The Need To ‘Make An Impression’

Wingers Damien Brunner and Matt Martin both hit the headlines last week.

Despite one being under the microscope for his poor play, and the other seemingly in the Department of Player Safety’s cross hair, their situations may not be as different as they first appear.

In the highly competitive world of the NHL; players need to ‘justify’ their place in the line up, on an almost nightly basis in some cases.

There’s always someone else who wants to take their job – and both Brunner and Martin have fallen ‘victim’ to that need to ‘make an impression’ over the past 7 days.

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Perhaps victim is the wrong word to use – everyone knows the score, from Sidney Crosby through to fourth line grinders desperately trying to climb out of the minors to get their shot in ‘The Show’.

For Zurich native Brunner, a lack of production since joining New Jersey seems to be the root cause of his downfall.

Brunner broke the 20 goal barrier three times with Swiss outfit EV Zug, before making his NHL debut during the truncated 2012/13 season.

Contributing 12 goals and 26 points in 44 games with the Red Wings, a solid post season effort (5 goals, 9 points) helped establish a reputation as a useful secondary scorer – something Brunner would cash in on that summer when he joined the Devils on a 2-year, $5m deal.

But the former Kloten Flyers junior managed only 11 goals and 25 points in 60 games last season, and had just 2 goals and 7 points through 17 games during the current campaign prior to being placed on waivers by GM Lou Lamoriello on December 5th.

The Devils took the next step toward severing ties with the 28-year old last week placing him on ‘unconditional waivers’ before terminating Brunner’s contract.

It left Brunner clear to re-sign in Europe (which he did, with HC Lugano), whilst relieving New Jersey of his $2.5m cap hit.

Devils coach Pete DeBoer was somewhat curt when talking to Tom Gulitti of the Fire and Ice blog about Brunner’s status on December 6th:

“It hasn’t worked,” DeBoer said today of Brunner. “Pretty simple.”

When I asked why it hasn’t worked, DeBoer replied, “I’ve got my ideas, but let’s talk about Washington. We’ve moved on. He’s on waivers and we’ll go from there.”

DeBoer’s next comments are perhaps the most significant in this tale:

“We’re 20-plus games in there,” DeBoer said. “You come into training camp with an open mind. You give everybody an opportunity and they either play themselves into spots where you feel they can help you or they don’t and there’s consequences to that and I think we’re at the consequence time. We’ve given lots of opportunity and now we’re there.”

And that’s a message not only for the players directly impacted, but everyone else on the roster as well.

“Sure it is,” DeBoer said. “Those guys aren’t alone on that boat and I think it’s a great message for everybody.”

New Jersey currently sit 6th in the Metropolitan Division, 5 points outside of the play-offs. Scratching Ryder and waiving Brunner has been the Devils way of sending the message ‘sub standard’ play won’t be tolerated – and rumours have now begun to circulate that the club may enter the trade market soon.

It’s a common sub text, one we see from almost any club where things aren’t going to plan – ‘Not performing? We’ll find a guy who will – whether that’s in our own system or via trade’

And Brunner has fallen foul of that notion.

Matt Martin meanwhile is doing his level best not to drop out of the line up, on an Islanders team with new found depth this season.

Some minor knocks aside, the Isles have a full quota of forwards available; and as a result Martin – who has a, shall we say, ‘limited’ skill set – is under pressure to prove his worth to the team.

The end result of this need to impress? Last Tuesday’s hit on Keith Ballard:

Martin’s role on the Islanders is almost entirely about providing a physical presence – regularly one of the leaders in hits, the mantra of ‘finish your checks’ was made for the 25-year old.

If the Ontario native isn’t making an impact with his body, his three goals in 29 games isn’t enough to fend off skilled young guns like Anders Lee or even prospects like Mike Halmo, or even recently waived winger Cory Conacher.

Likewise, having Eric Boulton and Matt Carkner on the books provides the Isles with alternatives beyond Martin when it comes to ‘playing tough’.

And thus we’re led to situations like the one we saw Tuesday – where Martin has zeroed in on Ballard and is making contact whether the puck is there or not. The decision was made several steps ahead of the impact, and it wasn’t going to change.

That Ballard turned probably did not help; but that hit is happening one way or another.

There’s a right to frown on Martin’s decision, even without Ballard going face first in to the boards. The hit is late, the puck is gone and Ballard was clearly shaping up to dump it in well before Martin gets there.

This isn’t a check in the traditional sense of separating man from puck. It’s designed to let Ballard (and by proxy the rest of the Wild) know Martin is there.

On Martin’s part, it’s a pretty common play – something we see multiple times in every game. Checking has evolved beyond separating a player from the puck, and is as much about intimidation in the modern game – even if it does result in injuries some of the time.

In this instance Ballard was seriously injured on a play that didn’t need to happen – but for Martin to keep his place in the line up, it almost had to.

Because that’s the attitude that is prevalent.

If Martin passes up that opportunity to make contact, the Islanders coaching staff will ask ‘why’ – because that’s what every player is expected to do, to finish a hit.

In Martin’s case it is even more prevalent because that’s his role. If he’s not hitting, fighting or generally trying to be a physical force, he’s dead weight.

Predictably with incidents like this the sound bites all come back to ‘not wanting to hurt another player’ – but in truth you don’t want to injure another player. Hurting him is ‘fine’, leaving a bruise and letting them know you’re out there is ‘fine’. Because intimidation is a big part of the game now – for better or worse.

Almost everyone accepts that, accepts the rough with the smooth and even cheers when hits like Martins land – as long as there is no injury.

But when there is, arms are thrown in the air and the ‘what are we to do?’ questions come out.

But for as long as players are under pressure to perform, to keep their place, we’ll see bad hits and questionable plays – moments of madness made in a split second, because it’s better to make the hit and cause an injury than let a player skate by unimpeded and be seen as a liability.

Even for players like Brunner, scorers out of form, throwing your weight around can be a life line – a caveat which the coach can use to justify someone’s place in the line up while their stats dwindle. Because at least he is making an impression.

Hockey is a contact sport, everyone who straps on a pair of skates knows it and accepts it – and everyone who watches cherishes the competition the NHL offers.

But for those elements to remain in the game, sometimes the ugly parts have to be endured.

This need to make an impression is sometimes nonsensical, and has led to more than it’s fair share of unseemly moments; but it’s something that, perhaps sadly, has to remain for the league, and the sport, to be what it is.

For better or worse.

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on December 15, 2014, in Hockey, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, NHL and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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