Gustav Nyquist has never, not once, been suspended in his career. Matter of fact, save a minor run-in with league disciplinarians for diving, Nyquist’s rap sheet is about as clean as they come. That might not be able to save him from landing the longest suspension of the 2016-17 campaign, however.
Sunday in Minnesota, with the Red Wings in town to visit the Wild, Nyquist was engaged in a battle for the puck along the left wing boards when he took a crosscheck from behind from Jared Spurgeon. The shove knocked Nyquist to his knees, and his retaliatory action resulted in one of the ugliest plays of the season. As Nyquist got back to his feet, he pitchforked his stick upwards towards Spurgeon, catching the Wild defender right below his left eye. Spurgeon immediately dropped to the ice clutching his face.
The initial result for Nyquist was a double minor for high sticking, but his punishment won’t end there. Shortly after Sunday’s game ended, the Department of Player Safety announced that Nyquist had been offered an in-person hearing for high sticking Spurgeon, the date and time of which has not yet been announced. That Nyquist is set for the in-person hearing means there’s the potential for the league to dish out supplemental discipline in the form of a suspension six games or longer. But what punishment does he actually get?
The most difficult part when it comes to determining how long the suspension headed Nyquist’s way could be is that he’s been quite disciplined throughout his time in the NHL. Nyquist hasn’t made a habit of making his way to the penalty box through the more than 300 games he’s played in the NHL since 2011-12, and he’s actually been one of the league’s least penalized players over that span. Coming into Sunday’s game, Nyquist had 10 penalty minutes to his name this season, and the four-minute double minor for the high stick on Spurgeon brought Nyquist’s career total to a mere 92.
If 92 penalty minutes across 300-plus games in the past six seasons sounds like a low total, that’s because it is. There are only 33 players in the entire league who’ve played at least 300 games since the start of 2011-12 and taken fewer penalty minutes than Nyquist. Among those are perennial Lady Byng contenders such as Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Moulson, and the highest level of goonery from Nyquist came when he racked up 34 penalty minutes over 82 games in 2015-16.
With that in mind, it’s safe to say the Department of Player Safety wouldn’t have expected to be dealing with Nyquist at all this season. It also makes finding a comparable for this incident, from a player such as Nyquist, near impossible due to how well he’s done at keeping his nose clean. That’s not to say there’s no play to compare Nyquist’s to at all, however. There’s one in particular that’s of note, and we don’t even have to look too far back to find it.
In late-March 2016, Duncan Keith, who has been tagged by the Department of Player Safety for crossing the line a few times in the past, was handed a six-game suspension for a violent high stick that came against the Wild. Keith was engaged in a battle for the puck during the March 29, 2016 contest when he was thrown to the ice by Charlie Coyle as the play moved up ice. The hit caused Keith to land hard on his back and, looking up at Coyle, the Blackhawks defender used his stick to take a swipe at Coyle’s face.
Aside from both incidents coming against the Wild in Minnesota, the incidents share some similarities. Both Nyquist and Keith were shoved to the ice seconds before retaliating viciously, both struck the opponent in the face and both swung their sticks with purpose. Luckily, the two incidents are also similar in that neither Coyle nor Spurgeon was seriously injured as a result of the high stick.
That Coyle was all right didn’t stop the Department of Player Safety from coming down hard on Keith, and rightfully so. He was handed a six-game suspension, missing the final five regular season games and the first outing of the playoffs. And if we’re sticking with the notion that a post-season game is worth double that of a regular season contest, Keith’s ban was the rough equivalent of seven games. But it’s worth noting he was a repeat offender who, at the time, had been suspended for a similar stick-to-face swing not even three years earlier.
What does that mean for Nyquist? That he was offered the in-person hearing almost straight away likely doesn’t bode well, and he’s probably further on the side of a six-game suspension than a ban falling in line with what a player could expect for a phone hearing. However, just because Nyquist has been asked to appear doesn’t mean he’s absolutely headed for a six-gamer. There’s still a matter of Nyquist pleading his case and giving his explanation for his actions. Post-game, he tried his best, calling the play “completely accidental.”
“Obviously I didn't mean to do that,” Nyquist said, according to MLive.com’s Brendan Savage. “My stick gets caught. I'm trying to get body position. I'm happy he was out there again. I had no intention of doing that…It looks bad but I'm happy he's OK.”
It’s hard to say if the Department of Player Safety is going to buy the accidental story. The play happens in a split second, absolutely, but Nyquist was attempting to stick Spurgeon. There’s almost no doubt about that — Nyquist winds up and delivers his stick to Spurgeon in a pitchfork motion. What very well could have been accidental, though, was making contact with Spurgeon’s face. While there’s no way to know for sure what the intent was in the instant the play happened, Nyquist looks as though he regrets his action immediately as Spurgeon drops to the ice. But regardless of his regret now or at the time he caught Spurgeon, Nyquist is tasked with being responsible for his stick.
Dishing out punishment to Nyquist has to be one of the toughest calls the Department of Player Safety has had to make this season, especially with all the factors at play, such as Nyquist’s sparkling history, the dangerousness and force with which he hit Spurgeon and that there was no injury. There’s no way to make everyone happy, either. Those in Minnesota could be hoping for a suspension that hits the double digits, while Detroit faithful might think it’s worth half that.
Chances are, though, that Nyquist will at the very least be joining Radko Gudas as the only players to have a ban of six or more games this season.
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