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Even brightest NHL minds can't agree on what constitutes an illegal hit

NHL GMs talked about three recent hits, two that resulted in suspensions, and could come to no consensus on how any of them were handled.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. The GMs held their semi-annual clambake in Toronto today and talked about hits to the head. They tend to do that an awful lot. They talk and they talk and then they talk some more. Meanwhile, the hits keep coming.

So it was as the GMs assembled today to talk about three hits in particular and whether or not they should have been suspendable. The first of those was the Dale Weise hit on Korbinian Holzer that earned the Philadelphia Flyers’ winger a three-game suspension. The second was the David Pastrnak hit on Dan Girardi six days later that resulted in a two-game suspension for the Bruins’ right winger a two-game ban. And the third was the Nazem Kadri hit on Daniel Sedin that resulted in a five-minute major for interference, but no suspension.

At some point, the NHL is going to have to decide what kind of game it wants. Nobody wants to see less physical play if the hits are clean, but the problem is that there is not even consensus among the power brokers of the game what actually constitutes a clean hit and a dirty one. According to several GMs, half the GMs in the room agreed with the rulings of the Department of Player Safety on all three hits, while half disagreed.

“I can’t tell you they can go in one direction or the other based upon the room because it was, in effect, a split room,” said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland. “It’s in the interpretation. It depends on how you want to interpret things. They gauged the room and got lots of feedback.”

In fact, director of player safety Stephane Quintal brought both the Pastrnak and Weise suspensions to a small group of GMs Monday night to discuss whether the NHL’s interpretation of Rule 48 in those cases was in line with how the GMs would have interpreted it. That led to the larger discussion on the issue, which produced absolutely no consensus. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, according to those in the room, was encouraged by all the feedback he heard. And perhaps if the player safety department has GMs so polarized in their thinking that means it's doing a good job. But these guys are probably never going to change their minds. At some point, the NHL is going to either have to do something to stop these hits or simply live with them and the casualties that come along with them.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to be black and white,” said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson. “We’re trying to get to the point of how we want the game played and then giving the officials and supplemental discipline people direction on how to do their jobs.”

The Weise and Pastrnak hits were different from the Kadri hit in that both of them were North-South hits, meaning the player being hit was facing the opponent and had the opportunity to brace for the hit. The Kadri hit, on the other hand, was interference, but did not constitute a headshot because the principal point of contact was not the head. But there is no doubt that Sedin, who was in the process of shooting the puck and actually scored on the play, was in a vulnerable position. This hit is not illegal, essentially because the league took the blindside element out of Rule 48.

“Everybody in the room understands that the hit, with the rules as we have them now, is legal,” Holland said. “But the optics aren’t good when you have a guy spinning through the air and you worry about his head crashing on the ice. But the feeling in the room was, ‘Let’s not make a rule for one situation.’ If we do that, we’re going to be chasing our tails.”

The interesting thing in all of this is there were GMs in the room who disagreed with the Pastrnak and Weise suspensions, but didn’t like the Kadri hit. It’s such a difficult call because it wasn’t as though Sedin could have done anything to avoid the hit. After all, he scored on the play. And Kadri was attempting to stop a scoring play.

“What’s Kadri supposed to do?” asked Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “He’s behind him, he can’t trip him and he can’t hook him. So he tries to play the body. He plays the body and catches (Sedin) off balance and he ends up going down on the ice.”

“We’ll talk about it more in March, but my position is that we need to be cognizant of vulnerable players,” Wilson said. “Ever since we put the new rules in that’s something that we’ve discussed and we want to make sure we’re in the right spot on that one.”

The NHL, of course, could remedy this by banning any and all contact with the head. Probably not happening. Those in the powerful positions in the league seem convinced that no two hits are created equally and a blanket ban would result in less physical play. Some GMs argued that the player doing the hitting naturally has to elevate himself, because if the player goes into the hit with his knees bent, he’s going to have to come up to generate power.

So they’ll wait and watch and talk more about this when they meet again in March. But judging by how long this has been a topic of debate, don’t expect there to be any more consensus on this than there is now. Four months is not going to change anyone’s attitude.



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