Monday September 14th, 2015

The NHL is on the verge of taking a significant step in the battle against brain trauma.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the league will begin using off-ice concussion spotters to ensure that potentially injured players are given immediate medical attention rather than be allowed an opportunity to “shake it off.”

The spotter approach follows the lead that the NFL established a few years back and mirrors an idea we championed just over a month ago, which suggests the league moves awfully fast or perhaps was already in the process of implementing this plan.

The NHL hasn’t offered an official confirmation of Lavoie’s report, or responded to SI.com’s request for additional information, so there are plenty of questions yet to be answered. For example, will the spotters be employed by the league and/or NHLPA and will they be fully independent of the teams? Will they be locally based or will they travel like on-ice officials to ensure they don’t develop a relationship with any particular team that might pose a conflict of interest? What training and background will they require? Will the spotter contact team representatives or on-ice officials when a potential head injury is spotted? And what powers will they possess? Will they have absolute authority to send a player to “the quiet room” for testing?

We won’t fully understand the full potential of the program until we have those answers, but we can say this: A spotter won’t eliminate concussions, but the sooner the injury is detected the sooner a player can receive treatment, and the less likely that player is to sustain further damage from another incident of contact.

With concussion concerns at an all-time high, there was an opportunity here for the league to take a practical, pro-active step to help protect its players and the NHL took it. This isn’t the ultimate solution to the problem of brain trauma, but it’s a solid step in the right direction.

UPDATE: The details have begun to emerge on the NHL's plan and let's just say they're...disappointing.

According to Frank Seravalli of TSN, teams may opt to use spotters on their own payroll or they may instead opt to use the new independent spotters hired by the league.

"These new independent spotters will keep a log of all possible injuries and apparent blows to the head, which could ultimately be compared to the log from the team-affiliated spotters after the season. NHL concussion spotters do not have to be physicians. It’s unclear what kind of training is required to qualify for the position.

"Like the NFL, the NHL’s concussion spotters do have the ability to have a player removed from a game, but the spotter would have to indicate that a player exhibits three clearly visible concussion symptoms."

Knowing all this, it appears that what we're looking at here is more of a tentative first step than a bold initiative to protect the players. The lack of uniformity--allowing teams the discretion to rely on their own paid staffers rather than independent league spotters--leaves open the door to situations in which the interests of the team are placed ahead of those of the player. The lack of uniform training is an issue as well, if only because it allows room for the perception of a variation of oversight in different buildings and thus a variation in care. 

Ultimately, this is a positive move by the league. If only it wasn't so wishy-washy, it could have been so much more.

• Interesting to see the Chicago Blackhawks extend PTO agreements over the weekend to defenseman Jan Hejda and forward Daniel Paille. Both veterans will attend camp trying to prove that they still have something to offer, either to Chicago or another team that might be in the market for help.

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Will the Hawks be able to offer them anything more than a look-see? At this point, it doesn’t seem like it. Chicago has around $900,000 available under the cap, barely enough breathing room to account for the inevitable injury-related call-ups they Hawks will have to make during the course of the season. That said, they’d like to add another veteran to the blueline and Hejda would seem to fit that need. It’s less obvious where Paille would fit in, although having him around isn’t a bad idea. His hands have turned to cement, but he’s smart enough and quick enough to be a reliable option in a fourth line/penalty kill role.

But to get either or both of them onto the roster, GM Stan Bowman would need to make another cap-clearing trade, like the one that sent Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom to Carolina last week. Or he could be counting on the suspension of forward Patrick Kane to free up some space, at least on a temporary basis, with Paille acting as a defensive-minded buffer in his absence.

It seems no better than 50/50 that either player ends up on Chicago’s roster, but give credit to Bowman. He has his bases well covered, as always.

• The hit that Vancouver prospect Jake Virtanen landed on Connor McDavid in rookie tournament action wasn’t particularly brutal, but it did to knock Edmonton’s pending savior out of the rest of the event.

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Not that he was injured. In fact, GM Peter Chiarelli announced that McDavid simply wanted “a chance to see some of the other players in [the final] two games.” But it’s fair to suggest that they also were protecting their prime assetfrom injury in a meaningless competition. 

You also have to think the Oilers weren’t happy that no one stepped up to Virtanen after McDavid was steamrolled. Don’t be surprised to see Luke Gazdic get some Dave Semenko-type ice time early this season to clear some space for McDavid and keep boisterous opponents honest.

• Lots of buzz out of Buffalo after a strong Prospects Challenge performance by Evan Rodrigues. The 22-year-old forward, signed as a free agent after finishing his senior season with Boston University this spring, showed off some slick hands and a relentless effort in a three-point debut.

“He’s a pretty good player, huh?” former BU linemate Jack Eichel said. “I think he kind of flew a little bit under the radar last year in college. I think he’s definitely making a name for himself. You see his skill. He’s a good player, that’s for sure. I think he’s going to show a lot of people that.”

Rodrigues seems destined for AHL Rochester this season, but his work ethic and scoring touch could get him a look in Buffalo before this season is over.

Hot links

• Steven Stamkos says the lack of a contract extension won’t be a distraction as training camp unfolds. Um, ok.

• Despite battling stage 4 colon cancer, Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray might not be ready to give up the job after this season as planned. Here’s hoping he sticks around for many, many more.

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• Helene Elliott has the latest on the Las Vegas and Quebec City expansion process. No word yet on when exactly the Board of Governors will formally vote on welcoming either, neither or both of them to the party, but it could happen as soon as the end of this month.

• The Flyers boast a crop of young defenseman that ranks among the best in the league. But are any of them actually good enough to crack the lineup this season?

• It won’t be easy replacing a living legend in Detroit, but new Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill says he’s up for the challenge.

• Yes, Jeff Skinner has heard all the trade rumors. Here’s what the Carolina Hurricanes star is doing about them.

• Hockey has taken root in some of the most unexpected places. Here’s a look at how the game has found a small but dedicated following in Costa Rica.

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