stuhackel
Wednesday November 16th, 2011

The next time a goaltender is flattened the way Ryan Miller, there will be consequences for the checker. (Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

When we first wrote Monday about Milan Lucic's hit on Ryan Miller in last Saturday's Sabres-Bruins game, the gist of that post was that the decision taken that day by the NHL's Department of Player Safety would be pivotal in helping clarify what is permissible with regard to contact with goaltenders. The rules themselves are pretty straight-forward, but as we wrote, "Whether the NHL will back them up here is the issue."

However, it wasn't the Player Safety boys who backed up the rules -- they didn't; they gave Lucic a free pass. It turned out that the NHL's general managers -- who purely by coincidence were scheduled to meet on Tuesday and who provide direction to Brendan Shanahan's group -- defended the rule and instructed the league to be more forceful next time when dealing with hits like Lucic's.

And that is a boost not just for goaltenders, but also for player safety in the NHL.

According to reports coming out of the meetings, about two-thirds of the GMs believe Lucic should have been suspended by the league.

Not everyone is reporting the margin as that large. The Boston Globe, for example, described the GMs who favored a major penalty and suspension as "a slight majority." By contrast, The New York Times characterized the outcome as Shanahan being "handed something of a rebuke by general managers," although they publicly praised Shanahan for his performance so far.

Regardless, as a result of the GMs' direction, Shanahan's next ruling on a similar hit will most probably be more stern. "I think there's certainly a very heightened sensitivity to the goalies and the future of all the goalies in this league," he said (video). "Certainly they're not fair game. I think that players have to understand that. The general managers expressed to me the importance of all the players on the ice, but also the extreme importance of the goaltender in that position.

"So I do think that's something as a message to the players around the league, if anybody does think that it's a tactic and a tactic that is a smart gamble on their part, it won't be."

That likely means referees will be told that a hit like Lucic's should result in a five-minute major, not the minor he received. Asked by reporters if he felt the next player to act as Lucic did would be suspended, Sabres GM Darcy Regier replied, "Based on our conversations in the room, I personally believe (he) would be."

As for Regier's goalie, he is still not feeling great. "I’m not as well as I’d like to be, but considering, I feel alright," Miller told reporters in Buffalo on Tuesday (quoted by John Vogl of The Buffalo News) "My neck is pretty sore. I’m trying to figure out if that’s more of a source of headaches or if what I’m really feeling was my head really hurting."

This is Miller's second concussion and, as we know, multiples make each subsequent episode of head contact more problematic. "You always are concerned," Miller said. "Last year I thought I had a very simple ‘get your bell rung,’ and I missed five games. This, I don’t know how to put a timeline on it, but I am encouraged that my neck feels better. Once that really feels good, I can start to make my way back."

The former Vezina Trophy-winner and 2010 Olympic MVP added, "The one thing I was disappointed with the assessment of what came out of Boston and some of what came out of the league was it wasn’t a headshot, so that was their conclusion to why the concussion maybe didn’t come from that. I didn’t know they were all doctors. Concussions are caused by many things, one of them including a whiplash motion that sends your brain moving laterally or however you’re hit. It doesn’t need to be a direct impact. That fact alone, I’m rolling my eyes."

It won't be of great solace to Miller, but there is good news on concussions coming out of Tuesday's meeting. They appear to have declined between 50 and 60 percent league-wide in light of the tougher rules on hits to the head and boarding. Colin Campbell, who remains the vice president of hockey operations, praised Shanahan's tough suspensions in preseason for also contributing to the decline, as well as his ongoing meetings and discussions with the clubs to explain the new rules protecting players.

"The credit for that should certainly go to the players," Shanahan said. "The numbers and the strides the players have made, and the efforts they have made so far, have been really commendable."

What the GM's did Tuesday to protect goalies is also commendable. It's a funny thing in hockey: Things creep into the game, insinuating themselves into its fabric and over time they become accepted as "the way the game is." And that led to a certain lethargy among the general managers when it came to actively improving the game.

All the clutching and grabbing that facilitated the dead puck era, for example, was permitted forever, it felt like, even though the existing rules clearly rendered such things illegal. No one could figure out how to fix it -- or, more accurately, the NHL lacked the leadership and resolve to eradicate obstruction fouls from the game. Just why that was is a story for another day, but that situation changed coming out of the 2004-05 lockout.

Things are a bit different in the NHL now and the parallels between obstruction and contact with goaltenders are instructive. The rule stating that goalies are not "fair game" has been in the book for 48 years, yet somehow there was confusion among many when Lucic ran Miller. Part of the reason is because something as blatant as what Lucic did is rare, part of it is also that fans and even some in the media just don't know the rules.

Just like obstructions tactics, contact with goalies has leached its way into the game and now, with a few concussions having resulted in recent weeks, it has  reached a level where the GMs were compelled to point the league in a new direction. To often in the past, the GMs have kept things the way they are. Now they are more willing to make changes that create a safer game rather than take the easy way out.

Here's a slightly different take on that song.

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