Rob Mahon The Hockey Writers
Should They Stay or Go: Anthony Peluso
Anthony Peluso has said he’s not fond of the term “nuclear option” to describe himself as a hockey player. On the other hand, there’s no denying that many see him in the role of a deterring force.
Peluso, one of the last of the true heavyweight fighters in the NHL who might be described as enforcers, in many ways represents a greater debate that rages throughout the NHL about the role of fighting. For the Winnipeg Jets, he represents a much simpler debate: is there a place for him on what promises to be a very different, perhaps even younger Jets team next season?
For some, resolving that debate is as simple as looking at his uninspiring advanced statistics and saying, “There you have it.” For others, those who believe a little more in the eye-test and the mental side of the game that cannot be measured, the debate isn’t as easily settled. One thing that is almost certain to ignite debate is whether to keep Peluso or longtime Jet Chris Thorburn. Conventional wisdom among hockey pundits and armchair GMs is there isn’t much point in the Jets keeping both.
So, has Peluso made enough of a mark to last through the changes that are surely coming, or does he become a casualty of those changes? Like many of the Jets forwards, his future is unknown entering this season.
All in Favour?
One major mark in Peluso’s favour is something that won’t show up on the ice: his services are inexpensive. His minuscule cap hit hardly impacts the Jets at all, and nobody is going to be complaining that keeping Peluso (who still has one year left on his contract) is going to prevent the Jets from signing somebody else. Financially, keeping him is harmless, and that won’t go unrecognized when the Jets decide who to keep.
On the ice, in a capacity more immediately noticeable to fans, Peluso has often struck me as an effective player below the opposing goal line. He uses his strong frame to shield the puck and start the cycle game, and for a while, he found some real chemistry with Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry on the fourth line, before injuries tore line combinations apart. That fourth line was one of the better fourth lines the Jets iced all season.
Peluso is fast enough and big enough to throw huge hits on the forecheck, the kind that makes defenders hear footsteps. There aren’t many players on the Jets who can make opposing players look over their shoulder the way he can, and he’s second only to Dustin Byfuglien on the team for his ability to make the boards rattle.
And yes, there are the fights. At the risk of starting an entirely different debate, I still believe fighting has a place in hockey, and I still believe fighters have an important role to play, as long as they’re capable of taking a regular shift. Peluso is perhaps the best fighter in the NHL right now, and that’s no small thing. A player who can defend himself and his teammates the way Peluso does has undeniable value.
Like it or not, the Jets are going to ice a very young team next season, and the Central Division is full of teams who will try to take advantage of that with bully tactics. While staged fights may be leaving the game (and even proponents of fighting like me aren’t missing them too much) heat-of-the-moment fights and sticking up for teammates will always be there. Peluso is one of the best at sticking up for his teammates. After Luca Sbisa laid a high hit on Jets rookie Nikolaj Ehlers, Peluso made sure Sbisa paid the price for it later in the game. He did the same last year to Bryan Bickell when Bickell was running around a bit too much for his liking.
Roll your eyes at the intimidation tactic if you like, but if I’m a young player like Kyle Connor or Ehlers or whoever the second overall pick happens to be, I feel a lot safer knowing Peluso is looking over my shoulder. The security he provides other players won’t show up on a stats sheet, but it’s no less important for that. Good players need space to work with, and Peluso helps give them that space.
Sometimes Peluso’s greatest strengths, his toughness and relentlessness on the forecheck, work against him. A fight can energize a team, but it can also leave them shorthanded if he takes an instigator penalty. He also needs to work on his timing with the big hits. His style of play has gotten him into trouble in the past, and the Jets don’t need any additional attention from the Department of Player Safety or the Department of Officiating.
And if Peluso’s underlying numbers make you frown, his overlying numbers make you cringe. This is simply not a player who puts up a lot of points. You are not, in all likelihood, going to get ten or even five goals from Peluso. He only scored one goal all of last season, after all. Even if you aren’t paying him to score, per se, that’s too low.
And, as more than a few fans have pointed out, it’s hard to be a deterrent from the bench or the press box, and Peluso did spend a lot of time in those places last season. He also spent a lot of time injured, which can really be damaging to a player on the fringes of a lineup; those players cannot afford to be out of sight/out of mind.
Peluso’s ceiling at this point is well known. He is, at his best, a tough fourth liner. The Jets may be tempted by younger players with less certainty but higher ceilings. Should Peluso keep his spot at the expense of Scott Kosmachuk or J.C. Lipon? Both players have a grinding element to their game and have higher offensive upsides than Peluso.
I’m one of the old-school guys who still loves to see a good scrap now and then, and I have an inherent respect for the guys like Peluso, who have the toughest job in hockey. It’s physically demanding, and mentally demanding as well, since it comes with lower ice time and less job security than a scorer or dependable defenseman. For playing that role, Peluso has the same respect of his teammates that grinders invariably enjoy.
The Jets are trending in a new direction, and that could both help and hurt Peluso. On one hand, the Jets want to get younger and have a lot of players competing for a roster spot Peluso currently enjoys. On the other hand, it behooves the Jets to have somebody looking over the young players’ shoulders. The Jets cannot afford to be known as a team that can be pushed around, and nobody but nobody pushes around the big man from North York, Ontario.
Peluso’s salary can work for or against him as well. While it’s an innocuous number, it’s also a number that’s easy to justify burying in the minors. Thorburn’s contract, for example, is a little harder to stomach in the American Hockey League.
I’d love to see Peluso come to camp in the fall having gotten quicker. That, I think, would make him a true force to be reckoned with on the fourth line. He can hit like a truck, stick up for his teammates, and cause havoc in the other team’s end by banging bodies and starting the cycle. He can disrupt other teams breakouts with his reach and physicality. If he gets quicker, Peluso can be to the Jets what Shawn Thornton was to the Boston Bruins for years: a perfect fourth liner.
The Jets, however, may not give him that chance. His offensive numbers are beyond even my ability to defend, especially with so many good young players nipping at his heels, and in an increasingly analytics-driven league, his possession stats are a strike against him as well. The Jets want to roll four lines consistently, and they may be prepared to jump start the youth movement to do it.
Peluso’s position is truly up in the air in my mind, and depends a great deal on what direction the Jets choose to go in, but if other players like Kosmachuk, Lipon, or even Brendan Lemieux come to camp hungry and show a strong game, it might leave Peluso as the odd man out. If that’s the case, I’ll miss watching the big guy lay a beatdown on someone who crossed the line with the Jets’ young stars. I’ll miss watching some poor defenseman pick themselves up off the ice after he steamrolled them on the forecheck. I think the Jets will find they miss it too.
Peluso goes. But I don’t have to like it.
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