Suspend him or not: Thomas Vanek boards Marcus Kruger

Should Thomas Vanek face supplementary discipline for his hit on Marcus Kruger? Here’s why we believe he shouldn’t.

University of Minnesota alumnus Thomas Vanek’s homecoming hasn’t gone as planned. His point production is his weakest since his rookie season of 2005-06. When he finally did make a Wild headline Thursday night, it was for a morally questionable hit. Let’s whisk ourselves to the Xcel Energy Center. It’s halfway through the first period. Chicago’s Daniel Carcillo stumbles as he enters the neutral zone with the puck and hands it off to Marcus Kruger. Just as Kruger looks back for the puck, he’s side-swiped by Vanek. Kruger flies face-first into the boards. The Blackhawks bench explodes in outrage. Vanek gets slapped with a five-minute boarding major. Have a look:

The hit looks bad at first glance. Kruger appears rather defenseless. And it the hit appears to qualify as boarding, as per the NHL’s listed rule (not the first time I’ve printed this):
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. The first paragraph seems to describe what Vanek did accurately. It appears he checked a defenseless player in a manner that made that player violently contact the boards. And the onus is on the player to ensure his opponent is not in a defenseless position. But the reason why Vanek should not be suspended for what he did: upon closer inspection, right before the moment of impact, Kruger did not appear to be defenseless. A few freeze frames can prove that. As Vanek approaches Kruger, Kruger’s head faces forward as he gains control of the puck. At the very least, Kruger’s peripheral vision would reveal Vanek:  
VanekKruger1 Kruger loses control for a split second and, at his own peril, glances back to find the puck:  
VanekKruger2 Better yet for Vanek’s case, Kruger rotates his head back up-ice right before the moment of impact. He’s not exactly defenseless:  
VanekKruger3 So not only was Kruger in all likelihood aware of the approaching Vanek, Kruger chose to look back for the puck
and was facing forward as Vanek hit him anyway. To me, this is only borderline boarding, and definitely not suspendable. The Department of Player Safety told THN it reviewed the play and no further discipline is expected.
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