The Evolution of an Agitator (Addendum)

Sometimes you bite the dog; sometimes the dog bites back. Tim Thomas (right) didn’t take kindly to a slash received from Vancouver Canucks center, Alex Burrows that knocked Thomas’ stick from his hands late in the third period of the Bruins‘ 4-o victory in Game Four of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden in Boston. The Boston goaltender pummeled Burrows to the ice in response in yet another physical contest. The series now reverts to Vancouver’s Rogers Center for Game Five on Friday night, deadlocked at two games apiece. (Photo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

I need an intervention
I suppose I could be guilty of obsessing over Alex Burrows a little lately, because over the past week he’s all I seem to be able to be able to write about. For me, it’s apparently a good thing that I take my time getting posts out or from the outset I might have said some things I’d have regretted later.

At every point in this exercise, I’ve forced myself to edit the tenor of this The Evolution of an Agitator piece quite a bit from its original heading of a rather thinly-veiled rant about Burrows’ Jekyll and Hyde personality on the ice.  Hopefully, in the end it’s been a more even-keeled and objective than it might have been.

The infamous finger bite with the Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron last week was my original inspiration to write about Burrows; it really tweaked me off (as it did a lot of people). From the beginning my intention was to leave no paint on the walls in my expression of the stupidity of his actions.

However, once I got into the story and began researching his junior and minor league hockey career, I discovered Burrows’ similarities to Nashville’s Jordin Tootoo — a player with a similar profile who just now seems to be on the verge of his own transformation — and the obvious, more positive storyline became clear, allowing me to steer the boat back onto calmer waters. And for that I’m very happy, because it’s always better to be positive than it is to be negative.

Then the Stanley Cup Final shifted to Boston, and what looked to be a Vancouver-dominated series shifted as well in the Bruins’ direction. With last night’s 4-0 whitewash of the Vancouver Canucks, the Bruins completed their own sweep, dominating both games on their home ice.

It’s 2-2 and we have ourselves a series once again.

The Sedins/Burrows line has been completely shut down and with the notable exception of his scrum with Boston goaltender Tim Thomas, Burrows has now gone pretty much invisible for the last two games. So in a way, I kinda feel sorry for the guy.

With that said, I’ve decided that just because I can’t understand what makes the guy do what he does is no excuse to simply lambaste him, publically — especially when I know going in that my feelings aren’t entirely neutral in basis. The fact is Alex Burrows is a great player and a tremendous asset to his team.

However, the reason for this addendum is that there’s yet another Predators player that fate seems to have coupled with Burrows, and once again it’s not a pretty story. It is, however, one I feel needs to be told. It’s something that a lot of Preds fans have grumbled about privately over the years, but which I’ve neither heard about nor read anyone explore in print.

So minus any continued snide remarks about the finger-biting saga, his getting pwned by Timmy Thomas, or any otherwise amateur psychoanalysis of the Canucks’ enigmatic star center, here’s one final story for Preds fans to ponder concerning Burrows and the two careers that passed in the night on December 9, 2008.

A Career(s) Changer?
If you’ve followed the Nashville Predators/Vancouver Canucks rivalry prior to this season’s meeting in the playoffs, you likely have an idea as to why the subject of Alex Burrows is such an emotional hot-button for fans of this team. You probably also remember the game that initiated the flow of bad blood that exists between the two teams today, and that it was Alex Burrows who made the biggest cut.

Burrows may indeed be more likeable now than he was three years ago when his game was still largely based on his role as an agitator. However, it would be later that season when he would begin his transition to becoming the more offensive player we now see. But as of December 9, 2008, Alex was simply ‘offensive’ — and not in a good way.

In a tightly-contested game at Bridgestone Arena in which the Canucks would eventually prevail 3-1, play was extremely physical. Before all was said and done the contest would feature three major scrums and 70 minutes in penalties between the two teams.

The play in question occurred in the second period when Burrows left his feet to plant an open-ice head hit on Nashville Predators forward, J.P. Dumont. No penalty was called at the time because, by rule, Dumont did have possession of the puck, and at that point refs were still wildly inconsistent about enforcing illegal hits based on the launching of one’s body off the ice. Even with video and still-photo confirmation after the fact, the non-call prompted controversy over whether the hit was dirty or simply a clean, hard hockey play. At the time, however, Dumont’s teammates considered it the former and didn’t wait for discussion to act upon their feelings.

The jury rests, your honor. Any doubt that Burrows’ (#14, right) 12/8/09 hit on J.P. Dumont warranted supplemental discipline should have been out the window simply by viewing this photo taken a split-second after impact. Dumont seemed to be okay afterward, however his game is still reeling two-and-a-half years later. Conversely, Burrows’ feet still haven’t hit the ground. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The Preds took umbrage over Burrows clearly leaving his feet and the recklessness of his actions. A melee ensued among several players. In the end the officials stuck to their non-call decision and the Predators paid the greater price for the mass scrum. Two game misconducts, a fighting major and an instigator penalty later, Nashville was left with a seven minute penalty to kill, which they did so effectively.  Nevertheless the Preds felt as though they were wronged.

The hit on Dumont was one that today, given the heightened attention on head injuries in the NHL, would most likely have resulted in a suspension, yet one for which Burrows didn’t even receive a penalty (although he did get a pretty good beating from then-Captain Jason Arnott in retaliation — which was a historical moment in and of itself, considering how often Arnott ever showed any aggression while he was with the Preds).

