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NHL sent the right message

3/12/2004

Open Ice
The suspension the NHL handed Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi for his attack on Colorado's Steve Moore -- the remainder of the regular season, all of this year's playoffs and an application for reinstatement -- is the heaviest ever handed out as far as I'm concerned. Not only will it cost Bertuzzi at least 17 games, but it basically cost the Vancouver Canucks a chance at the Stanley Cup.

But while removing Bertuzzi from the lineup changes everything about the Canucks, the league did the right thing in sitting him down until at least the beginning of next season. Colin Campbell and the rest of the NHL brass acted swiftly and decisively to send a message. This sets a precedent by telling players that crossing the line with their on-ice behavior is unacceptable, and it should be a good lesson for everyone.

As for what this means on the ice in Vancouver, there is no doubt the Canucks are a much different team today than yesterday. Bertuzzi is one of the 10 best players in the world, with his combination of offensive skills and physical style of play, and taking him away is taking away maybe their biggest impact player.

He plays a ton of minutes and commands attention from the opposition's No. 1 defense pairing, so without Bertuzzi on the ice that top pair can focus all of it's attention on Vancouver captain Markus Naslund and, to a lesser extent, his linemate Brendan Morrison. Both are very good players, but neither is as physical as Bertuzzi and neither has his ability to camp in front of the net and create havoc. And the loss of his scoring ability also puts more pressure on the defense and goaltender, so this is a huge loss in every way for the Canucks.

If he's smart, Vancouver coach Marc Crawford will play the "us vs. the world" card in the dressing room. He has to get his players fired up to prove something and make everyone who is saying Vancouver is finished this year eat their words. Crawford has to unite his team, and if he's smart he'll get a lot of mileage out of that card.

This situation isn't necessarily a black eye for hockey, though, because anyone who doesn't like the physical nature of the sport is going to bash it anyway. It's amazing that Major League Baseball cannot get its players to submit to drug testing and has pitchers who throw at guy's heads, yet people zero in on one unfortunate incident in hockey and point to it as an example of what's wrong with the game.

Those who know hockey understand that a line was crossed and that what Bertuzzi did is should never be part of the game. They are likely the same group that will use this as another argument for abolishing the instigator rule -- which gives an extra minor penalty to the player who starts a fight -- and letting the players police themselves by exacting retribution before situations like this arise.

Others will be calling for an end to fighting and a move to European rules, but they likely don't watch a lot of overseas hockey. If they did, they'd see that the European game is the dirtiest in the world. Players over there engage in all kinds of stickwork -- slashing, spearing, high-sticking -- and the physical play involves kicking and the like. There is no accountability or retribution, so a dirty player can run rampant all game long without having to face justice.

And the faction that says the NHL should adopt international rules forgets that the Olympics feature the eight best teams in the world, each featuring the 20 best players from their countries. The skill level across the board is totally different and the product will be better no matter what rules they play under.

Many people who don't truly understand the game are talking right now, but they are exactly the group who should not be saying anything. The NHL is dealing with one terrible incident and will survive. Let's just hope Steve Moore's career survives.



Plus/Minus
Plus: Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa continues to remain healthy and continues to win. The Lightning, an exciting team playing an aggressive style, has not lost a regulation game since Feb. 2. The payroll is controlled, the draft has been a valuable tool and trades have worked out well. Tampa Bay has a great goaltending duo, maybe the most exciting player in the league in Martin St. Louis and a rising star in center Brad Richards. He is a tough player who sticks his nose in there, makes plays and has great vision. Keep an eye on this team, because Tampa could become the model for building a winner.

Minus: Todd Bertuzzi
Bertuzzi has lost a huge part of his life for the next few months. There is no doubt he's a great player but he did a terribly stupid thing which cost him his reputation and his team a run at the Stanley Cup. This will be a story for the rest of the year, and we can only hope Steve Moore makes a full recovery.



This week's starting lineup

Goaltender
Nikolai Khabibulin, Tampa Bay Lightning: Unbeaten in his last nine starts dating back to Feb. 23 and has not given up more than three goals in any of those games.

Defensemen
Darryl Sydor, Tampa Bay Lighting: A great pickup and getting him well before the deadline was a great move. Gives Tampa Bay another steady presence on the blue line and shows the fans the team wants to win right now.

Greg de Vries, Ottawa Senators: A good player who's getting a chance with a contender. De Vries gives the Senators a little more grit on the back end and will fit nicely in the dressing room.

Forwards
Dave Andreychuk, Tampa Bay Lightning: Amazing contributor at age 40. He is on pace for a 20-goal season, wins big faceoffs when called on and is still great on special teams.

Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings: No one thought Steve would be on a 20-goal pace, either. While he's not the offensive player he once was, Yzerman is still effective and still the the leader and heart and soul of his team.

Mark Messier, New York Rangers: Yet another old guy pushing 20 goals. Mark is still playing hard and is one of the few bright spots of the Rangers' season. If he does in fact retire after the season this is a good way to go out.



Puckology
Barry:
Most teams with good penalty-killing units (Detroit, Vancouver) play aggressivly and force the opposition to move constantly, while teams like my beloved Avalanche play a passive style that seems to rely too much on the goalie and limit short-handed chances. What do you prefer?

-- Nate, Colorado

I always favored an aggressive penalty kill, Nate. My feeling was that if a power-play unit can make five passes at full speed, under pressure, and then get off a good shot for a goal you have to give the guys credit. The passive kill means giving away long shots and hoping the puck is blocked or the save is made. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but I have always been a believer in forcing the opposition to make plays and increasing the opportunities for mistakes which result in short-handed scoring chances. Forcing the action leads to bad passes, bad shots, pucks in skates and other things that can spring someone on a short-handed chance and that's how I like my teams to play.

E-mail bag
Hey, Barry:
I found it quite interesting that after Brian Savage was traded from Phoenix to St. Louis he said the pressure and expectations of a big contract ($3.2 million per season) made it hard to perform there, while Coyotes teammates like Shane Doan continue to give all they have for about half the money. Do you think a large percentage or NHL players are overpaid?

-- Don, Chandler, Ariz.

A majority of NHL players are overpaid and Savage is a good example. It is crazy statement to say that expectations make it harder to play. If a guy is good enough to earn the money then he should be good enough to give his best every night.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that more money equals more motivation, but I can tell you from experience that no one plays harder than when they're making $25 a week in juniors and trying to get to the NHL. Teams hope players can keep that fire in their belly when they reach the top and make the big money, but a lot of guys get to that point and realize they are set for life. Then the internal pressure subsides somewhat and they don't always continue to play hard every night.

It's good to have something to work for, which explains why so many players have great years just before they become free agents. Look at the Rangers and Capitals if you want to see the problem with big contracts. They gave guys a lot of money and basically were told, "Thanks, I'll take your money but I'm not going to compete hard."

That's why character is more important than stats when building a team. The owners are starting to wise up, though, and many now realize they have to build through the draft and manage payroll responsibly. Team like the Red Wings and Avalanche spend plenty of money but bring in good people. Others are starting to follow suit and hopefully everyone will see the light in the near future.

Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He'll answer selected questions submitted to his e-mail bag each week. Also, click here to send Barry a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.