The Hurricanes were hit with some surprising news yesterday evening as it was announced that forward Jeff Skinner would be suspended two games for "kicking" St. Louis player Scott Nichol with his skate blade during Thursday's game against the Blues. This is the first time that a Hurricanes player has been "Shanabanned" this year and the news surprised a lot of fans because not much was made of this incident by either broadcast team when it happened during the game. It did not miss the eye of Mr. Shanahan, though and Skinner will sit out the next two games.
When looking at the suspension explanation video, you can clearly see that Skinner uses his skate blade in a kicking motion on Nichol in an attempt to make more room for himself. This is in violation of Rule 49.1 and is an extremely dangerous play by Skinner. Martin Havlat was suspended five games for a similar instance in 2005. Skinner absolutely deserves this suspension and there is no debate about that, but this has led to some interesting discussions among Carolina fans about the team's need for an "enforcer" to look out for Skinner.
Anyone who watches Carolina knows that opposing teams have been taking liberties with Skinner ever since he came into the league and its easy to see why. Skinner is younger, smaller and weaker than a lot of his competition in the NHL and it has led to him be on the receiving end of some punishing hits from the likes of Brooks Orpik, Andy Sutton and Mark Fistric. The Hurricanes don't have a designated figher or "tough guy" on their team and Skinner's had to defend himself most of the time and it has led to him doing some pretty bad things between the whistles. The kicking incident that got Skinner suspended was done out of self-defense and he's also resorted to some cheap tactics in an effort to defend himself as of late and I am not a fan of it at all. Skinner is an amazing player and I understand that he has to defend himself despite being at a size and height disadvantage but I want him to be known for his goal-scoring and play-making skills rather than the stuff he resorts to between whistles to defend himself.
This is where the "enforcer" would come into play for most people. The idea is that having a big, intimidating fighter in the lineup will prevent other teams from taking runs at their players but in today's NHL, the role of an enforcer is very limited. Most play only five minutes per game, have little to no hockey skills and generally don't have much of an effect because of the instigator rule. It's a debate that has been run to the ground among hockey bloggers and all I can think of when people bring up a team's "need for an enforcer" is how little of them have much of an effect in the NHL right now. Many teams have tried to make room for a player like that but how many of them actually use these enforcers? Steve MacIntyre has played only 11 games for the Penguins this year, Brian McGrattan has played 30 games for the Nashville Predators, Darcy Hordichuk, Kevin Westgarth and Jody Shelley are healthy scratches on most nights and I don't even need to get into the Joel Rechlicz fiasco in Washington.
I am not sure if an enforcer is needed on the Hurricanes to protect guys like Skinner but what would help is having more of the team's bigger players help defend him. Tim Gleason and Bryan Allen have done this many times in the past and I guess it wouldn't hurt to have them step up their games a little bit. The only problem with them fighting and "roughing up" those who take runs at Skinner is that it normally results in one of them going to the box and that hurts the team because both are two of Carolina's best penalty killers. Anthony Stewart and Derek Joslin are two other players who have been willing to drop the gloves in the past and both are big, physical players that can provide an intimidating presence to opponent's. The issue here is that neither play a lot of minutes and likely will not be on the ice when Skinner is. I could see both of them playing a role similar to an enforcer, only they help the team in other ways besides fighting. Tuomo Ruutu is another player who I can see sticking up for Skinner during scrums and he plays on a line with him almost regularly.
Skinner is only 19 and he will eventually mature enough physically to fight his own battles but until then, he is going to need some help. Like I just said, he's still a kid and his actions between the whistles show that he still has some learning to do when it comes to picking his battles and defending himself. His teammates can help him out with this area of the game but I do not think that help should come in the form of an enforcer.