Friday, March 26, 2010

The Goal of the Year

You’ve seen lob shots go in on the goaltender before, but they’re usually unintentional shots that just happened to go in. Daniel Sedin, however, had every intention of scoring when he sent this magnificent lob right over the heads of teammate Alex Burrows and Anaheim Duck defender Scott Niedermayer and past a bemused Jonas Hiller to give the Vancouver Canucks a 2-0 lead en route to a 4-1 victory on Wednesday night.

Something tells me that this was a set play, as Sedin released his shot just as Burrows skated past Hiller, ensuring that Hiller wouldn’t be able to see the shot. It was also the perfect shot selection by Sedin, since the quick release meant that Hiller wouldn’t be able to get into the position to stop the shot (as opposed to the more traditional screen + slap shot that’s somewhat easier to read). There was also an element of deception involved since Sedin’s casual skating meant no Duck- including, most importantly, Hiller- expected a shot, making it easier for Sedin to sneak the puck into the net. I hope plays like this catch on, because creativity like this is sorely lacking in today’s NHL- there’s so much open ice in the game today, yet too many teams are caught in the old “dump and chase”, North-South game the league played for so long before the lockout. Mix it up a little, you might score a few goals.

Until then, admire Sedin’s display of beauty.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

NHL GMs dropping the ball on head shots and violence

Last week, National Hockey League General Managers flew down to Boca Raton, Florida (half an hour outside of Miami) for a few days of relaxing on the beach, rounds of golf, top-down cruising and fine dining on South Beach. They were also supposed to meet at a convention centre for a discussion on “head shots” and the effectiveness of NHL suspensions, but it’s easily apparent they spent too much time in the Sun and not enough time working.

Oh how we could all be so lucky.

After three days of deliberations where yet another “head shot”- provided by Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Cooke on Boston Bruin Marc Savard- occurred just prior to the talks, the best NHL GMs could do for a suggested rule change was the following:

“A lateral, back pressure or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and or the principal point of contact is not permitted. A violation of the above will result in a minor or major penalty and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline.”

As you can see, it’s not the same thing as the “head shot” penalty that the media is making it out to be. Presumably, the NHL is still going to allow “hits to the head” when the collision is (no pun intended) head on, with a penalty only called if the hit was delivered laterally (i.e. to the victim’s side) or if it is from behind- essentially, a “hit to the head” that the player cannot anticipate (as it’s either behind him or in his peripheral vision). It’s a penalty that sounds an awful lot like this one:

“44.1 Checking from Behind – A check from behind is a check delivered on a player who is not aware of the impending hit, therefore unable to protect or defend himself, and contact is made on the back part of the body. When a player intentionally turns his body to create contact with his back, no penalty shall be assessed.

44.2 Minor Penalty - There is no provision for a minor penalty for checking from behind.”

The only difference between the two is that Rule 44 makes no provision for a minor penalty but the proposed “head shot” penalty would provide one, but it would also require an automatic review by the league. Meaning, it’s going to get called about as often as Rule 44 is. Now, the rule is still in its development stages so it’s possible that the “automatic review” part could be tossed, but given how each of these incidents get reviewed anyway, I don’t believe it will.

Therein lies the rub with this proposed rule- as I stated once before- the “head shot” penalty is already covered by the existing rules in the rulebook; and while it may be useful to have a separate rule to emphasize how serious the offence is (much like there’s a “kneeing” penalty despite the fact there’s “tripping”), it’s not the “be-all-and-end-all” the NHL is looking for. The “be-all-and-end-all” would be calling the rules they have and not tacking on new rules to compensate for the league’s oversight, but, hey, this is Bettman we’re talking about- logic’s not in his vocabulary.

Which is why it was amusing to hear TSN’s Bob McKenzie, in analyzing what NHL referees could do in the meantime before the “head shot” penalty is created run through the list of penalties the NHL could call in its place (like checking from behind, boarding, charging, roughing, etc.), essentially admitting the NHL rulebook already covers these infractions without actually saying it. It was also amusing (in a sad, disbelieving sense) to hear that Senior Vice-President Colin Campbell state that when he assessed the Cooke incident that he would have liked to have suspended Cooke but couldn’t because of the lack of this rule, even though it was a clear blindside hit and thus qualifies as “checking from behind”. It’s kind of like a judge saying he can’t convict a person who killed someone with nanotechnology just because they haven’t passed that law yet, even though it’s plainly a murder.

