Eric Gryba's controversial suspension by the NHL based on a hit determined to be illegal

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Forget the blood. Forget the stretcher. Forget the hospital. Forget how Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean called a couple of players by their numbers instead of their names and blamed the suicide pass, and forget how Montreal Canadiens forward Brandon Prust called MacLean a “bug-eyed fat walrus.”

To form a reasoned opinion on whether the NHL should have suspended Senators defenseman Eric Gryba two games for his hit on Canadiens forward Lars Eller, you have to understand how the department of player safety evaluates incidents like these. You have to filter out the optics and emotion.

First, you have to determine whether the hit was illegal. If you decide it was illegal, then you consider factors like whether it caused an injury and determine the punishment. You can debate whether that should be the process in the big picture, but that is the process, and yes, the NHL has used it consistently.

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NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan and his colleagues often have healthy disagreements and debates, and this was a particularly difficult case. This hit was not clean. Nor was it dirty. It was a shade of gray. But ultimately it was illegal because Gryba caught too much of Eller’s head and not enough of his body, and it caused a serious injury.

In Game 1 of a first-round playoff series Thursday night, Canadiens defenseman Raphael Diaz fired the puck up the middle. Eller was skating up ice while looking back for the puck, and Gryba stepped up and smacked him.

Diaz should have been smarter, and Eller should have been more aware, but this was about the check. It wasn’t late, so it wasn’t interference – even though Gryba received a major for interference and a game misconduct. It wasn’t charging or elbowing, either. Gryba glided into Eller with his elbows down.

Was it an illegal check to the head? To break Rule 48, Gryba had to both target Eller’s head and make it the principal point of contact.

Personally, when I watch the replay over and over, I see Gryba lower his right shoulder and hit Eller in the chest. I see Eller spin and hit the ice hard because of the force. I see their hips collide. It doesn’t look like Gryba clearly targets Eller’s head. It doesn’t look like Eller’s head is the principal point of contact.

As much as I am in favor of player safety and strict suspensions, based on the wording of the rule and the action on the replay, I’m not sure there is cause for a suspension. If the hit is legal, it does not matter whether Eller was injured.

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But this was not the clearest replay, and Shanahan and his colleagues, who have tons of experience playing the game and evaluating hits, considered something else: Had Gryba struck Eller in the chest, Eller would have been thrown straight backward. He wouldn’t have helicoptered to the ice as he did. He likely wouldn’t have been out cold on his feet, either. That helped convince them the head was the principal point of contact.

As Shanahan explained on the suspension video, Gryba tried to make a hard, legal check, but he was offline. Instead of hitting him straight on – front shoulder on front shoulder – he veered too far to the left and caught Eller from the front. Shanahan and his colleagues didn’t think Gryba deliberately targeted Eller’s head, but they felt he recklessly targeted it, a distinction they have drawn many times.

If you’re looking for consistency, watch the educational video the department of player safety released recently. It showed examples of hard, legal checks and then illegal checks to the head. The main theme: The legal checks had full body contact. The illegal checks isolated the head. When you see several examples in a row, you see the pattern better. The Gryba hit fell toward the middle of the spectrum, but on the illegal side.

Now look at a check that Brian Campbell, then of the Buffalo Sabres, threw on R.J. Umberger, then of the Flyers, in the 2006 playoffs. It was similar to this hit. It was devastating. Except Campbell made full body contact and Gryba did not, and so Campbell’s hit would be legal even today while Gryba’s was not.

When Shanahan explained the Gryba suspension, he said: “We do not feel he makes enough of a full body check.” That was the key. It was illegal, and so on to Step 2.

Why two games? Why two games especially when this was a shade of gray and the Boston Bruins’ Andrew Ference received one game for a deliberate elbow to the head of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mikhail Grabovski on Wednesday night?

Now remember the blood, the stretcher and the hospital – not because of the scene or the politics, but because of the injury itself. Eller suffered a broken nose, facial fractures and a concussion. He left Thursday night’s game and missed Friday night’s game, at minimum. Grabovski didn’t miss a shift.

Also remember that playoff games are weighed differently than regular-season games. Each incident is considered on its own and within the context of the series.

I don’t see this the way the NHL does. But I see where the NHL is coming from, and I don’t see how anyone could think this was black and white – unless he’s wearing black, white and red or bleu, blanc et rouge.

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