vancouver and will likely play on Friday night when the Caps face the Canucks at 10pm on Friday night. The bad news is that the NHL has decided not to suspend Avalanche forward David Koci for his hit from behind on #52 on Tuesday night. The league did, however, fine him an undisclosed amount of cash. For those following Corey Masisak’s twitter account (@cmasisak22), you know that Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, who called for the league to throw the book at the 4th liner following Tuesday night’s Cap win, said today, “Wow. I’m not going to comment.” Koci did apologize for the hit this afternoon and you can view the video courtesy of the Avs blog here.

As I wrote after Tuesday night’s contest, there is no place in the game for hits like this and I thought for sure the Colorado enforcer would be suspended. But with Colin Campbell & company in charge of discipline in the league office these days, it is what it is, I guess??!!

Clearly the NHL front office is not going to send the major message that these kind of cheap shots can’t happen. Add in the fact that many coaches will continue to find 3rd and 4th line guys to play this type of role and you have the makings of something that will likely continue to happen again and again, if the Caps star players are not careful.

The hit sparked the debate about whether or not Washington needs an enforcer. So what should the Caps do to try and prevent this going forward? Well, they could go out, get some thugs, and goon it up, but that is “Slap Shot nonsense” as Caps media relations Director Nate Ewell tweeted during the contest on Tuesday in a moment where a cooler head prevailed. GM George McPhee confirmed after the contest that he wasn’t going the Hanson Brothers route.

Some also say that Washington’s power play, which was ranked #1 in the league going into that contest, is a big deterrent. But clearly it wasn’t and won’t continue to be, because with a 5-0 lead there was no real risk to Koci’s team for his actions with the outcome pretty much decided in an already lopsided game.

So after the emotion of Tuesday’s hit died down, I went in search of an impartial opinion and a way forward.  I exchanged emails yesterday morning with a Western Conference scout about the situation and the play (and for those of you who follow me on Twitter, @emfrank123, you have seen these quotes already).

“You need toughness to protect your stars,” started the scout, confirming an axiom I have supported throughout all of my years of watching hockey at the highest levels.

“But Erskine is pretty tough,” added the scout, which basically told me that he thinks the Caps do have that element on their roster currently.

But then the scout elaborated more on the play, and some people may not like the answer, but given that he has worked in the game for so long you cannot discount the input and actually it does provide a way forward for Washington.

“Green needs to protect himself better. Lazy getting to that puck and put himself in bad spot. If he keeps skating Koci can’t hit him, he moved puck then coasted. No excuse for hit, but lazy play,” he finished.

At first glance, one might categorize this quote as blaming the victim and quickly dismiss it based on raw emotion. But the scout did clearly say “No excuse for hit.”

What do I think of the overall input from the scout? Well, I think it is a really important view now, especially given that the lack of a suspension to Koci pretty much sends a message that these plays will not be severely punished or handled by the league, so the Caps need to take matters in to their own hands. And the way forward is that this provides a great teaching opportunity for GM George McPhee and Boudreau with the young (24) and immensely talented Green (as well as several other players on the Washington roster).

Let’s address the “coasting” and “lazy play” aspect of the quote. The scout is not calling #52 a lazy player, he just said he was lazy in that instance and given that Washington was up 5-0 you can understand why Green did not have his usual sense of urgency on the boards. The 2008-09 Norris Trophy finalist said he didn’t expect to get drilled in that situation but guys like Koci are just looking to create a spark so that their coaches will keep them in the league and, as a result, there will be occasions where the line is crossed, like this one.

The scout is right though, given Green’s talent and ability, if he makes the pass and moves properly, as he typically does, there is no way for Koci to get a shot in on him. So the first lesson to #52 is to continue playing every shift like it is a tie game, granted that can be tough to do over an 82 game grind, but Green is a critical asset to the Caps and the team needs him healthy if they want to win the Stanley Cup this year. The Calgary native is skilled and fast enough that he is very difficult to hit at full speed, much like we have seen with Alexander Ovechkin.

He also needs to be more aware of who is on the ice against him, especially since the crack down on obstruction in the post lockout NHL does not allow defensemen to run interference for their partners in their own zone anymore, like we used to see on a regular basis. You need to know if you are on the ice against the other teams energy line or you are facing their skilled players in order to be properly prepared for the possible events on a given shift. In addition, the way a defenseman goes after pucks along the boards has totally changed with these new rules so it is paramount that blueliners have the proper technique so they don’t end up with concussions, shoulder, or leg injuries.  The days of being the first one into the corner giving you the advantage are gone, nowadays you really want to go in even with your opponent in order to avoid the big check. So technique and awareness are two more things that will also help #52 protect himself against this happening again.

Green responds well to positive comments and encouragement and that is one of the reasons why he has blossomed into one of the top defensemen in the league under Boudreau, a bench boss who doesn’t come from the “yell and scream” coaching school.  Bruce tends to focus on building up the confidence of a player and that method has worked wonders for the Caps. #52 also has shown that he can learn from situations as evidenced by the fact that you don’t see him carrying the puck deep into the offensive zone when he doesn’t have numbers anymore. Last season he did that and ended up getting slammed into the boards by Chris Pronger and that put him out of the lineup for a dozen or so contests. The shoulder he injured on that play still plagued #52 in the playoffs and was a significant factor in the Caps loss to the Penguins in round two.

So for me, the way ahead for Green and Washington is straightforward. I am not blaming the victim here or coming close to condoning what Koci did at all, but the league has shown it isn’t going to govern these situations and going Slap Shot with your line-up isn’t going to work either. The “make them pay on the power play” mantra has shown to not be a major deterrent to cheap shots as well. Therefore, the best thing a talented and young team like the Caps can do is learn from this incident (and luckily #52 is okay) and use that gained knowledge to avoid it going forward. If Green and his teammates stick to maintaining their focus and not drop their intensity level in spite of the score of the game, combine that with proper technique and more situational awareness, then the opportunities for cheap shots by the opposition drastically decrease.