The inclusion of former OHL forward Michael Liambas at the rookie camp of the Maple Leafs has brought mixed reactions, as would be expected.
Few, if any observers sense he will be a candidate for the NHL team in the foreseeable future, but the organization always has room for tough wingers somewhere in the system, I suppose.
We’re all aware of the sad circumstance of last October, when Liambas seriously injured a young Kitchener player with a devastating check against the back boards. To my knowledge the young man has still not been able to return to hockey as yet.
My concern lies, in part, with the hypocrisy of the hockey establishment. Everyone since longtime TV analyst (and 1950s Maple Leaf) Howie Meeker forty years ago on Hockey Night in Canada has preached “finish your check”. Now, that can mean simply angling off the guy with the puck (like long-time Leaf Dave Keon used to do), a simple elimination check, or the straight-through-the-man bone-crushing hits by folks like ex-Leaf winger Gary Roberts, delivered after a guy gets rid of the puck.
In this instance, we had Liambas, a big man and an overage junior player, at full speed smashing into a 16 year-old player. You can only feel horribly about the outcome. My related point, however, is the hockey powers-that-be always seem to preach that if players want to make it to the next level, they have to be “tough”, they have to “finish their checks” and they have to hit hard.
We all agree, I’m sure, that hits from behind are intolerable—though somehow they seem to happen all to often in the so-called “heat of battle”, at all levels of hockey. (Remember Alfie on Tucker in the playoffs years ago? Then there was the adding of insult to literal injury, as the Senators scored right after, when no penalty was called while Tucker lie injured on the ice.)
But what happens when a player turns at the last second? In other words, the player going for, or with, the puck is seemingly looking forward, but faces the boards at the last second? The incoming player is already going full steam and committed to a hard check. Does that make the hit any less unacceptable? In other words, do incoming checkers always have to assume that a player with the puck, or going for the puck, is vulnerable? Should all hits near the boards be considered boarding? How many “steps” constitute charging, or boarding? If a player on the receiving end of the hit is not injured, should the “penalty” be less severe?
(As an aside: If Gary Roberts, for example, had made the same hit as Liambas against an NHL opponent, would Leaf fans have thought it was a good, clean, hard hit, or worthy of a lengthy suspension?)
So we have different issues. The whole hockey mantra of playing hard and tough, and the mentality that that breeds. Then there is the definition of hitting from behind.
There is also, at the junior level, the problem of grown, 21 year-old men playing against 16 and 17 year-olds who are perhaps nowhere near where they will be in three or four years in terms of physical development. Does it make any sense to have 21 year- olds playing against young teenagers?
I like good, tough hockey. But sometimes I just end up mad. And I’m not sure the blame rests solely with Liambas, in this instance. I end up mad at the whole “system” which on the one hand preaches a macho “hitting”, tough-guy mentality that often leads to senseless and unnecessary injuries. Then after the fact, everyone acts astonished and stands on a soap box proclaiming the only problem is the individual who made the “dirty” hit.
Hypocrisy is my watchword of the day, I guess. And I'm sure others will suggest there is further hypocrisy in a league welcoming a player after his major suspension less than a year ago in junior hockey. But the same thing will happen with young Cormier from the Quebec Junior league, who was suspended for the season after a vicious elbow, but will play pro this year, too.
At the end of the day, I'm talking about a long-held attitude that breeds problems, then the league acting holier-than-thou. I just don't like it.
So Liambas is at camp. Acknowledging his “past” (and for the record, I don’t see this as similar, really, to the horrific Bertuzzi “hit” several years ago which ended the career of a another young player). I sure don’t like the outcome of the Liambas hit, but unless I’m not aware of something, it certainly wasn’t premeditated. Given the circumstances in the Vancouver situation, Bertuzzi should have been suspended for years.
I guess Liambas deserves the opportunity to show if he can play a role in the Leaf system. The fact that it gets discussed so much is partly a result of the incident last year, partly because anything the Leafs do, including signing a player who may end up released or buried in the minors, is “news”. We’ll see where this goes, if anywhere.
Does Rynnas really give the Leafs depth in goal? These rookie weekends are interesting, I suppose, but it is largely kids playing against kids and a few guys who are just trying to find their way at the pro level. So any “accomplishments”, while not insignificant, do not necessarily herald an NHL career. This seems a bit like a make-work project to me, to give highly-paid coaches, scouts and executives a chance to look busy by watching kids they’ve already scouted for years play even more.
Am I just making up the make-work theory? Well, Kadri ends up jurt. Hip flexors that start minor often end up far worse, it seems to me. And Pittsburgh loses a young player with a serious injury, on an aforementioned "hit from behind". After another young Leaf was injured, Marlie Coach Dallas Eakins was quoted as saying the Leafs were bringing up a big player, "in case things get out of hand".
At rookie camp? Is that what this camp is about? Really?
That all said, longer-term, I am interested to see if Rynnas can become a solid netminder for the Marlies, and whether he could actually be capable if thrust into action with the Leafs, sooner than later, for any reason.
Leaf enthusiasts will be keeping a close eye on young Keith Aulie at camp. We didn’t get to see him much with the Marlies, as I recall, because he was injured soon after joining them on the heels of the big trade with Calgary last February.
But I’ll also be keen to see what fellow rookie defender Korbibian Holzer (4th rounder, 2006) can do. The young German, signed around the time of the World Championships this past spring, brings a skill set that should see him get a look. The Leafs seemingly like their “top 8”, but that can change when things start for real.