The Dennis Seidenberg hit on Jonathan Toews Thursday night is a tough call for the NHL. If it suspends Seidenberg, it gets accused of taking hitting out of hockey. If it doesn’t, it gets accused of condoning hits from behind on vulnerable players.
You’d have to think Stephane Quintal knew there would be days like these when he agreed to replace Brendan Shanahan in the top job in the NHL’s department of player safety. Quintal is truly between a Hawk and a hard place today. Whether he and his department decide to further discipline Dennis Seidenberg for his hit on Jonathan Toews Thursday night, he’ll be criticized.
If he allows Seidenberg off the hook, which looks like it will be the case, he’ll be accused of allowing stars to risk injury by not penalizing dangerous hits on vulnerable players. If he applies further sanctions to Seidenberg, he’ll be accused of trying to remove hitting from the game and turning it into the No Hitting League.
Perhaps it’s best to provide a little context surrounding the hit first before we rush to judgment. Because if we’re going to insist that these hits should be allowed and accept the sometimes unfortunate consequences, then coaches around the league will have to understand that a player such as Toews would have had to bail out on that situation in order to avoid getting hit. And if we’re going to insist those kinds of hits are suspendable, then coaches are going to have to live with players not making them and risk having their team get scored on because of it.
At the time of the hit, the Bruins had just finished killing off a 5-on-3 power play for the Blackhawks and were faced with a 5-on-4 disadvantage. Toews was off to the right of the Bruins net and had missed a chance to score when a pass from Patrick Sharp glanced off his stick. Toews was then going to retrieve the puck along the boards when Seidenberg hit him from behind in that danger zone a couple of feet from the boards.
After the game, Bruins coach Claude Julien placed some of the blame on Toews, saying players in that position have to take responsibility for their positioning and not put themselves in vulnerable situations. And that’s fine if you’re a star like Jonathan Toews, who could have afforded to avoid that hit. But if a marginal player bails out on being hit just because he might be exposing himself to danger, that player isn’t going to see the ice again for a long time. He’s going to be branded as weak and vulnerable.
Seidenberg, on the other hand, also had a responsibility. But at that point in the game it’s 2-0 and if Seidenberg holds back on the hit and Toews retrieves the puck and the Blackhawks score, it becomes a 3-0 lead and the game is essentially over. And there would have likely been no repercussions for a veteran such as Seidenberg. But what if it had been Zach Trotman who allowed Toews to the puck and it resulted in a goal? Well, chances are Trotman would have seen a lot of the Bruins bench for the rest of the night and been replaced in the lineup by Matt Bartkowski or Joe Morrow.
It’s important to note that Seidenberg did receive a two-minute boarding minor for the hit. And it’s also noteworthy that none of the other Blackhawk players on the ice at the time – Patrick Kane, Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith, none of whom is known for his fighting – took issue with Seidenberg for the hit.
So if the NHL were to decide to further penalize Seidenberg, it would not be because the hit was Seidenberg’s fault. It would be to tell coaches that these kinds of plays are not acceptable under any circumstance and that if you want your players in the lineup, sometimes they’re going to have to make decisions that might not be in the best short-term interests of the team.
And if you don’t suspend Seidenberg, it would be to tell coaches and players that the NHL is a contact sport and incidents like this one are an unfortunate byproduct of that. And if hits like this one are deemed OK, coaches are going to have to live with the possibility that a star player is going to get hurt once in a while, or that they’re going to have to occasionally go against their instincts and not dig for a puck along the boards.
Sometimes these situations are cut-and-dried. This is not one of those situations.