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There’s a handful of different ways to view Nate Schmidt’s 20-game suspension for having only the tracest of trace amounts of a performance-enhancing substance in his system, only some of them overlapping.
The first and most immediate thought anyone should have after reading the (albeit one-sided) facts of the case is that this is a dramatic overreaction by the NHL.
The NHL follows the World Anti-Doping Agency’s testing standards for PEDs, which means Schmidt would have been suspended in any league that follows WADA guidelines. So is it an overreaction by the NHL in real life, or are we just mad that a guy we generally like from a team that engendered a lot of goodwill in the past year got suspended for coming in very very very very very very slightly “hot” on a PED test?
Like, let’s say the exact same situation happens to a relatively anonymous defenseman from, say, Edmonton? If Matt Benning fails a PED test in the exact same way, is there anywhere near as much outrage over what’s “right” here? You could say both were being railroaded by an unfair system, sure, but it’s not really the NHL’s call. Moreover, you probably wouldn’t want the NHL going on a case-by-case basis and saying, “This blown WADA standard is okay because it’s only [however much] over the limit,” because the hockey world in general already has the feeling there’s too much subjectivity in NHL supplementary discipline to begin with. And they are, of course, correct.
So there’s not a lot to be done here. In much the same way Tom Wilson feels aggrieved by another suspension for a clear headshot, Schmidt is aggrieved that he failed the PED test, but rules are rules. Schmidt specifically argues that he doesn’t know how he would have run into the substance for which he has been suspended and that the trace amount — the equivalent of a small amount salt in a swimming pool, he says — would have given him no actual performance-enhancing benefit.
All the testimonials about his strong character and great morals, and the denials from all parties, sound an awful lot like all the other testimonials and denials from other players who tested positive in other sports. So who’s to say who’s lying and who isn’t. Even if you believe every word of Schmidt’s defense — and you have no reason not to given the specificity — there’s nothing that prevents some other player from saying the exact same stuff after intentionally taking PEDs.
Hot is hot, though, so ultimately your issue is with WADA, even if the NHL is going to get all the wrath.
And what makes this more frustrating is that the league has come down extremely hard on Schmidt at a time when other issues are perhaps more worthy of attention. Austin Watson remains unsuspended after pleading no-contest to assaulting his wife more than a month ago. At the same time the league has its head still firmly buried in the sand on concussions and the harm they cause to the people who play the sport.
The Watson issue seems a more pressing one. How has the league taken no action here? Of course, we don’t know the timeline on Schmidt’s failed PED test and we very much know the timeline on Watson’s arrest and plea. All we know is Schmidt had more than enough time to convene experts and appeal the suspension before it was announced.
The NHL is certainly going through some processes behind the scenes with Watson, but the lack of swift action from the NHL for what should be a slam-dunk issue — and disturbing lack of comment from the Nashville Predators — while a PED suspension comes and goes seems incongruous to the idea that Hockey Is For Everyone.
That’s not Schmidt’s fault, obviously, but it’s an issue that immediately spins out; the league dropped the hammer on Schmidt but it’s radio silence on Watson? The league’s attendant media insiders may be privy to lots of info here, but the fact that there hasn’t been any serious reportage on the proceedings here sends a bad message.
Regardless of action on Watson’s case, once the season starts, the bigger impact of the Schmidt suspension in a lot of people’s minds will be on the hockey side.
If Vegas stumbles out of the gate, Schmidt’s absence — which will keep him out of the lineup until mid-November — will be held up as a primary reason why, and the NHL will be broadly vilified by Vegas fans and probably even some non-partisans. If the league makes a team’s most-used defenseman miss the first quarter of the season, that’s gonna hurt them.
Just to get out in front of this one now: Schmidt missing 20 games is a blow, but we need to keep in mind that being the best defenseman on the Vegas Golden Knights isn’t exactly the sort of thing that makes you an elite defender who’s worth a couple of wins over the course of a season. In fact, I would say both Shea Theodore and Colin Miller might be a little more deserving of the title of “Best Vegas Defenseman” and could flourish if being bumped up the line chart in Schmidt’s absence. And again, the loss isn’t small, but if Schmidt is worth less than a win above replacement in a given year, the loss isn’t going to be what sinks this team either.
Instead, the thing that’s likely to constrain Vegas is that they didn’t really add any quality to the lineup this summer, at least relative to what went out, and this was — it bears repeating — an extremely lucky team last season. In much the same way as the failures of the Minnesota Wild several years ago were blamed on key injuries and not the evaporation of their shooting and goaltending luck.
Worth noting, too, that Vegas’s “step back” might not be as big as other teams’ were because their top line is so good and their division is without question the worst in the league top-to-bottom. One can question whether Marc-Andre Fleury can be a nearly .930 goalie again this season, but he’s .920 in his 206 games across the last four seasons, so sometimes you can just count on above-average goaltending to get you through.
But there’s a difference between being a 98-point team and a 109-point team, and fans will have a convenient villain if this team doesn’t live up to too-lofty expectation. It won’t be entirely fair, but again the NHL has done so little to give people the impression it deserves the benefit of the doubt on any issue that it’s at least understandable.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.
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