In a better version of the NHL, Leon Draisaitl would have faced serious consequences for a nasty cheapshot in Game 4 of the first-round playoff series between the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks.
In the version of the NHL we actually have, the slap on the wrist he got was all the league was capable of doing.
On Tuesday night, Draisaitl was clearly frustrated. His Edmonton Oilers were in San Jose, trailing the Sharks by five goals, the fifth of which had been scored less than a minute earlier. He’d just failed to win a puck along the boards, so he took his frustration out on San Jose centre Chris Tierney:
The referees, correctly, decided that a deliberate spear to an opponent’s groin warranted a five-minute penalty and a game misconduct, and Draisaitl was duly ejected from the match. The NHL’s Department of Player Safety weighed in on Wednesday, fining Draisaitl $2,500 and change but levying no further punishment.
Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl fined $2,569.44, the maximum allowable under the CBA, for spearing San Jose’s Chris Tierney.
— NHL Player Safety (@NHLPlayerSafety) April 19, 2017
It’s all part of the NHL’s apparent commitment to keeping spearing part of the game of hockey.
The truth is that, even had it wanted to, player safety could not have suspended Draisaitl. Spearing happens relatively often in the majors and the league disciplinarians rarely raise much fuss over it. The obvious recent example is that of Sidney Crosby, who went not only unsuspended but wasn’t even penalized:
Even Brad Marchand, who raises the cheapshot to an art form, doesn’t merit much more than a sigh from player safety when he does this sort of thing. He was suspended for two meaningless games in April after the Bruins had already clinched a playoff spot and was back in the lineup for Game 1 of Boston’s series with Ottawa.
After turning a blind eye to Crosby and slapping Marchand on the wrist, it would have been awfully hypocritical for player safety to then throw the book at Draisaitl, who has no history of misbehaviour in the NHL.
The question, then, isn’t why the league let Draisaitl off so lightly. The question is why the league habitually shrugs its shoulders at this kind of thing.
Malicious stick work is one of those things that should be easy for the NHL to crack down on.
For one, it’s universally despised. Even the most calcified traditionalists, a class that typically fights tooth and nail against any attempt to legislate violence out of the game, typically has little time for players using sticks as weapons. It goes against ‘The Code,’ and if anything the presence of that sort of cheapshot in hockey has always been used as a justification of fighting as a way to keep it in check.
There is no natural constituency for this sort of thing, no plausible upside for keeping it in the sport. It needlessly hurts players like Tierney, pointlessly diminishes the reputations of players like Draisaitl and Crosby and adds one more ugly element to a game that already has more than its share of underhanded thuggery.
It would be so easy to eliminate, too. Unlike a charge or a blindside hit, which can arise organically from just playing the game, there isn’t a whole lot of room for questions of intent or legality when one player sticks another in the groin. The obviousness of these plays would make supplemental discipline an easy call for the DoPS.
All the NHL has to do is decide, in the offseason, that it’s taking a zero-tolerance approach to an ugly and utterly unnecessary play. Put together a quick video, explain that punishments are going to be severe, and then squash the first guy to cross the line with the rulebook.
Players will get the message, and in all likelihood be thankful that the risk of taking a hockey stick to the groin has decreased. Fans will get to watch a marginally cleaner version of the sport. There’s nothing but upside in such a change.
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