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Where’s the Line Between “On the Edge” and “Dangerous” in the NHL?

Almost every team has that one controversial player. You know, the one you love as a fan of that team but hate if they’re on a different team. You know exactly who I mean. Tom Wilson, I’m sure, is first and foremost in your mind, but here are a few other names: Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Corey Perry, Matthew Tkachuk, Nazem Kadri, Zack Kassian, Ryan Reaves, Evander Kane. These players are all generic, unproblematic heavy hitters 95% of the time. The trouble is that 5% when the wires cross in the brain and bad things happen.

In the last few days and weeks, a few of the aforementioned players have made headlines for questionable plays and judgment. For once, the argument at the forefront of the NHL is not fighting. Instead, it’s the borderline hits and plays that precede those fights. It’s not just fans getting in on the debate anymore; front offices have put their opinions out there on how the League has handled these situations.

In the interest of having a conversation rather than taking a hard stance one way or the other, let’s talk about the last few instances of questionable judgment.

Corey Perry on John Tavares

The Play

The most recent incident this season was Corey Perry’s knee to John Tavares’ head on Thursday night. By now I’m sure everyone has seen the video, but for those who haven’t, here it is. It’s obvious what makes this play so dangerous. Ben Chiarot gives JT a clean hit to the shoulder/shoulder blade as Tavares turns slightly to avoid the hit. The hit sends Tavares to the ice, in a vulnerable position. The dangerous part is when Corey Perry comes flying in and catches Tavares in the head with his knee. Tavares did not get up of his own volition after the knee to the head. He had to get stretchered off the ice, though he did give a thumbs up on his way out.

The History

Fans of all teams, except maybe the Canadiens, were calling for Perry’s head on a platter. There were demands for his career to be over. In one way, I can kind of understand it. Perry has a history of fines and suspensions for bad hits. His last major suspension was 5 games back in January 2020 for an elbow to Ryan Ellis during the Winter Classic when Perry was still with the Stars. So there’s history that makes people outraged. I get that.

The Take

This might be controversial, but despite all that history and despite how Perry likes to play on the very edge of what’s acceptable, this incident was just a freak accident. If you watch, Perry’s feet leave the ice to avoid skating right into Tavares’ prone body. In slow motion, it looks dubious, but full speed, it’s the blink of an eye. There was no way that Perry could have calculated the exact trajectory to take to knee JT in the head. This hit was not intentional.

What really solidifies that stance for me is two things. The first is that when Nick Foligno goes to fight him the next puck drop, Perry does not throw a single punch. He grabs Foligno’s jersey, probably to keep himself upright longer, but does not put up any resistance. The second thing is that in the post-game media scrum, Perry says that the hit made him “sick to his stomach.” He also said he was going to reach out as soon as possible. Coming from a guy who is usually so unapologetic about his intentional antics, this shows me that he genuinely feels bad.

Obviously, this doesn’t make up for every stupid play he’s made, nor does it mean that he’ll never make another dangerous hit again. What it does mean is that people who are calling for his career to be over are, in this instance, overdramatic. (Not to mention blind to the fact that this was so obviously an accident.) No suspension and no fine was the right call in this instance.

Nazem Kadri on Justin Faulk

The Hit

This hit is a different beast. On Wednesday night, Nazem Kadri was ejected from Colorado’s game against the Blues for this hit on Justin Faulk. This sequence of events did not start off with an innocent hit; what gets me about this is that it could have just been an innocent hit.

Kadri came screaming in at full tilt from the dot to the right of Grubauer, making a B-line for Faulk. Faulk released a shot on goal and in the same second was hit in the head with Kadri’s shoulder. Now, Kadri is only an inch taller than Faulk so there’s no argument that it just happened to connect with Faulk’s head. In addition, if you watch Kadri’s approach, whether in slow motion or normal speed, you can see him bring his shoulders up as he braces for the hit. Faulk’s body was positioned in such a way that he could have been hit easily on the back or shoulder. Instead, Kadri’s raised shoulder connects with his head.

