When you hear about an arms race in hockey, it’s the result of teams in the same division, or top sides in their conferences, loading up on top-level talent as a way to more ably compete with each other while simultaneously putting some distance between themselves and the rest of the teams they play on a regular basis.
This is the kind of behavior teams with deep pockets, like the Rangers and Flyers, engage in quite frequently. But since the start of this year’s Free Agent “Frenzy,” we’ve seen an arms race of a very different kind in the Northeast Division. Thanks to acquisitions by Buffalo and Montreal, the Northeast might now be the meanest, fightin’-est division in hockey.
The biggest such signing was of course Brandon Prust, perhaps the sport’s premier middleweight fighter, signing a sizable four-year, $10 million deal, and he’s a guy who has engaged in 38 fights in the last two seasons alone. Now, Prust is unlike other guys who fight that often, actually a somewhat useful hockey player, but you don’t bring in a guy with that many fights to score goals. You bring him in to be a physical presence. Defenseman Francis Bouillon isn’t afraid to throw them either, and both guys should be pretty useful in boosting the total number of fights in which a Montreal player engaged last season (just 28, tied for 21st in the league, with just eight more team fights than Prust had on his own).
Likewise, Buffalo went out and spent actual money on useless thug John Scott, then flipped Derek Roy — much maligned in Buffalo the last year or two — for Steve Ott, as a way of further boosting the team’s willingness to engage. You’ll remember all the talk about how soft the Sabres were last year, and this seems like Darcy Regier trying to both add more toughness and spur some of his guys to exhibit the amount they already have. You’ll note the team finished 10th in the league last year with 40 fighting majors, but that was led by Cody McCormick’s eight. Neither Ott nor Scott surpassed that number, with just six and five, respectively, but the latter’s five were in just 35 games. More to the point, it seems logical that the menace of John Scott, at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, is enough to dissuade otherwise combative teams from taking any liberties with his teammates in the meager few games in which he appeared. He is a man of prolific fistic talents, as anyone who has had the misfortune of getting their face rearranged by him will likely attest.
The reason for these signings is, I think, self-evident: Everyone is trying to keep up with Boston.
The Sabres haven’t been able to successfully wrangle someone who can play defense like Zdeno Chara, and the Habs haven’t acquired someone who can pump other teams for points like Tyler Seguin, and the Maple Leafs obviously don’t have anyone that can stop a puck like Tuukka Rask. But now they all have guys who can compete physically with a Bruins team that often takes liberties with its weaker opponents (see the string of posts here at the Backhand Shelf on the subject of the Bruins beating up everybody around November of last year for more information), or at least, they have those that quality in theory.
That theory is a comforting one if you’re one of the Sabres or Canadiens’ weaker, easily-exploited players. It shouldn’t be one if you’re their general manager or coach. The idea that toughness acts as some sort of deterrent to the Bruins is a laughable one, because they have someone on just about every line who will gleefully line up to punch Steve Ott in the face, and Brandon Prust doesn’t seem a likely candidate to intimidate, say, Milan Lucic. John Scott is a nice guy to have in theory, but lining up across from him could be a fellow who has an inch and 20-some-odd pounds on him, so that’s not exactly the smartest proposition either (though Buffalo would certainly take a Norris-candidate-for-useless-thug trade for five minutes).
The end both Darcy Regier, who has been disappointingly restrained in giving big money to mediocre-to-bad players, and Marc Bergevin are seeking seems extraordinarily misguided. Again, Prust can play a little bit, and Ott can certainly do so as well, but the pursuit of players for the sake of “toughness” and “making your team harder to play against” must be a delight to Boston, one of the true powers of the Eastern Conference and, indeed, the NHL. These are not players who make a difference in the division, and it would take a minor miracle for either to suddenly catch Boston up.
Boston has won its division pretty comfortably in each of the last three seasons, and took nine of 12 points from Buffalo and eight of 12 from Montreal last season. The gap in quality is chasmic, so what do the additions of these guys bring to bridge it? If you want to teach the Bruins a lesson, you do it by building teams that can beat them, not beat them up. And again, it’s not entirely clear Buffalo and Montreal have even done that.