By Joseph Beyda
Everybody’s new favorite Shark is one hell of a hammerhead.
Few NHL players hit like Raffi Torres. Maybe it’s his 6-foot, 225-pound frame, or his puck-hawk instincts, or his penchant for throwing an elbow every time he checks an opponent, but he’s the definition of a hockey player that you hate playing against—and you love to have skating on your side. Plus, he just looks mean.
He’s known as one of the toughest players in the game. He’s also known as one of the dirtiest.
In last year’s playoffs, Torres leapt off the ice to deliver a resounding blow to the head of Chicago forward Marian Hossa, a clearly illegal hit that sent Hossa to the hospital and earned Torres a 25-game suspension, the third-longest ban in league history. Just a year earlier, Torres had committed another head shot in the postseason against the Blackhawks, so he quickly built a reputation as a malicious player.
As webpages by fed-up opposing fans sprung up last offseason exploring his history of dirty hits, Torres strove to rework his bad-guy image; that image, after all, was probably responsible for the fact that he had been shipped between six different NHL teams in 11 years. But nonetheless, he was moved yet again this month when the Phoenix Coyotes sent him to my San Jose Sharks in a trade for a third-round pick.
The Sharks, like any other Western Conference team, have a history with Torres. With San Jose looking to take a 2-0 series lead against the Edmonton Oilers in the 2006 Western Conference Semifinal, Torres delivered a dirty hit on speedy Sharks winger Milan Michalek, who missed the next two games with injury. Though San Jose did win game two, the hit changed the momentum of the series and the Oilers won the next four contests, advancing 4-2.
With hits flying everywhere, hockey fans don’t usually have the longest of memories. But we Sharks fans are a little different. We’re going to the playoffs for the ninth straight year, and we have consistently put one of the best teams in the NHL out on the ice over that stretch, but we’ve still never made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Postseason heartbreak lasts a lot longer for those who wear teal.
So as you would expect, Torres wasn’t welcomed to San Jose with open arms. “Sharks complete most awkward trade in history,” read one fan blog headline; “Sharks acquire Torres, ruin trade deadline,” cried another, accompanied by the subhead: “Ugh.”
It didn’t take long for him to change our minds. In his debut, a 5-4 loss at Dallas, Torres notched two assists and was arguably the Sharks’ best player on the ice. At home nine days later, he scored the shootout-deciding goal against division rival L.A.; his two goals since then were both skilled plays made on home ice.
In his nine games with San Jose, Torres has contributed six points to go along with only two minor penalties—heck, he only has 17 penalty minutes all season. He’s no longer booed at HP Pavilion, and there’s a pretty significant contingent of fans that wants the team’s management to resign Torres after the season. But has he really changed, or are Sharks fans just subliminally pleased that players in teal are no longer Torres’ targets?
Personally, I’m not quite sold yet. Don’t get me wrong; Torres is one of the greatest forecheckers I’ve ever seen and has absolutely been an injection of energy in the Sharks’ recent playoff push (12-4-1 in their last 17 games).
But I want to see how he plays in the postseason, where his most infamous hits have come in the past. The Stanley Cup Playoffs bring an entirely new level of intensity, especially on an aging team whose fans have come to expect a whole lot over the last decade. If Torres can temper his physicality the way he has over the last three weeks with San Jose, then all, in my mind, is forgiven. If he makes head lines as a head hunter for a third straight postseason, though, I’m not sure Torres’ reputation will ever be recovered, in San Jose or elsewhere.
Joseph Beyda has disregarded the NBA Playoffs and NFL Draft tomorrow in the hopes of turning everyone into hockey fans. Let him know if he was successful at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @DailyJBeyda.