The Evolution of an Agitator (Part 1/2)

Enigmatic Vancouver Canucks forward, Alex Burrows has gone from agitator to assassin in a short time, and is taking the lead in his team’s quest for their first Stanley Cup. (Above) Burrows (#14) scored the overtime game winner to defeat the Boston Bruins 3-2 Saturday night in Vancouver. The spectacular wrap-around goal, beat Boston netminder, Tim Thomas and defenseman, Zdeno Chara (#33), just 11 seconds into the extra period, giving the Canucks a commanding two games to none lead in the best-of-seven series. Play continues with Monday night’s Game Three at Boston’s TD Garden. (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

The Man; The Myth; The Enigma.
It’s doubtful you’d win the argument trying to name a more polarizing figure currently in the NHL in general  and among Nashville Predators fans in particular than Vancouver Canucks’ center Alexandre Burrows. The Western Conference’s chief sandpaper merchant is once again up to his old — and new — tricks in a big way in the Stanley Cup Final battle between Vancouver and the Boston Bruins.

In a series in that Vancouver leads 2-0 going into tonight’s contest at TD Garden in Boston, Burrows has made his presence felt as much on the scorer’s sheet as the radio talk show-blog-and- message board circuit. In what can only be described as a ‘same ol’ Alex’ kind of move, the Canucks first-line center dredged up enormous controversy with the now-infamous did-he-or-didn’t-he bite-the-finger incident with Boston forward Patrice Bergeron, in a scrum behind the net at the conclusion of the first period of a yet scoreless Game One last Wednesday night in Vancouver.

Both Bergeron and Burrows received roughing minors, with Burrows having an extra two minutes tacked on for his part in the melee. The Canucks successfully killed off the man disadvantage at the start of Period Two, but would go on to win, 1-0 on Raffi Torres’ seeing-eye marker with 11 seconds remaining in regulation.

But even though they lost that opening game, the Bruins must have at least had some sense of anticipation that they could possibly enjoy an advantage in Game Two Saturday night in view of what replays appeared to show as a definite biting action by Burrows in the incident with Bergeron. Nevertheless, the league found no conclusive evidence from the tapes to warrant the suspension that just about everyone believed was coming.

Instead, Boston was forced to soldier on and try to gain a split of the initial two games in the Great Northwest, before the series shifted to friendlier ice, beginning in Beantown tonight.

Instead, the worst the worst Bruin fans’ nightmare was realized.

From Agitator to Assassin
Unfortunately for the Bruins, the guy who ‘wasn’t supposed to even be able to play’ was the best player on the ice all game long Saturday. Burrows scored Vancouver’s first goal and assisted on the second. Even worse for Boston, Burrows’ assist was a portent of very bad things to come. The goal, scored by Burrows’ linemate, Daniel Sedin, tied the game 2-2 at 9:37 of the third period, after the Bruins appeared to have captured momentum with a pair of quick second-stanza goals.

Despite Boston goaltender Tim Thomas’s efforts to navigate his team into overtime with his own steady play late in the Third, the Canucks had clearly coerced ‘MO’ to come sit on their bench by the time the puck was dropped on the 2011 Cup Final’s initial extra-time period.

It didn’t take long for the other shoe to drip — just 11 seconds to be precise. Again it was Burrows and Sedin, with Daniel returning the favor, feeding a crisp pass to Alex at the Boston blueline. Burrows skated in and faked the shot on Thomas from the left circle, then somehow avoided the aggressive backcheck of Boston’s Zdeno Chara, circling behind the net to catch the over-committed netminder still sprawled out of position for an astonishingly easy-looking wraparound game-winner.

Granted, there were a lot of friendly factors involved in that play, but you can forget about those. Forget about Thomas doing cartwheels at the right post in response to the Burrows fake; forget about Boston’s super-dooper all-world defenseman, Chara, failing to use his 6’9″ frame and Paul Bunyan-length stick to hook, hold, or otherwise tackle Burrows, who had clearly beaten him behind the net, yet was still within easy reach.

Just forget all of that. This one was all about Alex Burrows, folks. This one was another guts-and-guile type of goal that has become the trademark of one talented and hard-working som’bitch; someone that the league still seems to be making a habit out of underestimating.

Nobody seems to believe that this guy should be this good; and I can’t say I blame them. I’ve had my own personal prejudices about a players whose greatest talent seemed to be making other people mad; who have a history of more than merely disrupting games, but changing games, and careers as well, then seemingly overnight seems to turn a corner and becomes an all-around world-beater of a player.

Coming-of-Age Agitators
Burrows isn’t the only agitator-type we’ve recently seen display rather surprising spike in development in the past few seasons. Guys like Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie and, to perhaps a lesser degree with Philadelphia’s Daniel Carcillo, players somewhat easy to typecast in previous years, have now been given the chance to take their offensive game to a new level and are taking full advantage. Former Predator and one of Carcillo’s current Flyers teammate, Scott Hartnell would be another former agitator in the area code of a Burrows-type metamorphosis over that same time period

Nevertheless, Burrows is the poster child for the agitator coming of age as an all-around NHL player. Burrows had always been one of the league’s top forecheckers and penalty-killers. But since joining forces with the Sedin twins in the second half of the 2008-09 season, his aggressive style has complimented Henrik and Daniel, contributing to them reaching their greatest heights in recent years as well.

However, speaking for myself, here, as much as I’d like to admire the emergence of such a player as Burrows, bad blood leaves a nasty stain sometimes. That already-established persona of someone you’ve grown loving to hate is kinda tough to shake.

It’s a funny thing about players of Burrows ilk, however; the disruptors; the agitators; the borderline (or over-the-line) dirty players; the sandpaper guys, whose primary job is to get under opposing players’ skin. When they’re really good at their job, fans may hate their guts, but, by gawd, you sure wouldn’t mind having them on your team, would ya? And when they manage to ‘exceed their programming’ so to speak, they become infinitely more valuable.

The fans love ‘em; the opponents hate ‘em. The question is — particularly in the case of someone like Burrows, and in light of recent events so far in the Stanley Cup Final — as their game changes, do they? Do they need to? Should they ‘take it down a notch — not in intensity, but in the area of antics such as the finger-biting incident? The more applicable question might be, can they? As suggests the old southern adage, amended here for hockey application, can you really take the agitator out of the boy?

Do you really need to? At what point does such a player need to ‘lose the act’?

The case in point is obvious. What would we be looking at right now if Burrows had been suspended following the alleged biting incident with Bergeron? Has Alex Burrows value as a first line player now exceeded that of his role as an agitator? And how much did his new, heightened standing as one of the game’s emerging stars sway the decision by the NHL to refrain from handicapping Vancouver in the midst of league’s biggest stage?

At what point does the abrasive behavior that can spark a team turn into a detriment?

The 2011 Stanley Cup Final still has a ways to go and lots can still happen. These and other questions will be discussed and chewed-on long after this one is in the books, and Alex Burrows’ continuing transformation will likely continue, whether his reputation does or not. However, it does make quite the interesting case study to consider; comparing other players in similar stages of emergence — players other than the aforementioned Messrs Downie and Carcillo — one in fact, right here in Nashville. And the similarity of the trappings when comparing Burrows’ and his own developmental journey just might surprise you.


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Next: The Jordin is Rising


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One Response to “The Evolution of an Agitator (Part 1/2)”

  1. Steve Ringer June 8, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    At what point does the abrasive behavior that can spark a team turn into a detriment?

    I think we saw the answer to that the other night following Rome’s hit on Horton :) It can be good tactics to “fire things up” out there but when they backfire, they surely burn down the house!

    Great article. Thanks!

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