Regressing To The Mean: The 2013 Off-Season and Conference III’s Rude Awakening
In the four months since III Communication opened for business, we’ve variously described Conference III as a collection of raccoons, prison, a gang fight, Battle of the Network Stars meets The Running Man, Hell, a structure of steel and human sinew and dinosaur bones, forged and melted in the very fires of Phlegethon, and a Joy Division song.
The allegorical and metaphorical intent was clear — Conference III would be the world’s largest Thunderdome, stretching across a large section of North America. Because of geography, because of the nature of the teams and cities involved, because of their history, it was easy to appropriate the mythos of the American frontier and the Old West and imagine Conference III’s future as an echo of a past — as a sort of lawless id of a hockey division.
And then the offseason happened and the legend became fact.
We should have seen it coming the first time a team went off the board — when Colorado, cleaned house and brought in Captaine Id himself, Patrick Roy to join forces with his old pal Joe Sakic to run the team and also order Greg Sherman to make the coffee.
Roy doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t suffer fools. He’s punched and slashed and gotten bloodier than any goalie in NHL history. And now he’s behind the bench for what was the worst team in Conference III.
And when the Patty and Joey Show swaggered into the saloon, calmly gazed across the room and said, matter-of-factly, they were taking Nathan MacKinnon, we thought they were just trolling, but, brothers and sisters, the Avs don’t bluff.
Ravishing Rich Clune
The man once described as “Conference III’s smart-ass smirk” proved it was an accurate appellation. Even after he “got in trouble,” he kept it up, just cleverer than before — the Dallas Stars continuing to be the main target of his burns, be it via a simple photo that says so much or his biting response to the Tyler Seguin dumbassery. As Cam Charron put it, Clune loves to stir The Chambers Pot.
In their interactions with the public and with the media, hockey players are often boring, bromide-brimming automatons who fall all over themselves praising their opponents. Rich Clune takes your bromides and spikes them with laxative.
He’s cool but rude. And he’ll echo those usual bromides — about how tough an opponent is, about how this guy or that plays the right way — but only on his own terms. He’s just as likely to turn to the camera and toss up a bird in grand Nashville tradition.
One rude boy isn’t scary, though. He needs running mates and he needs sounding boards. He needs partners and he needs foils.
Stop Your Messing Around
The formula for the Blackhawks Stanley Cup victory was a tried-and-true one: excellent goaltending, offense from top-flight skill up front and timely scoring and bit of sandpaper from down the roster. Those elements were provided by Crawford, Toews and Kane…and Andrew Shaw, who did this:
and also did this
You’ll notice Bingo Bickell in that second clip squaring off with Zdeno Chara, and Bickell did enough in the playoffs to get rewarded handsomely by his club.
When free agency came around, though, the rest of Conference III recognized that they, by and large, couldn’t match-up straight-up with the Toews and the Kanes (or the Parises or the Landeskogs or whomever). What they can do is get mean and make everybody’s life more difficult.
Teams made a concerted effort not to try and compete with Chicago, to whom they are seemingly happy to concede is the conventional first-place team, but to try and out-rude and out-mean one another. Free agency wasn’t about being better than the Blackhawks, it was about being harder on the Blues.
The Predators embraced this idea most whole-heartedly. The team brought in Viktor Stalberg for scoring punch, but then paid (and overpaid, in most cases, either in dollars or years — but that’s the price Nashville has to pay) the Wild’s Matt Cullen, the Stars’ Eric Nystrom (which evoked a solid response from Clune) and the Caps’ Matt Hendricks, who can punch your face, but is the rudest dude when he’s in a shootout:
Nashville may not score a ton of goals — much to the chagrin of the Predators fans who have been clamoring for a skilled scorer for years — but, as Sam wrote at On The Forecheck, that’s OK:
Onlookers have criticized the Predator’s free agency strategy as having four third lines, but that’s exactly what the Predators had back when they were a dangerous puck possession team. Redundancy is good in hockey: it breeds match-up problems and forces filler out of the lineup.
While it’s disappointing the Predators have thus far–in free agency and the draft–failed to acquire a top line forward, defensive depth had also been a major problem these past few seasons. Hopefully, in Seth Jones, they have a player who can provide Hamhuis-esque stability to the second pairing in the short-term and a Scott Niedermayer to Shea Weber’s Pronger in the future.
It cost a lot, but the Predators may have very dangerous third and fourth lines. And that’s not nothing. Would we all like the 2007 team again? Sure. But until Paul Kariya walks back through that door, I’ll take the hugely underrated and dangerous 2010 team over the flashy but fundamentally-flawed 2012 squad any day.
Nashville wasn’t responding to Chicago’s success — it was responding to Dallas’ off-season, which saw the Stars add, yes, Seguin, but also Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff (and to a lesser degree, Sergei Gonchar). And that could be seen as a response to, again, not Chicago, but St. Louis, which has had David Backes as their No. 1 center for what seems like decades, despite the fact that David Backes wouldn’t be a No. 1 center anywhere else (except, maybe, Nashville).
And Minnesota had to respond, so they got meaner and ruder and jerkier than the rest of the division and signed Matt Flippin’ Cooke after losing Cullen in free agency and Devin Setoguchi in a trade to Winnipeg. The Jets lost their Russian and have not gotten demonstrably ruder (or demonstrably anything-er) and I’m sure there’s a Canada joke in here somewhere (and there’s a Southern joke in that seemingly every free agency move was Conference III incest — the Stars signed Chris Mueller, for goodness sake).
Chuck Fletcher signing Matt Cooke may reek of desperation, and, as Souhan says, Fletcher very well may confuse activity with accomplishment. But Fletcher saw a division that was getting bigger and badder and meaner, and looking around, he had to fine the meanest dude he could just to keep up. Cooke is just a shallow version of the players that have moved into Conference III — he’s a caricature, but Fletcher didn’t have the time or patience to find subtleties.
The Men Just Call Him ‘Sir’
There’s lots of ways to be bad and mean and tough. In hockey, there’s guys like Colton Orr and Brian McGrattan who have little to contribute beyond face-punching. They are largely one-dimensional gladiators — red-meat to the masses.
But then there are guys like Bad Bad Leroy Brown — who could hit and scrap with the best of ’em, but that’s not all there was to his game. He was “more than trouble,” he was a “gambler” who liked his “fancy clothes.” And most importantly: “he liked to wave his diamond ring under everybody’s nose.”
Sure, he carried a gun and a razor, but before we know that, the song tells us that he drives a custom Continental and an El Dorado, too.
Leroy Brown — and not just because he came from the South Side of Chicago — is the archetypical Conference III player. He swaggers, he’s rude, he’ll fight when he has to, but he — by and large — gets by on being in your head. Leroy Brown is the kind of guy who makes Chuck Fletcher think he has to sign Matt Cooke.
Of course, the denouement of the song is that Leroy gets his in the end – he tries to take too much and ends up looking like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone. Because as bad as Leroy is, there’s always someone badder and sometimes trolling gets you knocked out.
And if these first few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that Conference III is going to be one long arms race.