When considering the one-game suspension to Ryan Reaves of the Vegas Golden Knights for his illegal hit to the head of Tyler Motte of the Vancouver Canucks, the first thing you have to realize is that, for supplementary discipline purposes, the NHL considers one playoff game to be the equivalent of two regular-season games.
So it was really no surprise with the Department of Player Safety came down with its sentence. It’s still ridiculously light if the goal is to get these kinds of hits out of the game, but it’s pretty much in line with the standard punishment for this kind of hit and result. Motte returned to the game, so it’s clear he was not injured, and even though Reaves was suspended three games for boarding in 2016, he’s not considered a repeat offender.
So Reaves will have an opportunity to contemplate his actions while his team is skating in Game 1 of the Western Conference final Sunday night. When Reaves gets around to commenting about the suspension, we’re sure to hear a lot of chatter from him that this punishment will not prompt him to change his approach to the game. And we’ll also hear a lot about what an honest player he is. Did you ever notice, though, that those supposedly honest players who are there to keep everything safe are often the ones causing mayhem? As I’ve said many times before with the names being interchangeable, it’s a good thing the NHL has players like Ryan Reaves to protect everybody from players like Ryan Reaves.
“In my time, both coaching against Ryan and now with him, he’s the cleanest, toughest player that I know,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer was saying before the sentence came down. “Very rarely does he take penalties. He very rarely takes liberties. He doesn’t take advantage of people in vulnerable positions, even though he could, and yet he plays as physical a brand of hockey as anybody in the league.”
DeBoer was defending the player, not the action. He acknowledged that Reaves got Motte “in a bad spot” and seemed resigned to the fact there would be some form of discipline after Reaves had a hearing with the league. Reaves himself argued that he didn’t intend to make contact with Motte’s head, which is all well and good, but he could have held up on the hit and didn’t. Even the league agreed with Reaves’ assessment, saying in the suspension video that, “While we accept Reaves’ argument that he does not intent to hit Motte in the head…” Reaves’ hit on Motte is a match penalty and a suspension seven days a week because it met the two most important criteria in Rule 48 – the head was the primary point of contact and it was avoidable.
Then it goes into a long diatribe about how Reaves thought Motte, who was being angled toward the boards by Paul Stastny of the Golden Knights, thought he would be pushed further toward the boards and when this didn’t happen, Reaves took an angle of approach that cut across the front of Motte’s body rather than through his core. But then the league goes on to contradict itself by saying the following: “If Reaves wishes to deliver a check on this play, he must do so by hitting through Motte’s shoulder and core rather than picking the head with force.”
So which was it? Was it a reckless play or a deliberate one? The words of DOPS director George Parros don’t really give us any clarity on that. And that’s a huge distinction. If the league buys Reaves’ plea that he didn’t intend to hit Motte in the head, you might be able to justify a one-game suspension. But Parros said himself that Reaves picked the head with force. And if that’s the case, one playoff game doesn’t even come close to being enough.
It's all part of the delicate dance the NHL insists on doing with these kinds of hits. Afraid that being too hard on big hits would turn the NHL into the No Hit League, the NHL is still wary of imposing heavy discipline on these kinds of hits. Worse, it continues to be wishy-washy about it and that doesn't help anyone - either the hitter or the receiver of the hit.