Since Cooke we’ve had more insanity regarding hits. On Sunday, Alexander Ovechkin received two games for running Chicago Blackhawk Brian Campbell into the boards, a play similar to Maxim Lapierre’s cross-check on Scott Nichol. Campbell broke his shoulder and will miss eight weeks, whereas Nichol escaped serious injury, but Lapierre would be suspended for two more games than Ovechkin did, and Ovechkin is a repeat offender this season. Then, on St. Patrick’s Day, we saw another “head shot”, where Brent Seabrook was levelled by James Wisniewski who took off from his blueline. Seabrook had to leave the game and may have to be out for longer (his status is day-to-day, but concussions are more akin to “week-to-week”), while Wisniewski received an eight game suspension. No sooner than he received it did Wisniewski challenge the rationale behind the length of his ban, noting that previous suspensions weren’t nearly as long as his own and some hits (mentioning Cooke specifically) were not suspended at all. Those arguments are flat, given that Wisniewski’s hit isn’t anything close to the hits of Cooke, Lapierre or Ovechkin, but he would win points if he brought up the Colby Armstrong hit on Saku Koivu from three years ago, which was similar but didn’t warrant any supplemental discipline.

This brings me to the second part of the equation- one that was supposed to be brought up in Boca Raton but was lost on those trips to the beach- and that’s the matter of the effectiveness of NHL suspensions. I argued once before that suspensions are seemingly random in the NHL and thus provide no actual deterrence. What I thought I’d do is probe this a little more and provide you an overview of NHL suspensions since Bettman took over so you can see just how random these suspensions are.

First, here are some records of suspensions:

Longest suspensions:

Other records: (The all-time list of suspensions for players of the Los Angeles Kings, the only team that keeps such a record)

The lists of longest suspensions cover all suspensions that are ten games or more and not all are for incidents between players. Some of the details are wrong (for example, Ace Bailey was hit from behind by Eddie Shore, not with a stick), but they’re pretty good overviews of those suspensions. The record of the Kings’ all-time suspensions is listed only to provide further context to the other lists (since not all suspensions are ten games or more) and isn’t there to “single-out” the Kings in any way; plus, as I said before, Los Angeles is the only team that provides a record of that list, at least online.

At first glance, what should jump out right away is the fact that before Bettman took over, only three out of the 12 suspensions of 20 or more games occurred before his reign- Billy Coutu in 1927, Dan Maloney in 1975 and Tom Lyiask in 1983. Only one of those incidents was an actual on-ice incident with another player- Maloney’s, which wasn’t a suspension levied by the NHL but through a criminal conviction- the other two were for abuse of officials. You can also effectively place amongst this list the suspension of Shore because that cost Shore a third of the season, which would be the equivalent of 27 games in today’s NHL. So what we have are just four suspensions in 76 years of NHL hockey before Bettman that would amount or equate to a 20+ game suspension, with just two for player interactions, with nine following in Bettman’s 17 years on the job. Furthermore, of the 10-19 game suspensions or equivalents (16 total), seven occurred before Bettman took over while nine occurred after Bettman took over. Calculating the percentages, a 10+ suspension or its equivalent occurred only 14% of the time before Bettman took over, whereas the average rate is once per year after Bettman took over (18 over 17 years), though there hasn’t been a 10+ suspension since Chris Simon’s stomp on Jarkko Ruutu in December of 2007.

