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Columbus, Ohio — The NHL has changed, and Columbus coach John Tortorella noted last week the league has become a "hugfest," without the aggression that teams and rival players used to have for each other.

For the better, or not? That’s a person’s opinion, giving the more emphasis on skating and playmaking, and less on fighting and hitting.

But it has changed. And for a player like Luke Witkowski, whose career has mainly revolved around his willingness to protect teammates with his physical style, it can be a struggle.

“That helped me get into the NHL,” Witkowski said. “A lot of guys’ careers were hinged on that. I know that fans like that aspect of the game, some fans anyway. It’ll definitely change the game.

“It’s a different type of energy when that’s (fighting) still in the game. Everybody knows that.”

A player who isn't a high-end skater, and depends on grit and energy, has a more difficult road now to the NHL.

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"For sure it's kind of turning into soccer a little bit, it's definitely getting softer," Witkowski said. "You can't be in the league and not be able to play hockey anymore. It's way too fast. They want a faster game, want more goals, and who knows what else?"

Many veteran players feel there is less physicality than there used to be.

“You’re not seeing as much of the physical play, it’s way more skilled, it’s faster,” forward Justin Abdelkader said. “You’re seeing kids 18-, 19-, 20-years old come into the league and just fly. Before, years back, those guys, the big defensemen could kind of clutch and grab and hold them.”

A veteran like Mike Green has seen the transition during the last decade.

But Green feels there's still room to play a hard-edged game, while keeping the speed and skills highlighted today.

“The game has evolved and changed since I started, it’s funny that he (Tortorella) said that,” Green said. “It’s just the way it is. It’s just a different agme. Not to say better or worse.

“Just different. The game is meant to be played hard, whether you’re in someone’s face or not. That hasn’t changed. The intensity is still there and the speed. You can still play a gritty game.”

As is the case in the NBA, many of today’s players have moved up through the same ranks, either in juniors, college or minor leagues.  They even train together in the summer and have the same agents. 

But that doesn’t necesssarily mean competition is muted.

“Their first year in the league, I remember (Columbus defenseman Zach) Werenski, hit Larks (Dylan Larkin) at the blue line, stepped up and hit Larks pretty good,” Abdelkader said. “I knew they were friends. But when you’re out there (on the ice), you’re battling for opposing teams and that stuff can happen.

“It’s good to see, too. There’s always going to be friendships. But between the whistles, guys play hard.”

Different look

With forwards Frans Nielsen and Andreas Athanasiou out with injuries, coach Jeff Blashill was likely to go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen in his lineup against Columbus.

Witkowski was expected to play on defense, while Martin Frk returned to the lineup as one of the forwards.

Blashill doesn’t necessarily mind going with 11 forwards, as much.

“On the road, it’s a little bit easier because it doesn’t disrupt the flow as much becaue you don’t have the opportunity to match (players on the ice) as hard as you do at home,” Blashill said. “I like it a little better on the road than I do at home.

“The advantage if we go 11 and seven is you can put forwards on that (fourth line), they can give you a different look and you have a chance to give some ice time to different guys.

“If I play (Witkowski), I’d like to play him on the back end not the front. He’s been practicing a lot on defense and he had a good game on defense (Oct. 18 against Tampa).”

Ice chips

Defenseman Danny DeKeyser (hand) continues to skate daily but remains day-to-day from returning to the lineup. Counting Tuesday, DeKeyser has missed seven consecutive games. 

When DeKeyser does return, potentially later this week, it's likely defenseman Joe Hicketts gets sent down Grand Rapids.

... Former Wings goalie and broadcaster Manny Legace is goaltending coach with the Blue Jackets.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

 

 

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