Inside the NHL

Kraken forward Jared McCann did what he was supposed to with his hands the other night against Dallas, scoring his team-leading 25th goal on a well-placed wrist shot.

A couple of nights prior, he used his hands for something his team most certainly did not commit $25 million over the next five seasons for — pounding on opposing forward Mike Amadio of the Vegas Golden Knights. One McCann bare-fisted punch connected with Amadio’s helmet and sent it flying off his head.

And that can’t be allowed to happen again. Not for the reasons he gave.

Now, I bring this up because top goal-scorers getting into fights has become a hot NHL topic the past week. Between Nathan MacKinnon putting the Stanley Cup chances of the Colorado Avalanche in grave danger by pounding his bare fist McCann-style on the helmet of Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, to Anaheim Ducks star Troy Terry getting his lunch, breakfast and dinner fed to him by Arizona Coyotes veteran Jay Beagle, there are enough experienced hockey fans out there feeling conflicted that I’m sure brand new ones here are wondering what’s going on.

Admittedly, my column last week probably added to the confusion. It was written ahead of the mayhem in which I discussed the NHL reality of players needing to stand up and sometimes fight for more-skilled teammates and goaltenders when opponents take dangerous liberties that risk injury.

Interestingly, the catalyst for that column was none other than McCann, who’d been sent flying defenselessly into the side boards by much bigger Los Angeles Kings center Quinton Byfield. Right after, the response from McCann’s teammates was hesitant at best to where coach Dave Hakstol let the team know he wasn’t pleased.

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Since then, the Kraken have resembled a school of piranhas when opponents get overly aggressive in the corners or at the goal crease. Between Vince Dunn, Jamie Oleksiak, Derrick Pouliot and even McCann, the Kraken haven’t hesitated to trade punches in recent games — some penalized, some not.

And if you watch old YouTube videos from the early 1990s of Hakstol as a minor-leaguer, he isn’t all talk. He didn’t hesitate to drop his gloves and go at guys much bigger when they took cheap shots at his teammates. 

All that said, there are limits, and a handful were crossed this past week. McCann didn’t get into his fight in defense of any teammate. He admittedly did so out “frustration” with his team losing and was trying to ignite a spark under them, which he did.

Keep in mind that as with any sports “code” or “unwritten rule book” these players are doing things in real time and don’t have the luxury of pausing mid-punch to reflect on whether they are truly respecting the spirit of it all. 

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on who you ask, the NHL is the only major professional sport that condones fighting by not automatically ejecting combatants. And love it or hate it, that isn’t changing anytime soon. Some of the loudest crowd reactions at Climate Pledge Arena have been when 6-foot-7, 255-pound Oleksiak drops his gloves and prepares to engage in mutual combat with an opponent. 

The big difference now compared to decades past is that NHL fighting is rarely used anymore as a proactive intimidation tool. Instead, it’s more a defensive safeguard. Ram a guy from behind into the boards, better be prepared to trade punches with his teammates. 

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In such cases, it’s hoped the prospect of a fight — which no intelligent NHL player truly wants — will make somebody think twice about doing something dangerous. But as with any carrot-and-stick approach, the more forceful measure occasionally must be applied for broader deterrence to work.

It’s why Avalanche star MacKinnon said he went after Dumba when he saw teammate Mikko Rantanen leveled by a hit.

Terry’s case is more complex. He saw Beagle cross-check young Ducks forward Trevor Zegras and went at the Coyotes player to stand up for his teammate. Beagle says he was protecting his goalie after Zegras got too aggressive jabbing at a puck in the crease with a five-goal lead. 

So, Beagle and Terry both cited the “teammate protection” clause of the unwritten rule book to justify their actions. Unfortunately for Terry, he’s no pugilist and got thoroughly rocked by Beagle in the ensuing fight, an ugly gash opening near his blackened eye.

As for MacKinnon, who also evoked the “protection” code as justification for fighting Dumba, it was initially feared he’d broken his punching hand and would miss multiple playoff rounds. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.

McCann also emerged with a swollen hand but no injuries. Hakstol told me he had no issue with McCann firing up his team.

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“I’ll be honest, the way we’re built everybody’s got to do their part,” Hakstol said. “We don’t have anybody that should be absent from the competitive side of the game.”

Yeah, we get it. The Kraken aren’t exactly the Avalanche skills-wise. 

Still, you don’t want to see their most-skilled guys putting themselves at risk needlessly. It’s bad enough Oleksiak — the team’s best defenseman — occasionally must be sidelined with five-minute fighting majors, but he’s a big man and expected to throw down.

McCann is an entirely different story, and the explanation for his punch-up wasn’t quite as compelling. He wasn’t protecting anyone.

“The one thing that I want to make sure of is that we’re doing it for the right reasons at the right time,” Hakstol said. “Not purely out of frustration or another avenue.”

Wise words. Particularly when even a player in the moral “right” according to hockey’s unwritten code risks getting badly hurt in a fight. The beating Terry took and lack of supplementary NHL discipline on Beagle showed even star players who dare to tangle are on their own. 

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The Avalanche are breathing heavy sighs that MacKinnon didn’t just torpedo their playoff hopes by breaking his hand. Terry is no doubt relieved Beagle didn’t break something in his face.

The Kraken already have McCann’s fellow centerman Yanni Gourde, who makes his living being a pest in tough spaces, to occasionally ignite the team with his fists. But Gourde has been at this whole wrestle-and-grab thing a while and knows how to avoid biting off more than he can chew. 

With McCann, an admitted novice at dust-ups, you’d rather see him ignite his team by lighting the lamp than trying to light somebody up. 

Yeah, it’s all rather confusing and tough for any new fans or even NHL players to follow in a sport where instant reactions are expected and ambiguity runs amok. Many just follow the old schoolyard axiom: Don’t go looking for trouble.

And when trouble occasionally does find your team’s most skilled player, better make sure he’s dropping those gloves for a darned good reason. Then, get him the heck out of there as quickly as possible. 

Correction: Los Angeles Kings’ Quinton Byfield is a center, not a defenseman as stated in a previous version of this story.