You could rationalize the spike in suspensions in two ways. One, you could infer that the game is actually more violent than it has ever been before and Bettman is responding in kind, though those who actually watched hockey in the 1970s and hockey historians who’d note even worse incidents in the early days of the would tell you that today’s game isn’t any worse than it was before Bettman. You would then move to the second rationalization, and that’s the idea that Bettman is trying to “police” the game better. It’s here where the Kings’ all-time record becomes important- you’ll notice that the Kings have had several players suspended for many of the actions included on the longest suspension lists, only that those players are not suspended for similar lengths. You’ll also see quite a few names listed more than once, but with their suspensions not rising despite their “repeat offender” status- e.g., Matt Johnson, Denis Gauthier, Sean O’Donnell and Rob Blake (Blake was apparently so deterred by his two-game suspension for cross-checking Shean Donovan late in the 1996-97 season that he went out and got suspended twice in 1997-98 for stick violations, once for three games and once for two games. Yep, the NHL’s really sending a message there).

It’s here where you realize what’s the real impetuous behind the spike in lengthy suspensions- media coverage. Look again at the list of suspensions and pay particular notice to the 20+ suspensions. How many of them do you instantly recognize and can recall with some clarity? Almost all of them should jump out at you, because other than Brad May’s slash on Steve Heinze, each suspension received massive media coverage, where programs that don’t even discuss hockey on a regular basis discussed the merits of the hit. Bettman, thus, isn’t issuing these lengthy suspensions to uphold some kind of “moral principle” for the game- he’s merely issuing these suspensions to save face so that he can at least say he’s “looking out for what’s best in hockey”. Meanwhile, players, coaches and fans who see hits similar to the “high profile hits” complain that those transgressions don’t get penalized like the high profile hits, only because the hits they saw happened to occur in a game no one was watching anyway (hello Columbus vs. Phoenix...). It also bears mentioning that there are very few superstars on the suspension lists, leading to accusations of double standards. You don’t need to go far to see this in action- Alexander Ovechkin has been involved in several dangerous hits yet has only been suspended once before his hit on Campbell (two games for kneeing Tim Gleason earlier this season) in his career, while Chris Pronger has been suspended for numerous transgressions but never heavily; most infamously after his stomp on Vancouver Canuck pest Ryan Kesler netted Pronger eight games only a few months after Simon’s stomp on Pittsburgh Penguin pest Ruutu saw Simon suspended for 30 games. Pronger’s suspension was essentially meaningless too, because his Anaheim Ducks were comfortably in the playoffs with nine games to go in the season, though poetic justice would be served when the Dallas Stars upended the Ducks in six games in the first round, where the clinching game was won when the Stars overcame a 1-0 deficit after two periods to score four times in the third to send the Ducks whimpering out of the playoffs. At least the hockey gods did the job Bettman was supposed to do.

Mere words are not enough to do this topic justice. Below is an assortment of videos of questionable hits throughout the years, including all the 20+ game suspensions (minus the stomp, which is self-explanatory), with special focus being paid to hits that occurred since Bettman took over. The hits are all grouped by offence (and in order of suspension length), so that you can make comparisons easier. I’ve also included, for context, three of the six longest suspensions for on-ice incidents between players- David Shaw’s cross-check on Mario Lemieux, Dave Brown’s cross-check on Tomas Sandstrom and Ron Hextall’s tackle of Chris Chelios- that occurred before Bettman became Commissioner. The Ace Bailey incident isn’t included for obvious reasons, but I couldn’t find videos for the Wilf Paiment-Dennis Polonich and Dan Maloney-Brian Glennie incidents when they probably exist. If anyone knows where I can find them, please let me know.

(WARNING: These videos may be unsettling for some viewers. Please use discretion)

The lists:

Pre-Bettman (Dave Brown cross-check to the face of Tomas Sandstrom, October 26, 1987, 15 games) (David Shaw cross-check to Mario Lemieux’s throat, October 30, 1988, 12 games) (Ron Hextall tackle of Chris Chelios, May 11, 1989, 12 games)