Dumont was dazed, but didn’t miss any time as a result of the hit (which I’m sure had plenty to do with the non-call and the non-suspension). Nevertheless, a great many Preds fans I’ve spoken to now point to that event as the beginning of the decline in Dumont’s play that we’ve witnessed in the time since. Again, the current concussion protocol now common in the league was just in its beginning stages of implementation back in 2008-09, and what was still considered ‘a hockey play’ at the time might very well be a suspendable offense today. It might also have seen J.P. miss a few games as well, just as a precautionary measure.

However, nothing came down from the NHL’s Lords of Discipline in the days following the incident. No suspension and no supplementary discipline of any kind was assessed to Burrows.

There is a lot to take away from all aspects of the event, but in my opinion, the most intriguing aspect of its aftermath is the apparent crossroads effect experienced by its principals. Whether it was the hit or simply a twist of fate, J.P. Dumont was not and has not been the same player since that time. Conversely, neither has Alex Burrows.

Perhaps we’ll never know the true physical effect the hit had on Dumont, but there’s no doubt that whether by coincidence or otherwise, it marked the beginning of his decline as an offensive hockey player. Just as importantly it also seems to have served as a tipping point going the other way for Burrows.

Going Down
Given that Dumont didn’t really appear to be injured on the play, it’s impossible to say with any certainty that Burrows’ open-ice hit ‘did anything’ to J.P., physically. Nevertheless, the numbers don’t lie. The Predators leader in goals with 29 and co-leader in points with 72 the previous season, Dumont picked up right where he left off in the early months of 2008-09. Including that fateful December 9th contest, Dumont’s totals to that point were seven goals and 23 assists for 30 points, a pace, if unimpeded would have played out to a team record 87-point campaign.

In the end he would still lead the team in points with 65, yet despite playing all 82 games Dumont would score only nine more goals and garner just 26 more points over the remaining two-thirds of the 2008-09 season. The fact that this would be the Preds’ only season absent from the playoffs since before the lockout somewhat obscured Dumont’s precipitous drop in production, but the reality of his declining play would be hard not to see the following year.

In 2009-10 Dumont’s point total crashed another 20 points to 45 in 74 games and he began hanging out in Coach Barry Trotz’s doghouse as if it were his second home. Finally, this past season J.P. dipped to 19 points in 70 games; his lowest total since registering 15 in only 25 contests his rookie season in Chicago.

No one has been able to offer any explanation other than age (he’s currently 33 years old; three years older than Burrrows) as to Dumont’s demise, but painful as it is to consider, no one will be surprised if the team decides to simply cut their losses this summer and buy out the remaining year of his now unjustifiable $4 million contract.

Was it merely a coincidence that Dumont’s career began its rapid descent almost immediately following the hit from Burrows? And if the blow didn’t injure his body, could it have irrevocably damaged his confidence?

Going Up
Even more dramatic seems to be the uptick in Alex Burrows’ offensive profile following that December 9, 2008 game. Immediately following the incident, beginning with the late empty netter he deposited that sealed the 3-1 victory in that game, Burrows would score 20 more goals that season while adding an additional 15 assists for a career high 51 points in 2008-09.

And that was just the beginning.

Getting his chance to play on the Canucks’ top line, paired with Henrik and Daniel Sedin in February of ‘09, Burrows was just getting his feet wet. He would go on to enjoy a true breakout offensive season in 2009-10, with 35 goals and 32 assists, finding his way in a fashion similar to that of Nashville’s Patric Hornqvist’s offensive awakening that same year by driving to the net and becoming the beneficiary of shot rebounds and/or the incredible passing prowess of the Sedins.

Going into this season, Burrows’ production was hampered by offseason shoulder surgery last summer — but not by much. Even after missing the initial 10 games of 2010-11, his 26 goals would have lead the Predators by three over Sergei Kostitsyn’s high-water mark of 23. Likewise, his 48 points were just two shy of Marty Erat and Kostitsyn’s co-team-leading total of 50.

Nonetheless, comparing most anything the Vancouver Canucks do offensively to the Predators is problematic, mainly because of the greater wealth of offensive talent they have over Nashville. The Sedins are truly special players and likely would make even a marginally talented linemate a better scorer. But again, hockey is all about chemistry and to be sure, the right ingredients were combined when Burrows went to work with the twins.

So, for the sake of argument, could we say the same thing about Dumont? Soon after his fall from grace with Trotz, J.P. was relegated to 3rd and 4th line duty almost exclusively; his reduced production almost became a self-fulfilling prophesy. And although he did show moments of his former brilliance, such as his hat trick versus Phoenix on January 18th this past season, they seemed to be aberrations. Most of the opportunities Trotz did give Dumont to shine, he simply did not.

Truth Hurts
Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it’s hard to give props to a rival player — but you have to because he’s a great player and that has to be acknowledged. On the other hand, sometimes it’s heartbreaking to recognize that a talented team favorite has seen his better days pass him by — and that too must be acknowledged.

Whether Alex Burrows can resume the greatness he showed throughout the season and particularly, in the first two games of the 2011 Cup Final, we’ll have to wait until this Friday to see.

But what will we see of J.P. Dumont? And when? If the Preds decide not to buy out his contract, does he still possess the will to go all out in what will likely be his final season as an NHL player come October?

We may know the answer sooner than we think.


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