It’s a play every hockey fan has likely discussed this week. Last Sunday, Columbus Blue Jackets forward Kole Sherwood took what amounted to an innocuous jab looking for a rebound from Calgary Flames netminder David Rittich. Then came Rittich’s teammate Milan Lucic with a classic haymaker sucker-punch. With his glove on. To Sherwood’s face. Decking him to the ice.
A decade ago, Lucic may have been assessed two minutes, possibly four, for roughing. But these are different times in the NHL. The game has changed. Unfortunately, Lucic hasn’t.
Lucic may still feel the sting of getting dropped by the Blue Jackets’ Dalton Prout a few years ago when he was still with the Boston Bruins. He may feel an extra shot of adrenaline when he plays them. Or he may feel the need to re-gain street cred that was lost in Columbus.
What Lucic clearly hasn’t done is learned.
The Vancouver-born winger continues to play outside the rules because he’s too slow for today’s game, and what little skill he once had is now unfit for the NHL. His frustration is obvious and just. He simply has nothing to contribute and knows that he no longer has a place in the league.
It was clear the moment Lucic had the puck cleanly stolen from him at the blue line by Sherwood that he was going to impose his frustrations on him. By the time Sherwood went for a loose rebound, Lucic had enough fire in his beast-like belly and gargantuan frame that he couldn’t contain himself. He hunted down Sherwood and walloped him, smacked him in the kisser.
Lucic’s behavior was both dirty, senseless and needless. Dirty. Senseless. Needless. There’s just no room in today’s game for that. It earned him yet another fine and suspension for the exact-same brainless buffoonery. Will he change? Will it ever be 90 degrees in Calgary in February?
In today’s game, if Lucic wants to send a message, he needs to grab Sherwood, pull him aside and drop his gloves… all but forcing him into the unenviable choice of fighting or fleeing. In the moment, Lucic should’ve engaged Sherwood to be his haymaker dance partner or forced him to turtle.
New Team, Same Idiotic Play
While with the Edmonton Oilers, in November of last year, Lucic was fined $10,000, the maximum amount allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, for roughing Tampa Bay Lightning forward Mathieu Joseph. It was pure ‘I will break you’ type shenanigans by Lucic as he stalked him, slashed him, took him down, then sat on him while attempting to embed his head into the ice. He was punished with a $10,000 fine for roughing.
After joining the Flames in the offseason – a swap for the now red-hot goal-scorer James Neal – Lucic has already proven himself incapable of playing by the rules. He’s an out-of-control bully whose only remaining asset is his size and intimidation.
In a game against the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 3 this season, Nikita Zadorov made a huge, seemingly clean hit along the boards on Flames center Austin Czarnik. Czarnik immediately fell to the ice and appeared to be injured and Zadorov was called for boarding. It wasn’t enough for Lucic. He raced in and took matters into his own hands, literally, socking Zadorov in the face while he wasn’t looking. A textbook definition of a sucker punch. The mindless play earned him 17 penalty minutes.
If Lucic still considers himself to be the tough, intimidating bruiser he thinks he is, why wouldn’t he have the courage and honor to drop the gloves with a similar-sized Zadorov? Send a message the right way and challenge him outright.
There are some who may say Lucic’s new Flames teammates admire the hits and the underlying messages sent by the fists served up to Zadorov and Sherwood. They may embolden the bench, knowing he has their backs. But will they feel that way come February when he has one goal and has taken ice time away from prospects with genuine skill and speed? Will all of the penalty killers thank him for having to kill of his mindless penalty minutes? Will Lucic’s continued poor judgement lead to wins?
While still an imposing force, ready to drop the gloves and pound the snot out of opponents, Lucic is a fraction of what he used to be on the score sheet. Unable to produce with ample minutes, he’s been demoted to third- and fourth-line minutes. He can’t even help his case when he gets some time on the power play.
At this point, Lucic’s lone value appears to be his physical presence and whatever’s left of his intimidation game. It’s a hefty price to pay.
Lighting the Lamp
Lucic’s name used to be found on a scoresheet for points, now he only lives under the ‘penalties’ heading. In 79 games last season with the Edmonton Oilers, Lucic scored all of six goals. It’s the fewest goals he’s scored since entering the NHL in 2007-08. This season with the Flames, through 16 games, he has yet to put the biscuit in the basket.
In other words, since the beginning of the 2018-19 season, Lucic has six goals. That’s 6 goals in 95 games (it’s even worse since he finished the 2017-18 season goal-less in his last 16 games). He’s in a tie for 349th among forwards. Points-wise, Lucic is tied for 384th in the league among forwards who have played at least 20 games. He’s keeping company with St. Louis Blues winger Zach Sanford, Chicago Blackhawks center David Kampf and Washington Capitals forward Travis Boyd. Not exactly household names.
Despite logging an average of 13:04 of ice time per game (301st in the league among forwards), he has the fifth-most penalty minutes (121). His minus-12 plus/minus rating is 385th in the league.
“I understand the numbers and the goals and all that type of stuff, but if I focus on my overall game, I feel like it’s been pretty good and if I just stick with it, it’s eventually going to go in,” said Lucic last November. “Maybe it’s just the year 2018. It’s just been not my year and everything that can bounce the other way has. Just stay with it until 2019 rolls around, maybe.”
More Than a Slump
A slump is one thing, but going back another year, it doesn’t get much better. Since the start of the 2017 season, the pugilist has scored 16 goals and 41 assists. His 16 lamplighters have him tied for 305th among all forwards. And, as bad as these stats are, they’re even worse considering he played nearly a quarter of his minutes with elite, point-scoring machine Connor McDavid. And when he wasn’t playing the “enforcer” on McDavid’s line, he was often skated alongside Leon Draisaitl or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
With his seven-year, $42 million contract signed on July 1, 2016, by any metric, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound forward is the worst value in the NHL today.
Lucic is Lost in Today’s NHL
Lucic’s time is up.
Lucic, a former five-time 20-goal scorer, with a career-best 30 goals in 2010-11 with the Bruins, is a shell of himself and his seven-year deal with the Flames is proving to be a massive anchor.
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With today’s game built upon speed and skill, the enforcer role is all but extinct. Few teams have one. And ones that do aren’t making coin like Lucic. Even fellow face-pounder Ryan Reaves is making less than half of Lucic’s salary.
Lucic’s 13-year career has had its moments, especially with the Bruins. The divisive figure once filled the net in addition to pouring haymakers into his opponent’s faces. Now, his only skills are his fists. And even at that, they’re gloved. He’s becoming more irrelevant with every game. The only thing he can try to do is wreak havoc by way of intimidation.
What to do with Lucic
Lucic can’t score at even strength. He can’t score on the power play. He doesn’t kill penalties – worse, he takes more than his fair share of them. His stat-line reads like that of a marginal American Hockey League player. Yet, the incredible thing, despite his forgettable play, Lucic hasn’t been scratched a single time in the past two seasons.
Maybe he’s even intimidated his coaches.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”