Hits (Dale Hunter hit from behind on Pierre Turgeon, April 28, 1993, 21 games) (Steve Downie charge on Dean McAmmond, September 25, 2007, 20 games) (Tie Domi elbow on Scott Niedermayer, May 3, 2001, 11 games (officially it was “the rest of the playoffs” but because the Leafs were eliminated over the next three games, Domi was forced to sit out the first eight regular season games of 2001-02) (Ruslan Salei check from behind on Mike Modano, October 2, 1999, 10 games) (James Wisniewski charge on Brent Seabrook, March 17, 2010, eight games) (Denis Gauthier forearm shiver on Josh Gorges, January 31, 2009, five games) (Maxim Lapierre hit from behind on Scott Nichol, March 4, 2010, four games) (Cam Janssen hit from behind on Tomas Kaberle, March 2, 2007, three games) (Randy Jones hit from behind on Patrice Bergeron, October 27, 2007, two games) (Alexander Ovechkin check from behind on Brian Campbell, March 14, 2010, two games) (Raffi Torres hit on David Moss, October 20, 2007, $2500 fine) (Alexander Ovechkin hit from behind on Daniel Briere, December 2, 2006, $1000 fine) (Steve Moore hit on Markus Naslund, February 16, 2004, no suspension or fine- this hit led to the “Todd Bertuzzi incident” three weeks later) (Colby Armstrong charge on Saku Koivu, February 1, 2007, no suspension or fine)

Stickwork (Chris Simon slash to Ryan Hollweg’s throat, March 8, 2007, 25 games (could have been longer if the Islanders made an extended run in the playoffs, as Simon was forbidden from participating for the rest of the season and playoffs)) (Jesse Boulerice cross-check to the mouth of Ryan Kesler, October 11, 2007, 25 games) (Marty McSorely slashes Donald Brashear in the head, February 21, 2000, 23 games (effectively- suspension was for “one whole year”, though McSorley would not play another NHL game)) (Brad May slash to the head of Steve Heinze (1:38 into the video), November 11, 2000, 20 games) (Tony Granato slash on Neil Wilkinson, February 9, 1994, 15 games) (Scott Niedermayer hits Peter Worrell in the head with his stick, March 19, 2000, 10 games) (Teemu Selanne slash on Dmitri Mironov, March 25, 1995, three games, prorated to five over a complete schedule (80 games) considering that NHL teams in 1995 played a shortened 48-game schedule) (Mattias Ohlund slash on Mikko Koivu, November 16, 2007, four games) (Robyn Regehr cross-check on Derek Dorsett, January 22, 2009, $2500 fine)

Sucker-Punches (Todd Bertuzzi sucker punch on Steve Moore, March 8, 2004, 20 games (effectively, Bertuzzi’s suspension was for the rest of the season including the playoffs and had to apply for reinstatement, which he received prior to the 2005-06 season meaning he missed no games in 2004-05 because of the lockout)) (Matt Johnson sucker punch on Jeff Beukeboom, November 19, 1998, 12 games) (Owen Nolan sucker punch on Grant Marshall, February 11, 2001, 11 games) (Brad May sucker punch on Kim Johnsson, April 17, 2007, one playoff game which is prorated to two regular season games)

These lists are by no means exhaustive, as there are several other marginal hits that could be included but weren’t, and I’m not here to argue that some hits should have been punished more severely than they did, as that’s not the point. The point should be just how similar many of these hits are, and just how variable NHL suspensions are. I look in particular to the Dale Hunter and Randy Jones hits- both were charges from behind, both players drilled the victim heavily into the boards and the victim suffered serious injuries as a result of their hits. Yet Jones’ suspension was merely 9.5% of Hunter’s suspension for the same offence, and Jones committed the offence 14 years after Hunter committed his. You might rationalize the lengths if the years were switched because then you could say the NHL is “toughening its standard”, but that’s not the case. The reality is that Hunter delivered his hit in the playoffs when everyone would be watching, as well as a mere month and a half after Bettman became commissioner, so there was no other response from the NHL but to come down hard. Jones committed his infraction during the regular season, where it could be easily forgotten amongst the primordial goo of hockey games. Similar comparisons can be made with the Salei hit vs. the Ovechkin hit on Campbell- eleven years ago, that hit was worth 10 games. Today, it’s worth two. Perhaps the only reason why is that Ovechkin is a superstar while Salei drilled a superstar, which would be a garbage reason but the NHL hasn’t shown it operates in any other way.

