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Why the NHL had to suspend Drew Doughty – even in the playoffs

A blatant rule infraction and an aggressive game narrative doomed Doughty's fate after his hit on Vegas' William Carrier.

Things have gone from bad to worse quickly for the Los Angeles Kings. They lost Game 1 of their Pacific Division matchup against the Vegas Golden Knights minus key defenseman Jake Muzzin and will play Game 2 without all-world blueliner Drew Doughty.

After a hearing with Doughty Thursday afternoon, the NHL Department of Player Safety announced a one-game suspension for Doughty for his hit to the head of Golden Knights left winger William Carrier, which occurred Wednesday in Game 1.

One game may not seem like much for a dangerous headshot – but playoff suspensions carry significant weight per game. One game is 14.3 percent of a series if it happens to go seven games. That’s the equivalent of missing 12 games in the regular season.

So what got Doughty banned?

For starters, let's clear the misconceptions. If you’re wondering, “How could Doughty have been suspended when he didn’t even earn a penalty in the game”? Don’t. Officiating falls under a different department in the NHL, and the DOPS operates independently. Referees make split-second decisions during games. Sometimes they get it right, but other times they call what they think is a penalty when video review after the fact reveals they made the wrong call. Sometimes they miss an illegal play too, which is what happened when Doughty hit Carrier.

Another misconception: that Doughty’s lack of prior offenses – his record shows only a $2,500 fine for a 2011 hit on T.J. Oshie – should’ve granted him amnesty. Nope. Past suspension history can impact only the length of a suspension after the league has decided to suspend a player. It doesn’t determine whether a given hit is suspendable. Doughty thus earns a ban here. If he had a lengthy rap sheet for headshots, he would’ve earned a longer ban, a-la Raffi Torres.

The fact Carrier was knocked out of the game by the hit doesn’t actually impact the decision to suspend, per the CBA, but it makes it more likely a player earns a longer suspension. In this case, it didn’t cost Doughty any more games because of the playoff weighting system, but it likely would have in the regular season.

So what about the play itself? A refresher on rule 48.1, illegal check to the head:

A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.

Armed with that definition, let’s review the hit:

It's not a particularly difficult case to evaluate. The hit was relatively late, Doughty took a path away from the puck, the head contact was significant, and the head contact was avoidable. Doughty took an unnecessary route toward Carrier, crouched briefly and launched upward. That’s a targeting act.

The last piece of incriminating, albeit circumstantial, evidence: the game script. Carrier was a major physical presence all night, dishing out 10 hits in just 8:49 of ice time. He was a pain in the Kings’ behinds. It’s not a good look when a player from a team losing a game in the third period headshots a player who has clearly agitated the other team. It doesn’t prove that the attack was an act of revenge – but it’s one more piece of background information to tack onto the illegal play. The narrative of a game matters.

So Doughty sits for a game, and the Kings hope to survive Vegas’ ferocious forecheck missing one or both of their best defensemen. Let's hope this puts to rest the myth of the NHL "not suspending stars."



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