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The NHL Player Safety is Consistently Inconsistent

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Up is down, left is right and no one knows what a suspension is.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs saw its third suspension Thursday evening as Alex Killorn was given a game for his hit on Brock Nelson in Game 2 against the New York Islanders. To some, it was pretty clear Killorn’s hit was going to be looked at, and various hockey insiders let the world know that would be the case. But for others who have watched multiple series so far, it’s still up in the air as to what is and isn’t a suspension.

The fact that I even wrote that previous sentence is a colossal red flag. However, that is the reality of today’s NHL: Nobody knows what they can and can’t do.

Let’s start with what the NHL Department of Player Safety (NDoPS) said about the Killorn hit from the suspension announcement video:

Well after Nelson releases the puck, Killorn approaches from behind, and having seen nothing but Nelson’s numbers for some time, delivers a forceful check to the defenceless Nelson driving him dangerously into the boards. This is boarding.

Nothing wrong here. But I take issue with what comes next in the video where it’s described why exactly Killorn’s hit goes from a major penalty to something requiring supplemental discipline. (I’m going to leave the “best” parts bolded.)

From the moment that Nelson initially collects the puck until contact is made, Killorn sees nothing but his numbers. And while we accept Tampa Bay’s assertion that Killorn makes some attempt to deliver this check from the side, this is still a forceful hit from behind on a defenceless player who is no longer in possession of the puck. Therefore, what causes this play to rise to the level of supplemental is the angle of approach Killorn takes, and the fact that the puck has been gone for some time when the hit is initiated. Both of which makes Nelson particularly defenceless. If Killorn wished to avoid supplemental discipline on this play, he must further adjust his course to deliver legal body contact, avoid the check entirely, or at the very least, minimize the force of the hit. Instead, he finishes the hit with force, driving the defenceless Nelson into the glass dangerously.

With all that broken down so much there is one takeaway: the NHL Department of Player Safety clearly didn’t watch a single Columbus Blue Jackets game.

NHL Player Safety always finds a way to dig a hole for themselves when it comes to suspensions because, as bad as the Killorn hit was, it was far from the worst hit we’ve seen in the playoffs. Killorn has every right to call them back and ask, “If I was given a game for my hit, why was the hit on Mikhail Sergachev by Nick Foligno given nothing?”

Even though both players are skating for the puck, Foligno is seeing Sergachev’s number the whole way. Not only does he finish his check, but he follows through with his forward momentum so well that he leaves his skates lifting Sergachev up into the boards. There was no call on this play and, similarly to Nelson, Sergachev left the game before coming back later.

I’m not going to say Foligno should’ve followed the future advice from NDoPS and avoided the hit completely (this is a John Tortorella-coached team we’re talking about here). But he easily could’ve eased up on the hit or changed the angle.

Here’s another example.

Connor Murphy’s back is to Kailer Yamamoto the entire time and his attention is on the puck as it’s down in front of him. Yamamoto makes no attempt to ease up on the force of the hit and he drives his shoulder into the back of Murphy who in that moment is defenceless as he has both hands on his stick. Murphy goes face first into the boards.

Let’s do one more and we’ll spice things up a bit.

Poor Murphy eh? He heads to the boards again to retrieve the puck. William Carrier sees numbers the entire way and, again, Murphy is vulnerable as he has both hands on his stick and can’t defend himself. Carrier finishes his check sending Murphy into the boards, who thankfully gets up. The ref saw the whole thing and chose not to call a penalty.

I used Murphy for two examples on purpose, as a critique many like to throw when it comes to suspensions is that it’s on the player to be aware of their surroundings and protect themselves. Some will say Murphy should’ve had one hand on his stick and another free to brace himself for a possible hit.

To those I ask: Why aren’t those same questions being directed at Brock Nelson? Sure, he may not be expected to be hit when the puck is so far gone, but other players aren’t going to be expecting to be hit when their full back is to the player. I’m not going to be naive and say there aren’t players who put themselves in those positions on purpose to draw a call, but the double standards NDoPS is setting is making the entire process something all professional teams hate: inconsistent.

In all three examples I showed, there is force used, the hit didn’t necessarily need to be made, numbers are seen all the way and the player is defenceless. The only difference between these three and the Killorn hit is that the puck was within range.

Is that what it takes then? If you throw an illegal hit and the puck is gone it’s suspendible but if it’s close by then it’s just a hockey play?

What about this hit by Zach Werenski on John Tavares during Game 5 of the Leafs-Columbus Qualifier series.

Tavares never has possession of the puck, and his back turned to Werenski. He sees numbers and proceeds to cross check Tavares anyway. Luckily, Tavares wasn’t closer to the boards or he would’ve gone face first into them, but it fits similar criteria of what Killorn was suspended for.

Tavares is defenceless, Werenski sees numbers, the puck is gone, and the hit is made. And, again the referee is right there taking it all in and doesn’t call it. The fact that he didn’t hit the boards doesn’t matter as the rule of thumb is you punish the intent, not the result.

Playoff hockey right? But then when there’s a legitimate incident, we ask ourselves what could’ve been done to avoid it.

I’m not saying Pierre-Luc Dubois should’ve been suspended for this, but he clearly didn’t learn from this event of hitting people in vulnerable positions. How do I know that? Because in the next round he would do this to Killorn.

Nobody knows what they can and can’t do anymore.

Fans don’t know. Coaching staffs don’t know. Upper management doesn’t know. And I can guarantee you that the players don’t know.

As much as the league wants to think that Killorn, Ryan Reaves or Matt Niskanen will learn from their suspensions, they won’t, as there are countless examples that came before them that were left uncalled without any discussion of supplemental discipline.

It took a 20-game suspension, which was later reduced to 14 games, to finally get the message to Tom Wilson, and he is still throwing around questionable hits and making poor decisions.

As much as the league doesn’t want its players to be taken off on stretchers every night, they don’t do a good enough job protecting its players by making proper assessments and penalizing illegal hits.

The fact that Garret Hathaway was given more games for spitting on Erik Gudbranson back in November is still hilarious to me. Of course, that’s a clear sign of disrespect, and if we’re being frank, it’s just gross.

But the NHL Department of Player Safety seems to think that’s worse than a late boarding major, a illegal check to the head or crosschecking a player in the face, breaking their jaw, as the spitting was given three regular season games while the others were one playoff game. Even if we use the special playoff game to regular-season game conversion where 1 playoff game is 2 regular-season games, it’s still worse based on the length of the penalization.

As always, it’s in the hands of the league. I don’t have the answer for how NDoPS improves, though they can’t continue to rely on the ‘each case is different’ line if not all cases are being looked at.

Perhaps it comes to an overhaul of the Department with new faces that will see the removal of George Parros and company. Maybe it comes down to hiring people who have never played and just objectively make their decisions by the rulebook and that’s all. I can already feel the disdain for the latter but it’s either that or the consistent inconsistency lives on.

It’s your move NHL.

Poll

What would you grade the current state of the NDoPS?

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  • 1%
    A
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    B
    (1 vote)
  • 5%
    C
    (13 votes)
  • 12%
    D
    (33 votes)
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    F
    (96 votes)
  • 42%
    Z
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