The other aspect of the variableness is the NHL isn’t consistent with severity when it comes to injury. Let’s take the Simon stick swing on Hollweg and compare it to Ohlund’s slash on Mikko Koivu. Visibly, Simon’s actions look a lot worse than Ohlund’s, and thus it could follow that Simon should be suspended for significantly longer than Ohlund. However, Hollweg didn’t miss any time as a result of the incident, whereas Koivu would miss nearly two months after Ohlund broke a bone in his leg, which should make the offences comparable. What is the actual difference in the lengths of the suspensions? Ohlund received a ban that was merely 16% of Simon’s ban, even though Koivu missed 95% more time than Hollweg did. Now, it’s a perilous argument to suggest that suspensions should be based on injuries (because that would just lead to teams fibbing on their reports to get a favourable suspension), but I don’t think suspensions should ignore injuries altogether- if a serious injury does occur, then the incident needs to be punished more severely. The victim wouldn’t want it any other way.

The solution to this madness is the same one I posited four months ago- we need to have *clear* standards for suspensions and rules as well as enforce the rules that we already have, not creating new rules to cover for the ones that are not being called. This would mean that, say, a slash on the body is worth the same as every other slash on the body, with the only variations in length coming if there is an injury, additional offences on the play and/or if the player is a repeat offender.

For example, let’s assume the following- a check from behind is five games, excessive charging is five games, and intent to injure is five games (with an injury adding another five), with two games added for every previous suspension the player has ever been on (please don’t take special note of the numbers, they’re just there for the effect). If a player commits just one of “checking from behind” or “excessive charging” (e.g. Downie’s hit on McAmmond), then he receives just five games. If the NHL rules that a hit has both a check from behind and an excessive charge, it’s ten games (5+5). If the NHL rules there was intent to injure, it’s 15 games (10+5). If a serious injury does occur on the play, then it’s a 20 game suspension (15+5). Finally, let’s say the offender has had three previous suspensions- that’s six more games added (3x2=6), for 26 games total (20+6). There’d still be some leeway involved with the suspensions- “was there a charge as well as a hit from behind or was there just a hit from behind?”- but at least we’d remove the ambiguity regarding the punishment for specific offences. This way, players know that if they hit someone from behind, they’re always going to face a five-game ban (or whatever length) and thus provide some deterrence.

The other part of the solution is for NHL referees themselves to take stronger control of the game on the ice and police it with better frequency than they do now. I know it’s a fine line between charging and a legal hit, but some of the hits that have “passed” have been questionable, and given how random the NHL standard is, I doubt there’s a player in the NHL that knows what a legal hit is anymore. The call for a standard doesn’t just extend to suspensions- it extends to in-game penalties as well, because it does no one- the teams, the players, the coaches and especially the fans- any service if penalties are applied haphazardly as well. This is more than just an issue with checking from behind and charging but penalties like hooking and holding as well, because those are ambiguous now as well (so much for the “new NHL”), but with players acting the way they are, the situation has reached critical mass. Of particular importance is the need for referees to whistle down match penalties and “intent to injure” infractions with greater urgency, because it’s obvious players are taking too many liberties on the ice and that behaviour needs to be curbed. You want to know why players feel the need to “police themselves”? It’s because referees do such a poor job doing that themselves, and so many of hockey’s worst incidents occur because of this vigilante justice (see Bertuzzi, Todd). We need to take back the game before someone gets killed.

Is the fact that NHL GMs are finally advocating a “head shot” penalty a bad idea? Not necessarily, because it at least shows the GMs are finally getting the message that something needs to be done regarding player safety but the truth is they’re only at this situation because of the poor decisions they themselves made over the years in poorly enforcing the game’s existing rules (e.g. checking from behind, charging, boarding, slashing) and because their suspensions are random at best. Cleaning up the game starts with cleaning up their act, meaning we’ve got to have meaningful standards and meaningful enforcement. Otherwise- and I’ve used this line before- they’ll be left with no players left to play, because uncontrolled violence is going to repulse more people from the game than draw them in. Hockey isn’t yet a sinking ship but the floorboards are starting to get some holes- it’s up to those in charge to see that they’re properly replaced and not filled with stopgaps because then the bottom is going to give out with no point of return.


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