Clayton Stoner avoids discipline for Pacioretty hit. Here’s why the NHL got it wrong

Clayton Stoner will not be suspended for his hit on Max Pacioretty. Based on how the league defines boarding, however, was the decision the wrong one in this case?

Swing and a miss, NHL player safety department.

It was a particularly scary night for Max Pacioretty and the Montreal Canadiens. Pacioretty was already sensitive to dangerous hits, having sustained a career-threatening fractured vertebra in 2011 when Boston’s Zdeno Chara drove him into a stanchion. Chances are, ‘Patches’ experienced some traumatic flashbacks after last night’s collision with Anaheim blueliner Clayton Stoner.

After Pacioretty “admired a pass,” as the homer-as-it-gets Anaheim broadcasters put it, Stoner sent him hurtling into the boards with a late hit. Pacioretty struggled to get back to his feet, was in obvious pain and was taken to hospital for precautionary reasons. Here’s a look at the play:

Multiple sources have confirmed Stoner will not have a disciplinary hearing with the NHL. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun implied the league’s sense was the hit on Pacioretty wasn’t late and wasn’t boarding.

The hit’s pure physicality is relatively clean, as Stoner makes contact with Pacioretty’s right shoulder and simply sends Pacioretty flying because Stoner is a beast of a man at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds.

The idea the hit wasn’t late, however? I don’t buy it. Watch it again. The angle at 1:30 shows the puck was almost at the blueline by the time Stoner contacted him. This hit was not an attempt to separate an opponent from the puck. It was a heavy blow on a defenseless player. And while the contact was clean, look at how the NHL defines boarding:

A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who checks or pushes a defenseless opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to hit or impact the boards violently in the boards. The severity of the penalty, based upon the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee.

There is an enormous amount of judgment involved in the application of this rule by the Referees. The onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a defenseless position and if so, he must avoid or minimize the contact. However, in determining whether such contact could have been avoided, the circumstances of the check, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the check or whether the check was unavoidable can be considered. This balance must be considered by the Referees when applying this rule.

Pacioretty was defenseless and did not put himself in a vulnerable position. His back wasn’t turned to Stoner. The hit wasn’t the most egregious of offenses but, under the league’s boarding rules, it wasn’t legal, and Stoner should’ve been suspended as a result. The NHL got this one wrong.

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UPDATE: A league source provided explanation into the department of player safety’s ruling. Using the NHL’s software, the source said, the league had the hit timed at 0.467 seconds after the puck left Pacioretty’s stick. That puts the hit under the NHL standard of 0.5 seconds for a late hit and well below the 0.6-0.7-second threshold the DOPS uses to determine whether late hits warrant supplementary discipline.

It’s good to know the league operates in such an organized manner, and that “we don’t just guess at these things,” as the source said. If the Pacioretty hit doesn’t pass the eye test, however, is it fair to wonder if certain hits should be exceptions to the rule, best evaluated individually instead of using a black-and-white system?

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin