September 30, 2011
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The NHL is changing rapidly, and for the better.
But because of these changes, there are a number of issues at play that cause trouble for players, coaches, officials and fans alike. In the last two weeks or so, we've seen a lot of guys come out and start complaining about all the new rules coming down at once. What is a penalty any more? What isn't?
Here's an example: Dion Phaneuf(notes) cleaned out two guys in a recent exhibition game with fairly similar hits. One got him two minutes. One went uncalled. Had this been two seasons ago, and maybe even early last year, either one would have been viewed as clean by everyone in the league except the guys he clobbered.
All involved expressed frustration with the circumstances. There were even claims the officials admitted to not knowing exactly what they should and should not be whistling as penalties. Everyone seems to kind of understand that this is a feeling-out process, but at the same time there's been a disparity in the way people have reacted.
The most upsetting of these are guys who seem to want to hide behind the confusion the new rules create to excuse dirty plays. Case in point: Scott Arniel, who said he was surprised when James Wisniewski(notes) got a boatload of games for elbowing Cal Clutterbuck(notes) in the head after the horn blew to end the game. Sure, there's confusion out there, but it's tough to tell how anyone could look at that mugging and think it would have resulted in anything less than a good-sized suspension in just about any season after the mid-90s.
"Not everybody is following preseason, and when it's over, the only thing people are going to hear about is, 'Twelve suspensions for 37 games or whatever it turns out,'" he told The New York Post. "That's not good for the game. No other sport does anything like that to itself."
To be fair, though, no other sport has creeps like Jody Shelley(notes) and Tom Sestito(notes) going 30 miles an hour putting their shoulders between a guy's numbers and running their face into a pane of glass when they're not looking. And if suspending a bunch of marginal or unremarkable NHL players (with the exception of Wisniewski) for five games or more per infraction is what's needed for guys both behind the bench and on it to "get" what the league is trying to do, then that's for the greater good.
Not that there isn't some room for debate, of course.
We all saw the Brendan Smith(notes) hit and immediately said, "Oh my, that's not good. Several games at least." We've been trained to immediately think "SUSPENSION!!!!!!!!!" when see a guy get his head rattled around like Ben Smith's(notes) did. And that's a good thing.
In a roundabout way, Mike Babcock brought up an interesting point: if Brendan Smith knows he can't hit a guy in the head, what's to prevent Ben Smith from sticking his head out in hopes of scaring a defender away from contact? Obviously the price he's going to end up paying is huge if the defender doesn't shy away — he is currently concussed — is large. But what if he's able to get around the defender, score a highlight reel goal and maybe make the team? Is the extra several hundred thousand dollars, feeling of accomplishment and added amenities that come with being in the NHL versus the AHL worth the risk? If the outcome had been different, most guys on the fringe would probably say yes.
Babcock's right: players need to do more to protect themselves as well. However, it's a clear-cut case of both guys being in the wrong to varying degrees — you have to blame the hitter more than the hittee, obviously, but the doesn't absolve the latter party — and a problem without easy answers.
But if we start to associate headshots and other plainly dirty plays with suspensions — big suspensions — players will end up doing it as well. Then, over the course of time, whaddaya know, there will be fewer headshots.
Now, because Brendan Shanahan(notes) recently told this site that he was using those explanatory videos of his to educate the players — and not necessarily the fans — about what is expected of them, he obviously knows this confusion is an issue. But based on the hits we've seen so far, it's quickly becoming clear that the only real changes to the system, such as it is, are the wording of the rules and the severity of punishments.
To act as though any of the hits we've seen so far this year somehow fall into this mysterious no man's land of ineffable tweaks is silly. And, because these guys know the game better than any of us do, it's also probably just gamesmanship; seeing how much they can get away with by pleading ignorance.
The system is not without its foibles, though. Much to the consternation of Leafs fans, Chris Neil(notes) cleaned out Mikhail Grabovski(notes) away from the play and escaped without either penalty or suspension. Shanahan said he will explain a select few plays that "looked bad but had the elements [of legality]," but until we see those, teams, officials and fans may continue to scratch their heads at borderline non-calls.
Thankfully, Shanahan has for the most part made it clear that ignorance of the rules are no excuse for breaking them. Guys better start picking up on that quickly.
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