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Use your head: When it comes to high hits in the NHL, the risk-reward isn't worth it

DETROIT — Let’s assume the worst, for the sake of argument. Let’s assume Brendan Shanahan has no idea what he’s doing as the NHL’s disciplinarian. Let’s assume he uses the old Wheel of Justice, only now it’s more sophisticated, with iPads and a TV studio.

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Justin Abdelkader hurt himself and the Wings with his two-game suspension for belting Toni Lydman. (AP)

Why go for a spin?

You know the NHL has been cracking down on hits to the head for three years now. If you still don’t know where the line is, if you still don’t think the penalties are consistent, if it all seems too nuanced and complicated, then make it simple:

Don’t put your fate in Shanahan’s hands.

Continue to play the physical hockey we love, but don’t try to obliterate your opponent. Stay low. Keep your skates on the ice. Keep your elbows in and shoulders down. Explode through the torso and separate the man from the puck.

And stay away from the freaking head.

Never mind not hurting your opponent. Don’t hurt yourself and your team.

Don’t spin the Wheel.

Had Justin Abdelkader done that Saturday night, he could have laid a hell of a lick on Toni Lydman. He could have knocked him on his butt and energized Joe Louis Arena the way he intended to do. Both guys could have played on.

[Related: Justin Abdelkader suspended two games for head shot on Toni Lydman]

Instead, seemingly jacked up and reckless, Abdelkader launched himself into Lydman and made significant contact with his head. Lydman left the game woozy, the start of concussion symptoms. Abdelkader received a five-minor major for charging and a game misconduct.

The Anaheim Ducks quickly capitalized with a power-play goal. A scoreless game unraveled into a 4-0 rout, and a tied playoff series turned into a 2-1 deficit for the Detroit Red Wings, who will have to battle back without one of their key players because Abdelkader received a two-game suspension.

“The risk-reward of trying to make that huge hit just isn’t there,” said Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey. “There’s no point.”

Quincey received a one-game suspension for charging last April. He said he hits less often now. He said even if you hit someone cleanly, the chances of not being suspended are “very slim.” We can argue that, but not this:

“There’s no Scott Stevens anymore,” he said.

He was asked if that was almost sad, even understanding the need for more player safety.

“The game has changed,” he said. “It is what it is. I don’t know if it’s sad.”

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The payoff for a huge hit isn't worth the risk of a huge suspension. (Getty)

It’s not sad at all. We know more about concussions and brain trauma than we did when Stevens was blowing up people, and we can still have hard-hitting hockey without turning it into a demolition derby.

What’s sad is when some of the most respected figures in the game lose perspective on the big picture – because they have to defend their guy, because they have to protect their team. Because, you know, it’s the Cup.

Here was Wings coach Mike Babcock talking about banning all hits to the head in February 2011:

“There’s lot of ways to crunch a guy without hitting him in the head,” he said then. “If you hit him in the head, you didn’t look after it. You had your hands up, or you put him in a bad spot, and I think you should be penalized for it – and that can be two minutes, and that can be five minutes and that can be suspended.

“These are good players. They want to play a long time. We have an obligation to protect them. I think shots to the head should be penalized and looked at all the time. That’s just my personal opinion.”

Babcock was asked about mitigating factors. Some players are taller than others. Some lower their heads when an opponent is about to deliver a hit. The game moves at split-second speed. Players naturally rise up when they hit, carried by momentum, bracing for impact.

He declined to get into specific scenarios, but he said: “I don’t think it’s difficult to judge. I don’t think it has anything to do with intent. Did you hit him in the head, or did you not hit him in the head? Isn’t that black and white?”

Now here was Wings coach Mike Babcock talking about Abdelkader on Sunday:

“I watched the hit again today,” he told reporters. “And, holy mackerel, I don’t know what you’re going to get suspended for.”

Holy mackerel.

It isn’t fair to single out Babcock. He is far from alone. This happens all the time all around the league.

[Also: Line brawl erupts between rival Habs and Sens]

But it’s got to stop, if not for player safety, then for self-interest. If coaches get on their players for taking undisciplined penalties, why would they not get on their players for throwing undisciplined hits? If players don’t want to go to the box, why do they risk going to the press box?

I think coaches and players would have greater incentive if the NHL gave the department of player safety a mandate for longer suspensions. But that’s another argument for another day, and aren’t suspensions of any length enough at this time of year?

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Eric Gryba's hit on Lars Eller might've been borderline, but optics were awful and it was another suspension.  …

Defend your guy in public. Abdelkader is not a dirty player and did not intend to concuss Lydman. But don’t defend the hit in public, and in private, make it clear that discipline is the best way to avoid supplemental discipline.

Shanahan and the department of player safety have been releasing videos for two seasons now – breaking down each suspension, showing examples of legal and illegal plays. The point is to be transparent, to educate and to change behavior.

The NHL should be accountable.

I wasn’t sure Ottawa Senators defenseman Eric Gryba deserved a two-game suspension for his hit on Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller on Thursday, because I thought the principal point of contact was the chest, not the head, so it wasn’t an illegal check to the head.

I thought Abdelkader deserved to be suspended for charging, because he came from a distance and launched himself into Lydman, and I thought he could have been suspended on the basis of the illegal check to the head rule, too. It looked like Lydman’s head was targeted and the principal point of contact to me.

Agree. Disagree.

Fine.

[More: What We Learned: Why 'letting them play' is nonsense in the NHL]

But too often we watch only when it interests us. Too often we make comparisons to plays that we happen to remember or that happen to fit our argument. Too often we don’t know the spectrum of infractions or the best precedents or the actual wording of the rules. Too often we see what we want to see because of an agenda or an opinion or an emotion.

And too often we miss the point.

Shanahan and the department of player safety have to break down video like the Zapruder film because they have to get it right in their decision-making. We need to get it right, too, in our analysis. Every detail matters.

But say what you want about the NHL. There is a need to crack down on hits to the head. There is no conspiracy against your team. There is no Wheel. Shanahan and his colleagues go through a consistent process, try to be objective and try to produce consistent results.

If it gets to the point where we’re going frame by frame and splitting hairs and still can’t come to a consensus, the player in question took too much of a risk for his opponent, for himself and his team.

“I think when you’re going to hit a guy like that, the main thing nowadays is not to him in the head,” Quincey said.

So don’t. Don’t come close.

Stay low, and explode through the torso instead.

Look after it. Don’t let the NHL look after it.

"Even if you're targeting the shoulder, you've got to go lower," Abdelkader told reporters Monday. "Everything is under a microscope."

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