There’s an ongoing debate whether particular hits throughout the league should be suspended or whether they’re simply part of hockey. In fact, in some people’s minds, the argument is shifting towards the debate itself: do we need to analyze every single questionable hit?
The most recent example of the raging debate is Eric Nystrom’s hit on Kris Letang that knocked the Penguins blueliner out of the game with an “upper body injury.” (In this case, that’s NHL code for: “got his bell rung.”) Predictably, there were fans that thought it was dirty, fans that thought it was just a hockey play, and those who are completely tired of the discussion—like Jeremy Roenick:
We’re not going to get into the debate on whether this particular hit was suspension-worthy. It’s easy to make a case for a suspension because the principle point of contact was with the head and it caused an injury. It’s easy to make a strong case against supplemental discipline because Letang leaned forward immediately before the hit and changed the position of his head as Nystrom was coming in for the hit.
During the game, both head coaches were interviewed behind the bench and asked about the hit. Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said he thought the hit was alright and that Nystrom shouldn’t receive anything more than the two minute minor he was assessed during the game. Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said that it looked like Letang lunged for the puck and he would have rather had his defenseman stick to the wall in that instance.
Yet during the intermission, Mike Milbury was calling for a five-game suspension because these are the type of hits that the league is trying to get out of the game.
This isn’t to call out Gulutzan, Bylsma, Roenick, or Milbury for their analysis of the questionable play. The point is that four men who have been around hockey for their entire adult lives had differing opinions of the same exact hit. The opinions varied from “tough play, hope he’s alright” to “suspend him and take away his pay for five games during the playoff run.”
Quite the difference of opinion.
(For the record: I love watching Kris Letang play, but watching it live, it looked like he leaned forward and put himself in a vulnerable position. But watching enough replays, I have no idea what the league will do.)
The fact is this is one of those hits that falls within the grey area of the new rules. It’s how we’re going to define these grey area hits that will help everyone understand the game going forward—which is why this debate is so important to discuss.
Normally, it would be easy to agree that far too much is overanalyzed in today’s NHL. But in this case, the debate serves far more purpose than simply a fan being able to say that he/she was right after the suspension is handed down. No, it’s far more important than someone being able to claim they “called it” when the Brendan Shanahan and the NHL make one of their videos. Why? Because through the debate, we can further understand the subtleties that separate a clean (yet devastating) check and a dirty hit that crosses the line and warrants supplemental discipline.
No one has it completely figured out yet. It’s easy to say that the current system – which is to say, the current Sheriff – is much better than what the league had in the past. But for any fan, player, coach, or pundit to say they have it completely figured out would be disingenuous. In reality, it’s likely that Brendan Shanahan and his cohorts in the discipline wing of the NHL offices are still figuring it out themselves.
If they’re still defining what is legal and what is not, then we all are.
All we want is consistency. Fans crave it, but consistency is all the league wants as well. Players and coaches want to know what to expect and the league’s offices want to be able to apply precedents that they’ve codified in the past. Yet, those things are going to take some time. Sometimes we forget that Shanahan has only been laying down the law for about six months. Just like any of us would have a learning curve in the first few months of a new job, Shanahan is also finding his feet, differentiating subtleties, and creating a precedent that all players, coaches, and referees can depend on.
But again, that takes time.
The component to appreciate in these types of situations is the healthy debate that comes along with it. People on both sides of the discussion will clearly have valid points; when Brendan Shanahan releases his verdict, we’ll know what points he emphasizes when reviewing a play and which facets are put on the backburner. There’s no way to know how the current regime is going to interpret the rules until they review plays for an extended period of time. Only then will all of us understand what will be tolerated and what will be punishable.
For now, hopefully the league will release a video with a full explanation no matter what decision is handed down. If for no other reason, it’ll simply help us understand the process a little more.