By Stu Hackel
What line did the Stars' Eric Nystrom cross on Wednesday night in Dallas when he collided with the Penguins' Kris Letang? Was it a legal hit? A targeted head shot? An unfortunate accident? It's a question more easily asked than answered.
And it's an important one -- not just for Letang who may (or may not) have suffered his second concussion of the season as a result -- but also for the NHL and its ongoing quest to help keep them game as physical as possible while ridding it of deliberate attempts to target the head. This is the kind of play that falls in between those efforts.
The best quality video of the hit is the one above, as it happened in real time on NBC, which fortunately cut to its corner camera as the play unfolded. Obviously, this happened very fast. And even if you replay that video a few times, it's hard to see what transpired and not just because of the camera angle. It gives you an appreciation of how little time NHL players and officials have to react.
Now here's a less clear video, but it shows more angles on replay.
Despite being less sharp, the video is clear enough to show that at the 47 second mark, Nystrom lowers his body and leans in to hit Letang with his arm going right into Letang's head. Anyone (such as NBCSN's Jeremy Roenick -- more on him below) who has said that there was no contact to the head is plainly wrong.
The question then becomes what sort of head contact is permitted in the NHL? And we've seen all season that if a puck-carrier changes the angle of his body at the last instant so a hit that might otherwise have contacted him elsewhere now hits his head, the league does not consider that "targeting" and a Rule 48 violation.
So let's go back to the video. At the 1:22 mark we get a very good look at Letang reaching forward to chip the puck past Nystrom. Yes, his head is lowered somewhat. We really can't know if Nystrom would have hit Letang in the head anyway had Letang not made that movement. The fact is, however, Letang did lower his head and the contact with it ensued.
And that could be enough for the NHL to give Nystrom a free pass on this one. Remember, this is happening very fast in real time -- not at the speed we see on the replay. And because human reaction times are what they are, the NHL is somewhat predisposed to giving the checker the benefit of the doubt, and that's not entirely unreasonable.
UPDATE: NHL VP Brendan Shanahan tweeted (here and here) that the league would not discipline Letang saying, "Our view is that Letang lunges forward just prior to contact and although it appears that the chin is grazed by the side of Nystrom's arm, the right chest and shoulder of Letang remain the PPOC (principal point of contact). No SD (supplementary discipline).
UPDATE 2: For another view, take a look at former NHL referee Kerry Fraser's interpretation of this play from his TSN blog.
On NBCSN, the network formerly known as Versus, game analysts Ed Olczyk and Pierre McGuire were inclined to take the view that Letang's own actions made this an unfortunate hit that they didn't like to see. But if you watched Mike Milbury during intermission, he raised some contrary points that deserve exploration on how acceptable that hit should be.
You have to keep in mind that Milbury's thinking on head hits seems to vacillate almost week to week. Sometimes it appears that he's made great strides in his recognition of how dangerous play must be eliminated from the NHL and has accepted the problems the game faces in combatting brain trauma. Sometimes, he comes off as his old dinosaur self. On Wednesday night, we saw that newer, less scaly side of him.
Milbury thinks Nystrom should get a five-game suspension for the hit. His reasoning includes these factors.
First, Nystrom is taking advantage of a vulnerable player. But under current rules and interpretations, Letang put himself in that vulnerable position.
Second, Milbury says that Nystrom shows no courage on the play, decides "I've got a chance to put this guy into next month" and buries Letang. It's unclear how Milbury knows Nystrom's thought process because one could just as easily interpret Nystrom's actions as recognizing that Letang was going to get to the puck first and chip it past him and he'd better finish the check and not allow Letang to get to it after the chip.
Milbury's third point is one that has some validity, one that fellow panelist Keith Jones shares, that Letang's reach for the puck is not very deep, that he doesn't lower his head all that much. That's an important consideration for the Department of Player Safety in assessing this play and its ruling on the hit will probably boil down to how that question is answered. It has to judge whether Letang's movement was what made the head contact unavoidable.
Milbury's fourth point -- one that is very uncharacteristic of his usual stance -- is related to the second point: that Nystrom didn't engage in a battle for the puck with Letang but went for body contact instead. A number of observers have wondered what Nystrom should have done other than play the body here and concluded that if he played the puck, he'd have been burnt by Letang and his coach, Glen Gulutzan, wouldn't look too favorably on that.
This is the crux of the problem for the NHL in this debate, and goes to the core of the way the game is played. Hockey players have been taught for decades upon decades that in defensive situations, it's more effective to play the man and not the puck, and the rules are written to reflect that, including ones that permit players to be bodychecked even after they have gotten rid of the puck. The whole notion of finishing a check is predicated on that being allowable under the rules.
And because the NHL believes body contact is one of the most highly appealing aspects of the game for its fans, it is loath to curtail it. Every step of the campaign against hits that cause concussions has been met with resistance from those who claim that prohibiting certain sorts of hits will take all of them out of the game, turning it into less appealing non-contact sport. They have been proven wrong, of course, as the game has certainly survived Rule 48, both in its first very limited incarnation of banning blindside and lateral hits to the head and with this year's more restrictive "targeting" standard.
The Nystrom hit on Letang is perhaps the next frontier of where Rule 48 might go. It's not going to be as easy to figure this one out, and proponents of the zero-tolerance standard are likely to claim that the rules in use in some junior leagues (both in Canada and the US), the IIHF, and the NCAA are the logical next step. Perhaps they are right.
Getting back to Roenick, we shouldn't leave this post without embedding his exchange with Milbury that took place later in the evening.
There is, of course, very little of real value one can learn once the heat gets turned up and these two start talking over each other. It may be someone's idea of good TV, but that's about the time I reach for the remote and put on James Brown.
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