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Rink Roundtable: On Rene Bourque and Pay Back

On January 3, the Calgary Flames paid a rare visit to Verizon Center for an East-West matchup that would end 3-1 for the good guys. By the time this one was done, however, the end result had almost become a sidenote to a much more concerning result for the Washington Capitals and their fans. As we all know by know, Rene Bourque threw a cheap elbow into Nicklas Backstrom's face (video here) and as a result Backstrom hasn't dressed since that game. The Caps' reaction was notably non-existent (unless you count the little chat Jason Chimera had with Bourque, which I don't). After the game the Capitals players seemed as though they'd like a chance to hold Rene Bourque accountable, though they knew they'd never get that chance with Bourque playing in Calgary. Troy Brouwer said "It's one of those things where it kind of sucks because we're not able to play (the Calgary Flames) again this year."

Well, Rene Bourque has been traded to the Montreal Canadiens, so the Caps will have an opportunity to see some more of the player that has knocked the Capitals' top center out of the lineup indefinitely. What should happen? What will happen? Everybody has thoughts, so here are ours.

First question, what is the response you'd like to see from the players after a guy gets a cheap shot or is on the receiving end of a questionable hit? What are the factors you are basing your decision on?

J.P.: In general, any and every cheap or questionable hit should be answered with... something. Frankly, I don't think that a fight after one of those hits does anything in terms of deterrence (the offender isn't likely to think twice about doing his next dirt because of a tussle he got in after his last gutless hit), and the retribution is somewhat cathartic for both players and fans, but that part is ultimately meaningless - what's done is done.

But what responding to a bad hit does is send a message to teammates that everyone's pulling in the same direction and everyone's got each other's back (and it's why I didn't mind Alex Ovechkin coming to Alexander Semin's defense in San Jose - it was a strong leadership move, even if it cost the team a power play). Know why Matt Bradley is a legend around here? Because he bled for these guys. He basically did the hockey equivalent of taking a bullet for the President down in Tampa. And so on. Who's this team's Matt Bradley?

Kareem: There is no hard-and-fast rule to apply here - it depends on the situation. When Bourque elbowed Backstrom, the Caps were clinging to a two-goal lead in a game they desperately needed to win against a Calgary team that was carrying the play in the third period. Plus, no one knew Backstrom would be out for weeks - the elbow didn't look that bad in real-time. Consequently, going for retribution late in the third period with the game still undecided put the Caps at risk of going short-handed and losing the game. It's why I understand the reasoning for not going after Bourque. (If Backstrom was laid out it's a different story altogether and there has to be an immediate response.) The flip side to this "secure-the-points" argument is that, knowing the extent of the injury, it does indeed make the Caps look soft. But, frankly, that's not the first or last time that phrase will be used with the Caps in the same sentence. It is what it is, and the Caps had to worry more about improving their standing points than about rectifying their soft reputation.

I also disagree with Ovechkin coming to Semin's aid in the Sharks game. If you're going to come to a player's aid, you need to "come correct" and leave no doubt that running players is a no-no. Ovechkin didn't hit Brad Winchester hard enough to deter Winchester - or anyone - from ever doing that again to Semin. Ovechkin also nullified his team's power play and took himself out of the game. The point is, if you're going to retaliate and take a penalty to defend your teammate, it has to cause the offendor some physical pain. Ovechkin's attempt was all fine and swell, but the end result was awful.

J.P.: Like I said, it's not about deterence, it's about sticking together as a team. For a squad that has, for years, looked more like a bunch of individuals than a cohesive "band of brothers," defending a teammate presents an opportunity to bond and send a lasting message. No such message was sent in the Calgary game, but hey, the Caps got the win (which they'd have held on for anyway, given the time left on the clock and the opponent).

Rob: I'm with J.P. in that teams generally need to respond to dirty/questionable hits in a fairly immediate manner. My focus is more on the long-term effects, and not on the specific in-game ramifications. While it's true that all points matter, there are 82 games that a team can make up for a lost point or two (and considering that the Caps play in a very weak division that they should clearly win only makes the point stronger). It's more important to send the message that you won't be pushed around and that every player has their teammates' backs. It can't be one or two guys that respond every time, it truly has to be a team effort. I might advocate turning the other cheek if the incident happened late in a game with direct playoff seeding implications, or late in a playoff game. Those exceptions really would only apply in March or April, though. I also think it's important to note that there's been a long and well-documented history of other players openly targeting the Caps' key players (not that that makes the Caps different from other teams). Dan Bylsma was the most candid about it on 24/7 and yet Mike Green continues to be run (when he's healthy enough to take the ice...). At some point maybe changing the status quo can't hurt. There's been enough "we'll get ‘em on the power play" going around, but when your top power play guys are injured from repeated, and often cheap, hits, how is that any solace?

I don't think the rats can be deterred, those days are lost. The self-policing nature of hockey is over. Guys like Bourque don't actually have to answer for their behavior, and the issue is as much cultural as it is statutory. The instigator makes it difficult for Matt Hendricks to just force Bourque into a fight (though that's what I wish he had done), but it's also simply more acceptable for players to run around and throw cheap hits and then refuse to fight. Turtling has lost it's stigma, for better or worse, and so the traditional system of checks and balances has broken down, to be replaced with... something. Given that, the issue with a response (or lack of response) has much more to do with the message you are sending your own teammates than the rats across the league.