And because there was no 3rd factor involved like there was with Perry, the League’s immediate review confirmed a match penalty, and even that night everyone knew a suspension was incoming. 

The History

Not only is this not the first time Kadro has been suspended for bad hits, but his reputation is for getting suspended in playoffs specifically for these hits. He was suspended 3 games in 2013, 4 in 2015, 4 in 2016, 3 in 2018, and 5 in 2019. And now we can add 8 games in 2021. Of these suspensions, 2 are for an illegal check to the head (including 2021’s), 1 is for boarding (for this hit, slamming Tommy Wingels’ head into the boards), and 2 for cross-checking. I’m sure Bruins fans will recall the Jake Debrusk cross-check from 2019, which was another hit to the head. It’s worth noting that the 2016 cross-check was to the face of Luke Glendening; he lost the remainder of that season and $200k of his salary for that one.

The Take

So it makes sense to me that they would throw the book at Kadri for this latest hit. 8 games feels more than fair. It does make one wonder where the NHL will draw the line with Kadri. It’s one thing for a player to be suspended repeatedly for a variety of reasons, but when 5 of your 6 suspensions are for hits to the head, it’s a different animal. It may be time for the League to sit Kadri down for an ultimatum.

Tom Wilson on Pavel Buchnevich & Artemi Panarin

Disclaimer

And now for the NHL’s Boogeyman, Tom Wilson. I know you’re all chomping at the bit to crucify him, but hold on for just a second. As any good writer should, I’m going to acknowledge my bias as a Capitals fan. That doesn’t mean I give him a pass, it just means I have a bias.

The Scrum

Act I, Buchnevich

It all started with Pavel Buchnevich crowding Vitek Vanecek after a shot. Wilson took exception to this and, as Buchnevich was shoved to the ice by the 2 other players on top of him, Wilson punched him. I’m going to get controversial here right off the bat here; Wilson punched his shoulder, not his head. From the first camera angle, it’s unclear because of the distance, angle of Buch’s body, and Wilson’s other arm. Ice-level was similar. But when they show the overhead angle, Wilson connects with the ‘B’ on the name bar. It was not the back of the head like everyone wants to believe. No, I don’t think he should have done it, but he wasn’t trying to crack the guy’s skull open.

Act II, Panarin

It continued when Strome took exception to that punch and pulled him away to handle things himself. Wilson managed to get on top of him, only to have Panarin jump on his back, not unlike a baby Macaque. Okay, pause it here. Let me reiterate, I don’t think Wilson was in the right here. But I also don’t think Panarin was in the right. Artemi Panarin is 5’11” and 168lbs; he’s a skill guy. Tom Wilson is 6’4” and 220lbs; he cut his teeth in the league as half a step above a goon. Why on Earth would anyone, let alone Panarin, decide it would be a good idea to jump on Tom Wilson’s back?

Act III, Wires Cross

Okay, jumping back in. Now Panarin really pissed Wilson off. Poked the proverbial bear with a very sharp stick. So Wilson shook him off and they grappled behind a wall of other players in that first angle. I’m sure it was in this handful of seconds that the wires crossed in Wilson’s brain. Panarin’s helmet got knocked off and a second later, Wilson slams him to the ice and doesn’t get off of him. This all should have been over right then. But instead, it took another minute for the officials to break everyone up.

The Aftermath & The Take

That is the core of what everyone was up in arms about to begin with. Wilson was given 2 roughing minors and game misconduct from the scrum. Also serving roughing minors were Panarin, Dillon, and Buchnevich. Wilson haters everywhere were expecting him to get kicked out of the league after the game. Instead, he was only fined $5000 for the punch to Buchnevich, the maximum for such an offense. 

