It’s February 18, 2015. Montreal Canadiens center Lars Eller finds himself in a frighteningly familiar predicament. He speeds into Ottawa’s neutral zone, stretching out to receive a pass…and spots his old buddy, Senators D-man Eric Gryba, bearing down on him, forearms at chin height. Violent impact. And then–
Eller and Gryba freeze as their torsos separate. Remember what Zack Morris used to do on Saved by the Bell, locking everyone around him in tableau when he had a predicament to solve? That’s what’s happened here, but swap Bayside High for the NHL Department of Player Safety’s war room. Eller and Gryba stretch across four television screens, paused mid-game so the league’s experts can debate the collision’s legality.
Every set of eyes and ears perks up in the room, because everyone present knows the context. Gryba KO’d Eller with an illegal headshot in the 2013 playoffs, ending Eller’s season and earning Gryba a two-game suspension. Another run-in between the two lights up four criteria on the NHL’s no-no board: emotional narrative, potential for repeat offense, potential for injury and a potentially illegal hit. If Gryba has indeed caught Eller in the head again, Gryba has every strike against him and can hang up his skates for a while. Alas, a room-wide review reveals he hit Eller clean in the chest this time. Crisis averted. Game unpaused.
That moment encapsulates the busy life inside the war room, which screens every second of every game all season. The department, led by senior vice-president Stephane Quintal, vice-president Damian Echevarrieta and director Patrick Burke, has invited THN to the New York office for a full night’s slate of games. The mutual goal: improving the media’s understanding of exactly how the league doles out supplemental discipline. What is the chain of command? How does the league weigh prior history and injuries? And, most importantly, are its decisions as “inconsistent” as the keyboard warriors claim?
The instant Dustin Byfuglien’s four-game suspension for a vicious cross-check on Rangers center J.T. Miller was announced late Thursday afternoon, hockey fans and some media types took to social media to vent anger and frustration over the brevity of it. And it wasn’t just Blueshirts supporters; in this era of heightened awareness of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ post-career quality of life, an ever-increasing number of people agree that actions like Byfuglien’s are absolutely unacceptable and warrant a severe punishment that causes NHLers to think twice before doing something so reckless. They didn’t get that with a four-game ban.
Believe me, nobody agrees with those folks more than I do. However, there’s a group of fans out there who direct their wrath over the league’s consistently underwhelming suspensions at the NHL Department of Player Safety. Those people were out in full force in the wake of the Byfuglien verdict. And those people are wrong. You can disagree with the choices of chief disciplinarian Stephane Quintal or anyone in Player Safety, but attaching primary blame to him or his department is like faulting police for laws they enforce; if you want to effect change and put pressure on the appropriate parties for the long-established leniency of the league, you should look at the two groups chiefly responsible for soft punishments: the first is NHL team owners, and the second is the NHL Players’ Association. Read more
When the Sabres and Maple Leafs clashed Wednesday night – OK, “clash” is probably too strong a word, as it’s commonly associated with the word “titans” and an excellent band you young punks should get into if you haven’t already, and we don’t want to sully either of those things by linking them to these two teams – we saw another instance of the Bizarro World phenomenon that occurs when fans obsessed with winning the upcoming NHL entry draft lottery cheer for the opposing team to beat their own organization.
Some NHLers have all but dry-heaved after the indignity of performing in front of their hometown fans and being subjected to cheers for the visitors. That’s certainly understandable, as it runs contrary to every instinct we have about pro sports. Playing on the road should put the fear of the hockey gods into players, not wrap them in blankets and give them a nice hug and a cookie. But players and team executives shouldn’t see this as the fault of fans. To the contrary: they should appreciate a fan base that recognizes the best way to build a Stanley Cup contender under the league’s current collective bargaining agreement is to do what teams like Toronto and Buffalo are doing: by tearing it all down, taking your lumps like a grownup and building slowly. Read more
The NHL’s group of GMs Tuesday endorsed a 3-on-3 element to follow its current five-minute overtime period with a goal of mitigating the number of games that go to shootouts. That’s a reasonable decision made in the name of a fairer outcome that rewards better teams. It’s just a shame the league doesn’t extend that philosophy to its points system, which still treats every game as if it has the same competitive integrity.
This isn’t to say the league has utilized its current system (which it’s used since implementing shootouts in 2005-06) for no good reason – the smoke and mirrors of keeping teams closer (at least, in theory) to a playoff berth gives more franchises a longer time frame in which to sell tickets – but when GMs are moving to lessen the impact of shootouts, they’re in effect indicting the system and the shootout itself. And in not moving to a 3-2-1 points system (three wins for a regulation time win, two points for an overtime or shootout win, and one point for an overtime or shootout loss) that would reward teams for winning in regulation or overtime, the league isn’t doing all it can to reduce the number of shootouts its fans see. Read more
It feels like just about every citizen of, landed immigrant to, and legislative and judicial branch of Leafs Nation is angry these days. Some of Toronto’s players are incensed with the media; some Leafs fans are fed up with decades of frustration, poor decisions by management and ownership, and lack of playoff appearances; even something as innocuous as a post-victory acknowledgment to fans at the Air Canada Centre was a source of controversy, at least until the franchise’s astonishing collapse made clear what a molehill of an issue that really was.
However, in the midst of the maelstrom stands a pillar of patience and calm. Its name is Brendan Shanahan, Toronto’s president for coming up on 11 months now, and Leafs fans ought to be thankful for it. Shanahan doesn’t have the GM experience of, say, a Ray Shero and still must prove his vision over the long term. But his particular employment history – specifically, running the NHL’s department of player safety and serving as chief disciplinarian – has made him uniquely qualified to steer hockey’s most hyper-analyzed franchise through the white noise, hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing that seem to increase every week. Read more
It’s still to be determined whether the domestic assault trial for Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov will begin as scheduled Monday or be delayed by a week, and even if Voynov is found guilty, nobody seems certain when he’ll be able to play again.
As GMs are scouring the league for the final available talent before Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline, Voynov is expected to be in court for the first day of what is expected to be a five-day trial on a felony count of corporal injury to a spouse with great bodily injury. But there may be a delay in the proceedings by a week, owing to the fact that deputy district attorney Frank Dunnick lobbied during a pre-trial conference this week to have the trial delayed by one week because he is working on another case. Read more
So much for the untradeable player with the unmovable contract. That species of player, thought to be alive and well in the salary cap era, does not exist. In fact, he never has because GMs such as David Nonis and Jarmo Kekalainen can cook up deals like the one they did Thursday afternoon.
In swapping the ill-suited and much maligned David Clarkson for the seriously and likely permanently injured Nathan Horton, Nonis and Kekalainen conspired to help each other out of contractual straitjackets that were paralyzing their rosters. This deal was so much more than just swapping one bad contract for another one. Read more
If things go swimmingly well for Mike Richards, he won’t even have to take one trip on the old iron lung. The Manchester Monarchs of the American League don’t have a road game until a week from Friday and even then, it’s only a 100-mile ride to Providence.
And there’s a chance everything will be cleared up for Richards by that time and he’ll be back in the NHL. Since the Los Angeles Kings put Richards on waivers earlier this week, he has been the subject of considerable trade speculation. The only problem is that Richards’ trade value is currently at an all-time low. In order for the Kings to deal him now, not only would they have to eat salary, they might even have to give their trading partner an asset to do the deal. Read more