One final thought, I know that fans frequently disclaim the potential deterrence value and openly question why designated fighters have a spot on the roster, but the players seem to unanimously appreciate having those guys around. Maybe it's just a tip of the cap to guys that play a tough role, but I do think we have to consider that there may be some value to having a strong fighter that may not necessarily be revealed by logic or superficial on-ice observations.

J.P.: To that last point, just look at the reigning Stanley Cup Champs (or the Cup-winning Ducks) - the whole team skates around intimidating opponents into passive submission on some nights, running goalies without fear of retribution, etc. Toughness and physicality still has a place in the NHL.

Next question, given those criteria, how do you feel about the specific incident between Bourque and Backstrom? Given the time left in the game, the score, and the opponent, what should have been done by whom?

J.P.: I think we can put to bed the notion that the team had no idea what had happened until after the game. They may not have seen the hit at the time, but by the time Bourque's penalty was up (and he went on to run Tomas Vokoun), they knew (and, incidentally, Matt Hendricks was on the ice at that time). And yet, Bourque skated his last three shifts relatively unbothered.

People will point out that the Caps had a two-goal lead, needed the win, etc... but I don't think any two points within a season are as valuable as sending a clear message that if you cheapshot a star, you're going to have to answer for it (besides the fact that Bourque was on the ice at the end, when the Caps still held a two-goal lead).

I'll leave the "what" and "by whom" to others, but the fact is that something needed to be done, and... crickets. Obviously, no frontier justice at that point was going to make the hit on Backstrom go away, but sending a message to the room (including the player who hasn't played a game since) could've gone a long way in bonding the squad going forward. Oh, and if Bourque didn't want to answer the bell? Let him turtle and grab the title of "Least Honorable Player in the League." Win-win.

Rob: I agree that the players knew what happened. Maybe not all of them saw it in real-time, but if you watch replays you can see players on the Caps' bench react to the hit immediately; at least a couple guys saw the hit and could easily have spread the word. I also disagree with Kareem that the hit didn't look bad in real time. Maybe it depends on the vantage point, but on the television I saw the hit and immediately knew it was an egregious elbow. I know I'm not the only one that didn't need a replay to realize how bad that was.

The Caps needed to do something to step up to Bourque. Let him turtle, give CGY a power play, I'm fine with it. For one, it was a two goal lead, not a one goal lead. Slim as a two goal lead is, there is still margin for error and Calgary hasn't exactly been filling the net by the bucketful this season. As I said, it has to be a team effort so theoretically anybody could have responded, but there are certain players that stand out as likely candidates. Chimera (who had the little chat with Bourque but didn't escalate it), Hendricks, and even Laich or Brouwer would be good choices (you'd like to be able to add Ward into that group but his career track record suggests it's just not going to happen). It's tough to ask Beagle to step up given how recently he returned from a concussion, but if he's too worried about his head to take on that role he probably needs to do some hard thinking about the future of his hockey career.

So now that the Caps have a chance to play Bourque again, what do you hope to see from the team? What do you expect to see?

J.P.: To be honest, what wasn't done wasn't done. Anything at this point is just a manufactured sideshow. The response needed to be organic, and it wasn't. Maybe next time, it will be. That said, Troy Brouwer lamented that, "It's one of those things where it kind of sucks because we're not able to play (the Calgary Flames) again this year." Well, now he (and they) have the chance to do whatever they'd have done if Bourque was still a Flame. I'd expect something, maybe just an early fight (a la Erskine-Asham) and then life will go on.

Kareem: J.P. brings up good points. A sideshow resolves little, but it is better than nothing and it's the minimal acceptable response. We now know that Backstrom was seriously injured. Make Bourque answer the bell, multiple times if needed. It won't remove the oft-applied label of "soft" that is transfixed to the team, nor will it prevent other NHL miscreants from running Caps players. Those problems weren't going to go away quickly anyway, regardless of whether Matt Hendricks straightened out Bourque in the third period or not.

Rob: I agree, anything at this point is vengeance. A fight would be nice but it's not going to change the fact that Bourque is back and Backstrom isn't. It will be interesting to me to see how Brouwer backs up his words. Tough talk is easy when nothing can be done.

Pepper: All excellent points, and yeah, while the better demons of my nature want to see some sort of retribution tonight, it’s a “manufactured sideshow” if done after the fact. What the whole incident and subsequent lack of response ultimately shows to me is that, while it may be Dale Hunter’s team, it’s not yet . . . Dale Hunter’s team. Who knows if and when it will be. I’m pretty sure that that sound of crickets greatly concerned, if not sickened, Coach Hunter, and something he would not have tolerated as a team captain in his day.

There’s still quite a bit of work to be done it seems toward Hunter putting the mark of his personality during his playing days on this team. And I can only assume that was a significant reason for hiring Hunter as head coach and what both he and GM George McPhee are hoping to accomplish during the remainder of the season.

J.P.: And hey, at the very least, we can imagine what might go down...