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The NHL can't suspend Brad Marchand for what he didn't do

Brad Marchand is undoubtedly a dirty player. But anyone calling what he did to Kronwall and Stralman "slew-footing" or "clipping" needs a rulebook refresher.

We pretty much know how we feel about Brad Marchand on an emotional level by now. He’s a highly talented winger, speedy and slippery, an underrated goal scorer, a steady two-way presence and, at 28, he’s peaking, perched among the league’s top four scorers. He’s also his generation’s answer to Ken Linseman, an elite pain in the neck, known for infuriating opponents and for dirty, dangerous play.

My colleague Jared Clinton summarized Marchand’s rap sheet nicely earlier this week. It includes a two-game suspension for elbowing R.J. Umberger in March 2011; a $2,500 fine for slew-footing Matt Niskanen in December 2011; a five-game ban for a predatory low-bridge hit on Sami Salo in January 2012; two games for slew-footing Derick Brassard in January 2015; and three games for clipping Mark Borowiecki in December 2015. Last week, the league docked Marchand $10,000, the maximum allowable amount per the collective bargaining agreement, for a dangerous trip of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall, marking Marchand’s fourth career fine.

Marchand went to Los Angeles as a deserving participant in the 2017 All-Star Game and immediately resumed his sketchiness upon returning to the Boston Bruins, catching Tampa Bay Lightning D-man Anton Stralman with some questionable leg-on-leg contact Tuesday night. Here’s where our emotions take over. Many of us see Marchand, who clearly has a track record as a dirty player, doing more dirty things. We’re appalled that $10,000 qualifies as a legit penalty for a guy making $6.125 million annually starting next season. We don’t understand how a player with multiple clipping and slew-footing violations doesn’t get banned for half a season.

We’re better off, though, if we remove emotion from the equation and try to understand what’s actually happened. Raffi Torres earned a 41-game ban at the start of 2015-16 because (a) he was a repeat offender; (b) the hit he threw on Jakob Silfverberg was indeed an illegal check to the head, bad enough to warrant a suspension, regardless of whether Torres was a repeat offender; and (c) Torres was repeating the same specific infraction. The Department of Player Safety felt he’d shown no signs of learning to curb a dangerous tendency, which is its No. 1 no-no, as changing player behaviour, not merely punishing, is the DOPS’ prime mantra.

Marchand checks off boxes (a) and (c). Per (a), he has a long history of dangerous hits, some of which earned supplemental discipline within the past 18 months, officially qualifying him as a repeat offender under the CBA. Per (c), he has a history of repeating a specific type of dangerous behaviour: clipping and slew-footing. The reason why Marchand isn’t behind virtual bars, however, is what most angry fans are missing: what he did to Kronwall and Stralman wasn’t worthy of a suspension, at least not per the league rulebook. The fiery emotional being inside us, the voice that says “Brad Marchand is a little s---t,” wants to fit that square peg into a round hole, but you can’t suspend a guy for something he didn’t do.

And what Marchand didn’t do to Kronwall or Stralman is slew-foot or clip. It’s not a coincidence the NHL continuously referred to the Kronwall incident as a “dangerous trip,” not a slew-foot. Here it is:

Now, the Stralman play:

The NHL rulebook defines slew-footing (Rule 52) as:

The act of a player using his leg or foot to knock or kick an opponent’s feet from under him, or pushes an opponent’s upper body backward with an arm or elbow, and at the same time with a forward motion of his leg, knocks or kicks the opponent’s feet from under him, causing him to fall violently to the ice.

That’s a highly specific (and grammatically incorrect) description. Marchand did not do any of those things to Kronwall or Stralman. In the Kronwall case, he crashes into Kronwall dangerously, but there’s no kicking motion suggesting a deliberate slew-foot. Here’s an example of what an actual slew foot by Marchand looks like:

The NHL rulebook defines clipping (Rule 44) as:

The act of throwing the body, from any direction, across or below the knees of an opponent. A player may not deliver a check in a “clipping” manner, nor lower his own body position to deliver a check on or below an opponent’s knees. An illegal “low hit” is a check that is delivered by a player who may or may not have both skates on the ice, with his sole intent to check the opponent in the area of his knees. A player may not lower his body position to deliver a check to an opponent’s knees.

Again, Marchand did not lower his body position to target Kronwall or Stralman’s knees. Marchand did do that to Salo:

What Marchand did to Kronwall and Stralman was classic skate tripping. It’s among the most common infractions in hockey, typically garnering a minor penalty, but it’s rarely deemed serious enough to rise to supplemental discipline. The league deemed the Kronwall trip dangerous, especially because it happened away from the puck and at a high speed, and fined Marchand for it. Even that might’ve been a mistake, as it sent a mixed message. If the league decided Marchand needed a fine for a “dangerous trip,” it was admitting he was displaying more unsafe behaviour, which invited criticism from the hockey world for the soft punishment. A major punishment or no fine at all would’ve sent a clearer message. The $10,000 constitutes a mushy middle, leaving no one happy.

Six tips to better understand supplemental discipline in the NHL

The Stralman trip was merely an accident. Marchand didn’t alter his path to the puck at all. So that incident is inadmissible in talk of slapping Marchand with a lengthy suspension. Only repeat offenses and injury to a victim can lengthen a player’s suspension, and even they only come into play after the league has deemed a play suspension-worthy. The Stralman trip thus had no impact. And the Kronwall trip, while earning Marchand a fine, wasn’t a repeat of a previously committed dangerous behaviour, as it wasn’t a clip or slew-foot.

There’s an argument to made that we shouldn’t give Marchand a pass, that emotion matters, that in our heart of hearts we know he’s a dirty player. He’ll do something dangerous again, and it’ll get someone hurt. I can’t disagree with any of that. But what fans often forget to do is respect the CBA and thus the NHL rulebook. What is often confused as “inconsistency” and a beef with the DOPS is actually a beef with the CBA and rulebook, which were agreed to by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, the latter of which is comprised of the perpetrators and victims of on-ice crimes. Matt Cooke didn’t earn a suspension for his awful headshot on Marc Savard in 2010 – because rule 48.1 hadn’t yet been amended to make that type of head contact illegal. Once the rulebook changed, the DOPS could begin punishing those headshots.

So if you think Marchand should be shelved for slew-footing or clipping, take issue with the rulebook’s definition of both. What he did doesn’t qualify. He’s back on the street – until he commits a crime actually worth a suspension. If that happens, he’ll receive the severe and deserved punishment everyone wants for him.

Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and Six tips to better understand supplemental discipline in the NHL

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