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FanFirst Fridays: Old School vs. New School Edition

Toughness is the only way to win in hockey. That’s the belief. But is it true in the new NHL?

NHL: USA TODAY Sports-Archive
Do I sometimes wish this man would roam the Devils blueline again? You betcha. But the new NHL is so much better than what it used to be.
Lou Capozzola-USA TODAY Sports

This past week was a tough one for Devils fans. First, Nico Hischier was repeatedly ragdolled, crosschecked and targeted all over the ice by the Florida Panthers in New Jersey because Panthers players felt he purposely tried to hurt their star center Aleksander Barkov when Hischier was trying to get leverage on a faceoff and brought his stick down on Barkov’s knee. Barkov wound up leaving the game and has missed the next few, including the rematch on Wednesday in South Florida. The Devils then wound up losing in Carolina, finally surrendering the lead in the division they’ve had since basically the second week of the season.

The rematch in Florida was a nationally televised game by TNT and I won’t recap the entire thing, as John did an outstanding job doing that already.

What caught my attention was a narrative that’s come around on this team. It’s basically about it being soft.

People were yelling and screaming on Twitter that Nico should’ve dropped the gloves and fought Matthew Tkachuk and it would’ve been over. I don’t see it that way. I did grow up loving the NHL when Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko and Randy McKay and Mike Peluso would carry out street justice. But it was also a time when hooking, holding, interference and crosschecking were common and rarely called unless someone was bleeding or crippled. The Devils were beneficiaries of this time period in NHL history. To the tune of three Stanley Cups. So it’s not a surprise that when, in the context of a long-time fan such a myself, some of the way the new NHL is handled can be startling.

I find myself really wanting someone to pound Matthew Tkachuk and Aaron Ekblad into the ice for their regular and routine abuse of the Devils captain. But here’s the thing, the best vengeance was the fact that the Devils walked out of Florida with two points. Would I have wished for Randy McKay to suddenly reappear in his number 21 jersey and dish out some old school justice? Yes, it would’ve made me feel a lot better. But if Nico was ok with how the night played out, and he certainly seemed like he did in the postgame interview, then why are fans still clamoring on about it? The fanbase should’ve just celebrated snapping the six-game winless streak, Mackenzie Blackwood returning from injury with one of his more stellar performances I can remember in some time and the magical re-appearance of a Mr. Jesper Bratt in the form of two key goals.

Instead, the terms soft and embarrassing were thrown about. People wanted vigilante justice for our captain. I will tell you that I’ve come around on the new NHL with the less obstruction, the speed, the less violence. It doesn’t mean that I don’t still watch Scott Stevens hits on YouTube on occasion and kind of wish he was still patrolling our blue line.

But with the evolution of our game, someone like Jack Hughes is much more free to do absolutely magical things with the puck. He can excel because of this new NHL. The game has gotten better. The Colorado Avalanche were one of the most skilled teams I’ve seen win the Cup. They had speed and skill and made the game look amazingly beautiful. Yes, they could also lock it down, but a brilliantly fast puck possession team that controlled play and made it exciting for all fans gave me hope that what New Jersey was building was on a similar path. Now Colorado has stars that are bigger and can likely handle themselves in an extremely physical game.

But I’m not convinced that the Devils are soft. I think only time and a playoff experience will tell us that. The playoffs are next level, but the referees don’t necessarily back off on calling penalties like they used to. If you can upgrade and get a bigger and stronger forward who can offer some grit and scoring, then you do so, but those aren’t cheap and are much harder to find these days than they used to be. Ultimately, the best war to win is the one on the scoreboard. And that’s the truth of today’s NHL. It’s taken some evolution from me, but I like it this way.

How do you feel? Did you want a pound of flesh? Were you screaming at your TV? Or were you just so happy when Shara tipped that puck in and did that beautiful celly that you didn’t care?