Commentary

Flyers need to control their players or pay the price

Updated: October 29, 2007, 3:07 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Oh, we know the drill.

Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Randy Jones offered heartfelt remorse for his hit on Patrice Bergeron that might have left the talented Boston forward paralyzed. It didn't. Bergeron has full range of motion, but the timetable for his return to the Bruins lineup is unknown (Boston is expected to say more on the matter Monday).

Did we mention Jones was sorry? Really sorry?

Just like Jesse Boulerice was sorry he nearly decapitated Ryan Kesler when he cross checked him in the face. And Steve Downie was exceptionally sorry after he headhunted Dean McAmmond of the Ottawa Senators during preseason.

Sorry, sorry, sorry.

The NHL season is not yet a month old, and three times the Flyers have had to answer for how one of their own has gone AWOL and committed an indefensible act against another team's player.

We acknowledge that Jones' hit on Bergeron doesn't compare to the brutality of the other two incidents, but let's not just pass this off as "just another hockey hit." To suggest this is the kind of hit that happens every night is to ignore the hit entirely.

Jones tracked Bergeron as he headed into the Flyers' zone. Bergeron's back was to Jones the entire time leading up to the hit, but Jones still used his forearm to drive Bergeron's head into the boards.

Rest assured: If a Flyer, let's say, Daniel Briere, had been on the other end of any one of these three assaults, the team would be screaming blue murder.

If the NHL responds as if this were just another hockey hit and penalizes Jones lightly or lets him off altogether, all the league's statements that it is serious about eliminating dangerous play would be rendered moot.

For all the praise being heaped on Flyers GM Paul Holmgren and coach John Stevens for turning around a Philadelphia franchise that finished dead last in 2006-07, these incidents suggest this franchise has no real control over its players.

What else are we to conclude from the fact that three players scouted and signed by the Flyers have engaged in behavior that could have ended players' careers?

The culture of recklessness in Philadelphia has been known for years, from the Broad Street Bullies on. It is part of the team's identity, whether anyone has tacitly endorsed it or not. Holmgren himself is known as one of the toughest players ever.

At what point does the NHL say this culture has to change?

[+] EnlargePatrice Bergeron
Steve Babineau/NHLI/Getty ImagesPatrice Bergeron sustained a concussion and broken nose when he was smashed into the boards from behind by Philadelphia's Randy Jones.

Apparently, two potentially devastating incidents weren't enough. Maybe a third will prompt some action.

Perhaps this is a good moment for the league to send a parallel message to its teams that if they can't control their players, then they too will be held accountable.

Earlier in its season, the NFL fined the New England Patriots and took away draft picks (depending on the team's regular-season finish) for spying on the New York Jets. That was a tough penalty, and no one got taken to the hospital.

The Flyers have essentially robbed their opponents of a chance to compete through their flagrant disregard for the rules. McAmmond has yet to play for the Senators. As for Bergeron, the most talented of the three victims, it is not overstating the case to suggest he is crucial to the Bruins' return to the playoffs. Now, Bergeron's return to action is in question and one wonders what effect it might have on the Bruins' strong start.

Why not impose a sliding scale that takes into account previous history? That's what NHL lord of discipline Colin Campbell does when he levies suspensions against players. You could start with a suspension of the coach for five games after a second serious incident. Then, if there's a third incident, start carving off draft picks; the more serious the incident, the higher the draft pick.

As for safety in the workplace, we happened to see Don Cherry on "Hockey Night in Canada" talking about cushioning the dasher boards in the wake of the Jones hit on Bergeron. The NHL has tested a cap system on Long Island last season, but there seems to be no indication it improves safety. Maybe it's time to take another -- harder -- look.

Slap Shots


Leclaire
Good Week
It falls into the Ripley's category, but the Columbus Blue Jackets hit the 10-game pole with a 6-3-1 record buoyed by a three-game winning streak this week. Picked by most prognosticators (including this one) to be battling for last place in the Western Conference, the Blue Jackets have consistently turned in tight defensive performances. And anyone who wonders if coaching is overrated should check the NHL stats where the normally porous Blue Jackets have the No. 1 penalty-killing unit in the league as coach Ken Hitchcock enjoying his first full season in Columbus. The Blue Jackets are getting great goaltending from Pascal Leclaire, whose four shutouts leads the NHL, and Fredrik Norrena. The pair is tied for first in the NHL with a 1.90 goals-against average. It's hard to imagine the oft-maligned franchise can keep this pace up over the long haul, but, then again, it's hard to imagine where they are now.