I’ll be the first to say that I was very surprised he didn’t get at least 1 game, if for no other reason than because of his name. With the way the NHL has dealt with Tom Wilson in the past, no suspension honestly seems like a miracle. The New York Rangers obviously felt like this was a personal offense to them and released a scathing statement of the Department of Player Safety. I know I’ve been critical of the DoPS in the past, but this went beyond critical and straight to personal. Meanwhile, Wilson and Ovechkin reached out to Panarin to make sure that he was okay. Despite the upper-body injury he sustained in that scrum, Panarin was listed on the IR as a lower-body injury that same day. (Apparently, it was an ongoing issue.)

There’s a valid argument to be made for supplemental punishment, in this case, I’m not arguing that. 1, maybe 2 game suspensions for being an idiot would have made sense to me. He is a repeat offender, after all. To call out the head of Player Safety as incompetent because you disagree with their interpretation of what happened in that scrum is unprofessional. There are other ways of voicing these disagreements than going to Twitter.

The Bigger Questions

As I mentioned with Kadri earlier, there remains a big question with players and hits like these. Where will the League draw the line?

There has only ever been 1 player officially kicked out of the NHL. Billy Coutu assaulted 2 referees during Game 4 of the 1927 Stanley Cup Final between the Bruins and Senators. An interesting side note, it’s alleged that he was ordered to assault the referees by Bruins coach Art Ross. Coutu was given a lifetime suspension that was lifted 2 years later so he could play in the minor leagues. He never played in the NHL again.

Assaulting 2 referees who have no involvement in the actual game, to me, seems like a good reason to kick a player out of the league. Fortunately, we haven’t seen another incident like that in 1927, so they haven’t had to kick anyone else out for that. But they haven’t kicked anyone out at all since then. 

Why Not Kick Players Out?

I can really only speculate as to why no one else has been ejected from the league. My best guess for the modern era is the Players Union. I have a feeling a big part of why some players can continue to play on that razor’s edge of safety and danger is because the players want them to. 

The Union is the reason fighting is still a part of the game; they voted to keep it in. I think if the NHL had the Union vote on how many suspensions for head-shots is enough, it would go nowhere. I don’t mean that the players want to be head-hunted, rather that there would be a lot of pushback about the micromanaging that would go into enforcing such a rule. There’s so much grey area around the matter, I don’t see a clear consensus being reached.

An example of that grey area is Perry’s hit. If the League decides that any hit to the head, whether intentional or not, is automatic punishment, Perry’s accidental knee could have meant the end of his career. While some people would celebrate that, I think most NHL players would see that as a tragedy, for such a great career to be ended by an accident.

My Take

I know this all may sound surprising considering how much I dug into Ryan Reaves last year for his dangerous play. I stand by what I said there; head hits have no place in hockey. And I do believe that there should be a line drawn for some of the worst offenders like Reaves and Kadri. Once upon a time, I may have even agreed with you if you added Tom Wilson to that list. Where my opinion waivers a little bit is with players who have cleaned themselves up. I believe, despite his display earlier this month, that Tom Wilson has held himself to a higher standard the last few years. I also believe that other players like Lucic and, as much as it pains me to say, Marchand have done a much better job being safe. (Side note, Marchand is still a rat that makes stupid hits, he just mostly stays away from the truly dangerous ones now.)

So in that sense, I think the grey area is where a lot of growth can be done. I think there are ways to hold players accountable for their actions without throwing them out. But, I also think there should be more accountability from the teams in addition to the League. Coaches shouldn’t want their players to be liabilities.

Final Thoughts

I doubt there will be many, if any, major changes in the near future. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in changing policy that has to pass multiple levels of people. We all have to be satisfied with being unsatisfied at least twice a season, for now. We’ll have to be okay with seeing some of our least favorite players run around making everyone angry.

-Heidi Thomas (@DamselOnDrums)

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Heidi Thomas

Armchair hockey coach, passive horse racing fan, full-time dog referee.

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