Sunday, April 5, 2009

Penalty Shot: Legion of Ducks?

Anaheim calling to the hockey world...

Welcome to the Penalty Shot, a new segment I'm creating for the month of April. It'll basically just be me taking a look at some piece of Ducks news. Hopefully it will ALL be objective reporting, but I'll warn you if I plan to get opinionated. Here we go.

Before the Oilers game that opened the Ducks recent road trip, Coach Craig MacTavish compared the Ducks top line of Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan to the Legion of Doom. As MacTavish played with the famed Flyers line for both the shortened 94-95 season and the 95-96 season, the press core took note of his comments. But what, other than scoring and physical size, do the lines really have in common? Let's look at the story of the Legion of Doom.

It was 1994, the last year of the NHL's then still functioning CBA, and despite a productive season from Flyers rookie Mikael Renberg (38G 44A), superstar Eric Lindros (44G 53A) and the always reliable Mark Recchi (40G 67A), Philadelphia missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.

Opening day for the 94-95 season came and went, and Bettman and Goodenow descended into three months of deadlock. When they returned, the Players Association gave ground on the free agency issue, the NHL inked a TV deal with FOX and the WHA ex-patriots (excluding Edmonton) began to maneuver their way out of their respective cities. With the theme of change dominating the "new" NHL, Flyers GM Bobby Clarke made a blockbuster trade about a dozen games into the shortened season, sending Mark Recchi to Montreal in a six player deal that brought John LeClair to the Flyers. LeClair played well for the Habs. He was consistent and poised in the playoffs, but he only flashed the scoring brilliance that would define his time with Philadelphia.

In 37 games, the trio of Renberg, Lindros and LeClair chalked up 176 points, and the Flyers laid claim to the Atlantic Division. Their skill was rooted in their ability to own the puck in the offensive zone. They cycled and pressured until they ground down the opposing team, and they were the only line to seriously challenge the budding neutral zone trap that won New Jersey a Stanley Cup that season. Philadelphia announcer Gene Hart jumped on the nickname "Legion of Doom," and with national broadcasts courtesy of FOX, the name stuck, pasted to every highlight, replay and roundtable discussion. Unfortunately, the Legion of Doom never played an entire 82 game season together.

Mikael Renberg missed 30 games of the 1995-96 season, though the members of the line still managed to record 121 goals and 134 assists. Their time together was again shortened in 96-97 by a 30 game injury to the Flyers' captain, but that year, the line would put together one of the most impressive playoff runs in recent memory, shutting down Lemieux's Penguins and the Gretzky/Messier Rangers en route to the Stanley Cup Finals. However, despite looking unstoppable going into the series, Detroit swept the Flyers, and managed to hold Lindros to a single meaningless goal. The Red Wings, who were defeated by the Devils' Neutral Zone Trap two years prior, dismantled Philadelphia by utilizing the Left Wing Lock. Against the Lock, the Legion of Doom appeared to lack creativity and skating ability. They were exposed for their tendency to abandon defensive assignments. They watched from the boards as every game was won in the middle of the ice. Many viewed that Finals as a seachange in hockey.

Conventional hockey wisdom dictates that any single line should be composed of one speedster, one hitter and one finesse player. For fans of Nintendo's Ice Hockey, that's the skinny guy, the fat guy and the medium sized guy, respectively. The Flyers had been exposed for taking the ice with three fat guys in a game where the Western half of the league was increasingly dominated by puck movement and playmaking. Many Eastern Conference teams would de-emphasize physical domination in the following years. The Doom was dismantled when the Flyers swapped free agent Renberg for then "future of hockey" free agent Chris Gratton, only to trade the players back when Gratton was busted by pressure and Renberg by injury. Lindros continued to play the power forward until he was concussed out of the NHL with failed campaigns in Toronto and Dallas. LeClair had another 50G season followed by two 40G seasons, and kept plugging away until he hung them up in Pittsburgh.

When I first saw Penner, Perry and Getzlaf play together, I remarked on the spitting image of 90's Eastern Conference hockey-- the ability to own the boards, skate full speed into the net and stand tall in the crease, facing the goaltender. I would describe THAT line as the Legion of Doom. Bobby Ryan, tough though he may be, reminds the fans of how good all three players can be when away from the boards. There are fewer garbage goals with this line than there were with Penner. There are fewer power moves out of the corners. Ryan is more timid on the cycle, more likely to send the puck back to the point. And every time they take the ice, they remind you that each of them has a speed, finesse and hitting element to his game.

I will give MacTavish this, though. Just the image of three 6ft+ 215lbs+ guys swatting defenders off of them with some of the sweetest hands on God's green earth should be enough to draw the comparison. It's a rare treat in hockey.

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