Big hits no longer a big focus for Penguins prospects
A generation ago, it wasn’t a line buried at the bottom of a scouting report. It might be the No. 1 reason a player became a millionaire.
The ability to deliver a big, open-ice hit was a sought-after commodity in the hockey community.
Brooks Orpik and Colby Armstrong, for instance, were the Penguins’ first two first-round draft picks of this century thanks, in part, to their penchant for separating opponents from their senses with violent checks.
These days, it no longer is a primary consideration when teams are deciding which players to draft or bring in via trades or free agency.
The group of prospects who skated at the Pittsburgh Penguins development camp this week might be the first generation to play hockey in a post-hitting world.
Take this year’s first-round pick Samuel Poulin, for example. He is a power forward, checking in at a solid 6-foot-1, 208 pounds. Does he like to hit? Absolutely.
“It’s a big part of my game,” Poulin said. “Especially going through playoffs, I was trying to get some momentum going for my team. It always gets you going.”
Is he looking to make the highlight reels with a hit that gives his opponent a brain injury, though? Absolutely not.
“If you go for the big hit all the time, you could maybe get suspended. And it’s dangerous,” Poulin said. “That’s not really my game. I want to finish my checks and get the ‘D’ off their game.”
Only 18 years old, Poulin never has known a world where it’s OK to drive a shoulder into an opponent’s chin.
“I’ve been taught, starting around 10 or 12 years old, to angle the guy and finish your hit,” he said. “That’s the first thing I learned about hitting.”
In college hockey these days, players generally are being taught more than ever to avoid head-hunting hits at all costs. College refs are allowed to use video review to determine if head contact has been made on any check. The rule is enforced strictly, and major penalties are commonplace.
“I think the biggest thing, at least that we’re learning at Penn State, is if you want to hit a guy, great, but you’ve got to have your stick on the ice, ready to get the puck,” rookie winger Chase Berger said. “That keeps your arm down and your shoulder down and keeps it way safer. We’re just trying to get the puck.”
Jon Lizotte is a sturdy, 6-1, 214-pound defenseman with a physical component to his game. Even players in his role have learned to be careful about the kind of hits they dish out.
“Because of all the talent and speed and skill, it’s really hard to line someone up like that,” Lizotte said. “You rarely catch people unaware. If you try, and you’re out of position, then you look bad and you let your team down. You’ve got to pick and choose your times and kind of play the game that’s going on now.”
Because hard, high hits quickly are beginning to disappear from the game, a potential danger exists.
If players grow up never having to worry about being injured by a violent hit, they might lose the head-on-a-swivel mentality that has been critical to self-preservation in hockey since the sport’s inception.
Poulin said he doesn’t think the game has evolved quite that far yet.
“There’s always people trying to go for the big hit in every league,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful. Having your head up is always going to help you, for sure.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .