When you're a player who makes his living on the edge of legality in the NHL, a guy who runs around and bounces off players and generally drives everyone crazy (including your own coach and teammates, at times), you have to be able to find that line in the sand.
The same thing happens when you're mad at a questionable hit that occurred earlier. If you are hell bent on getting your pound of flesh, you have to know when and how to get your payback without earning the league's wrath.
It's far from an easy task. With very few exceptions, all NHL penalties happen on a sliding scale of gray area. The action that is called a hook in one game may be let go in another, or even later in that same game, for equally defensible reasons. An illegal check to the head can be legitimately argued as a defensive play or an avoidable headshot. There's nothing really clear about most calls.
And that line becomes even grayer when you have a reputation.
That's the position Ryan Garbutt and Antoine Roussel find themselves in this season for the Dallas Stars and the one Jamie Benn found himself in on Saturday. We'll get to Benn in a minute, but first about the two main characters.
As the heirs to the Steve Ott "irritainment" throne, Garbutt and Roussel are trying very hard to get all opponent eyes focused on them by doing the little things that wind up the other team. From little gloved cuffs to the head in scrums to slashes on the wrist and calves to going out of their way to throw a hard hit, these two are trying really, really hard to make themselves obnoxious.
When it works well, it's very effective. They get opposing players concentrating on them rather than puck battles and other things that contribute to winning hockey games. But other times, and too often in recent weeks, in trying so hard to be irritating, they get only themselves in trouble.
Because sometimes that irritation spills over into bad penalties. For example, Roussel was fighting for position in front of the net when the Stars played at the New York Islanders a few weeks ago, and in his jostling and attempt to get the defenseman focused on him, he got his hand and stick up head-high. The whistle blew, he went to the box for a cross check, the Islanders scored on the power play and the game turned on a dime.
The penalty was so costly that Roussel was benched the next night for his efforts, a move Ruff admitted hurt the team's energy level. But it did reinforce a valuable lesson for Roussel.
"I have to walk the line better, I have to know what my job is," Roussel said. "I can find that line, it’s doable."
In general, Roussel has done a good job at finding the line. He does take a lot of offensive zone minors, as detailed in this great piece by Brad, but the vast majority of those are matching, which doesn't affect the manpower. However, it still can spill over into the bad penalties like we saw against the Islanders. Just like Ott or Brenden Morrow, coaches have to manage the reckless enthusiasm of this type of player.
And that's where we get to Garbutt, who has a much bigger problem with unmatched, silly penalties but also draws a ton because of his speed. His game is really interesting to me because he wants so hard to be an irritating guy, but he draws the vast majority of his calls on possession and speed plays. I respect a guy who wants to play with an edge, but in his particular case, I often wonder if it hurts more than helps.
"Obviously he’s a difference maker, he’s an energy guy for us and it was nice to see him get rewarded because that line has worked hard, he’s worked real hard. I’m pushing him for a better level of discipline inside his game and he’s getting rewarded for it."
If Garbutt can rein in his enthusiasm and play with that level of discipline, he will be a real lower line force. That's not to say he should stop being physical, just that he needs to avoid some of the stupid plays that have plagued him this year.
And that brings us to Benn, who escaped a suspension by the skin of his teeth and by the league's interpretation of defensive contact to the head for his high, hard hit on Matt Cooke of the Minnesota Wild. Benn is often at his best when he's playing with a physical edge, but he walked right up to the line and maybe stuck his big toe over with this hit.
If you're wondering why Benn would be looking for revenge on Cooke, let me point you to this incident earlier in the game (which is likely a retaliatory play of its own). Stick tap to fellow DBD writer Brandon Bibb for digging up this GIF:
Before you start citing me chapter and verse about how follow throughs are not high sticks, that is true, but those follow throughs are not allowed to be "wild swings at a bouncing puck." If you watch Cooke's first swing and then watch how he actually tries to clear the puck a few moments later, it's a marked difference. This is pretty clearly at least purposefully reckless and right up the alley of what you'd expect an agitating player like Cooke (or Roussel or Ott or whoever) to be up to. Benn has every right to be angry at the non-call, though it worked for him here as the Stars scored seconds later, and at Cooke for what looked to be a quite painful shot.
But that doesn't mean he can go out and be stupid in retaliation. Guys like Cooke and Roussel love that. It means they've won, that the better players on the other team are thinking more about how to get a pound of flesh out of them rather than winning the game. On the play in question from Saturday, Cooke walked himself into the hit (which is why Benn was cleared of a rule 48 violation), but it was also likely avoidable from Benn to some extent. If he's concentrating more on getting the puck into the zone and getting a scoring chance rather than jumping on Cooke for opening himself up for a hard hit, maybe more comes of the play than just questions of a suspension.
And with all three players at this point, reputation comes into play. Like it or not, each of the three players listed (but primarily Garbutt and Roussel) have earned reputations with officials as guys who are likely to step over that line. Referees are human and are well aware of potential troublemakers out on the ice. If something goes bad and one of those two are near it, they are likely to get called.
It might be unfair, but it's a bed they have made for themselves. Referees want to keep the games under control; it's one of the primary things they are charged with from a player safety standpoint. They know which guys might tip a game over into out of control and give them much shorter leashes.
As far as Benn goes, he is helped by the fact that he's considered a top-tier player in this league, and in general, both the refs and the league give a little more leeway to players like him as opposed to ones like Ott, Roussel or Cooke. Still, it's a very bad habit to get into a series of incidents where people start calling for you to be suspended. That's how you end up eventually losing the benefit of the doubt.
It's a very difficult line to walk, especially for players that make themselves better when playing with a physical edge. You don't want to be bullied and you don't want to suffer at the hands of guys who will chop you because you won't fight back, but the best way to fight back is always to win the game.
When anything else, be that revenge or just trying to gain an irritation edge, gets in the way of winning, it becomes a serious problem.