Bad Week
By the end of last season, one might have imagined that all former Boston sniper Sergei Samsonov might have needed was a change of scenery. He got into Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau's dog house and couldn't get out. Now, having been given a new lease on hockey life in Chicago, playing on a roster that includes the two best rookies in the game in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Samsonov has laid another egg. The 29-year-old has no goals, two assists and is minus-6 and was made a healthy scratch in the Hawks' loss to Atlanta on Saturday night. Can anyone say waivers?

Stuck in Neutral
A few trees gave their lives to support newsprint this week carrying stories about the Toronto Maple Leafs' overtures to super-prospect John Tavares. The stories suggested the Leafs were interested in signing the junior star and having him play for their AHL team next season and then paying him so much he would opt out of the NHL draft and wait until he's an unrestricted free agent at which time he would join the blue and white. Nice idea if you're the Leafs and struggle to develop your own players the normal way. But the 17-year-old Tavares is too young to play in the AHL next season. To suggest he might hang around to play minor pro hockey just so he could experience the unadulterated joy of pulling on a Leafs jersey down the road? We don't think so. Tavares will end up playing one more season of junior and then settle in as the first overall pick in the summer of 2009.

Our top story lines of the week


Elias
1. Things aren't getting any brighter for the New Jersey Devils now that their nine-game road trip to open the season is over and they've settled into their new home in Newark. The Devils were ripped 4-1 by Ottawa in their home-opener Saturday and woke up Monday morning tied for 13th in the Eastern Conference. Winless in four games, the Devils have the NHL's worst penalty-killing unit and have given up 34 goals in 10 games. Yikes. New coach Brent Sutter is doing it his way, refusing to allow veteran defenseman Richard Matvichuk on his squad and calling out captain Patrik Elias, who has been dreadful (two goals, minus-7). The Devils have Tampa Bay and Toronto at their new digs this week, followed by a road trip to Manhattan. Not a bad week, all things considered. Of course, when you're this bad, they all look tough.

2. Lots of folks will be focusing on the ice beneath San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson's feet -- thin or not? -- after another uneven week concluded with back-to-back losses to Detroit and Columbus. San Jose was outscored 7-2 in those two losses, highlighting a perplexing problem for the talented lineup -- an inability to put the puck in the net. The Sharks (5-5-1) have scored just 25 times in 11 games. For a team that boasts former scoring champ and MVP Joe Thornton, former Rocket Richard Trophy winner Jonathan Cheechoo and a strong supporting cast, that's not good. But one thing that may be a mitigating factor -- the Sharks have played eight of 11 games on the road and play Monday night in Dallas.

3. It wasn't so long ago in this space that we raved about the Minnesota Wild, who opened the season without a regulation loss in eight straight games (7-0-1). But now, the Wild are winless in three after being dumped 3-1 on Sunday by Colorado. Worse, the Wild are starting to get a little banged up. They did not have No. 1 netminder Niklas Backstrom, Pavol Demitra or Marian Gaborik in the lineup Sunday. Given the unpleasant injury histories for both Demitra and Gaborik, the Wild is facing their first significant test of the season.

4. There is always a firestorm of some kind in Montreal. The only question is whether it's starting in full blaze or just smoldering. But one thing Hab fans can agree on, it's that their team's power play is smoking hot. The Habs lead the NHL with 17 power-play goals and are clicking at a 30.4-percent rate, also tops in the league. Against Carolina this past week, they were an amazing 5-for-8 on the man-advantage as they waxed the red-hot Hurricanes, 7-4. The good news for the Habs is they're getting great balance on the man-advantage. Five different players have at least two power-play goals, including oft-criticized veteran Alexei Kovalev, who has three power-play markers. The Habs have Atlanta, Philadelphia and Toronto this week and all three teams rank in the bottom half of the league in penalty killing.

5. Back in 2000, Brad Boyes was living the dream as the native of Mississauga, Ontario, was a first-round pick of the hometown Maple Leafs. But the forward got shuffled off to San Jose for whom he played one game before being dealt to Boston. But Boyes didn't mature quickly enough for Boston and he was dealt to St. Louis at the trade deadline last season for defenseman Dennis Wideman. Oddly enough, Boyes has ended up assuming the role as the Blues' designated sniper. Playing on the team's top line with veterans Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk, Boyes has eight goals in nine games and is a major part of the Blues strong 6-3-0 start.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.