Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Legal vs. Illegal hits in the NHL - The inconsistency of the Department of Player Safety


Last night on Long Island, Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals hit Lubomir Visnovsky of the New York Islanders near the 14 minute mark of the 2nd period. The video is below.

Wilson carries the puck through center ice on a rush, and throws the puck at the net from near the top of the face-off dot. Wilson's shot/pass attempt is foiled by Visnovsky who uses his stick to push the puck towards the corner. Wilson sees this and skates down the boards towards the back of the net in what looks like an attempt to retrieve the puck. Visnovsky never re-gained control of the puck, which dribbles towards the corner. Making no attempt to retrieve the puck (Wilson does not even look for it as he skates towards Visnovsky), Wilson steamrolls the vulnerable Visnovsky, making shoulder to head contact on Visnovsky, following through on the hit as Visnovsky falls directly backwards towards the ice.

Wilson was assessed a minor penalty for charging. Visnovsky left the ice with a bloodied face looking visibly shaken, having previously been hit in the head during the game. Visnovsky did not return to the game and his status for the rest of the series is unknown, however it is very likely the defender has suffered a concussion and will not return.

In my opinion, and that of the Islanders player's, Wilson isn't going for a hockey play. He makes no attempt at the puck, and it's clear he recklessly wanted to make a big hit.

Capital's players disagree. Brooks Laich told a Washington, D.C. radio station that the hit is "questionable" because the puck is a couple feet away but he felt that Wilson's hit was a "good penalty to take because it knocked the Isles down to 5 defensemen."
Barry Trotz and Wilson also felt the hit was clean in an interview with the Washington Post.

It was announced that the Department of Player Safety (DOPS) is not taking a look at the check. Even Matt Barnaby thinks that the hit should have been looked at by the Department of Player Safety.


March 26th, 2015 - CBJ Forward Jared Boll suspended 3 games for hit on Patrick Maroon


During this play, Ducks forward Maroon collects the puck in the corner and starts to cycle, being defended by Jack Johnson behind him. Boll, approaches from face-off dot, and drives his right shoulder into the side of Maroon's head, elevating into the hit. The DOPS called this an illegal check to the head because the primary point of contact is Boll's head, and the contact is avoidable. DOPS states that despite the fact that Maroon is bent over, he doesn't change his posture and his head doesn't change directions or position prior to the contact. In what's a theme in DOPS videos, they state that the onus is on Boll (the hitter) to deliver a hit through the core of Maroon's body. Despite the fact that there was no injury, Boll unnecessarily elevated into the hit and is a repeat offender. He was suspended 3 games.

March 4th, 2015 - Islanders Forward Matt Martin suspended for kneeing Trevor Daley


On this play, Daley is in his own zone and sees Martin approaching and chips the puck. Martin comes in with speed and checks Daley but it is textbook kneeing. Daley is eligible to be hit after just releasing the puck according to the DOPS, but Martin doesn't deliver a full body check and instead it results in kneeing causing an injury. Daley did not make a sudden or evasive move so again, the onus is on the hitter to make a legal check.

Note - this is the only hit I have chosen to include that doesn't involve contact to the head. The reason being that this hit included an injury, and the repeated statement that the onus is on the checker to make a legal check.

February 23rd, 2015 - Senators Jared Cowen suspended 3 games for hit on Jussi Jokinen


On this play, Jokinen carries puck over Ottawa blue line in middle of ice and makes a backhand pass to a teammate. After Jokinen releases the puck, Cowen changes his skating angle towards Jokinen and eventually leans up and into a right shoulder check that makes significant head contact. The DOPS defined this hit as interference and a late hit because the hit was initiated after the puck had been moved and contact was made when Jokinen's teammate had the puck. On the hit, Cowen drives up and into Jokinen, hitting him in face. Despite no injury, Cowen is a repeat offender and was suspended 3 games.

January 28, 2015 - Zac Rinaldo suspended 8 games for boarding Kris Letang


On this play, defenseman Kris Letang is in his own zone along the boards and attempts to chip puck out on a backhand. Flyers forward Zac Rinaldo approaches from the middle of ice and approaches Letang, seeing only his numbers. Rinaldo launches (leaving his feet) into a shoulder check hitting Letang into the boards (DOPS classified it as charging and boarding). Rinaldo hits him despite Letang not having the puck and the fact that he's facing the boards. Again the DOPS states that the onus on hitter to take an angle that enables him to hit from front or side or to just avoid contact. Since there was an injury on the play and Rinaldo is a repeat offender, he was suspended 8 games.

In fact, that play is very similar to the Evander Kane suspension for boarding Stoner, but Kane only received 2 games for that.  Video

January 2nd, 2015 - Keith Aulie suspended 2 games for hitting Matt Stajan


Here, Matt Stajan is rushing down the ice, attempting to receive a break-out pass. Aulie skates over and drives his shoulder into Stajan's head (defined as an illegal check to the head by the DOPS). The DOPS state that this is a blindside hit (which is not illegal on its own) but again, the onus is on the hitter to ensure that the head isn't primary point of contact. The DOPS state that Stajan's head is down but it's appropriate because he's looking to recieve a pass and that since his head position doesn't change, Aulie must attempt to make a better hit. The DOPS suspended Aulie for 2 games despite the fact that he didn't launch but he did take a poor angle and the PPOC was the head.

December 10th, 2014 - Marco Scandella suspended 2 games for hit on Brock Nelson


On this play, Nelson wins a battle and carries puck into zone. Wild defenseman Marco Scandella steps up and clips Nelson's head (PPOC) with left shoulder - defined as an illegal check to the head by the DOPS. The DOPS state that Nelson is eligible to be checked but Scandella delivers an illegal check because the head was targeted and he did not hit through Nelsons's shoulder and chest. As head contact was avoidable in this situation (Scandella straightened up to hit him in the head) and Nelson's head position doesn't change prior to contact, Scandella was suspended for 2 games (he was fined for a similar hit three games before). Nelson was not injured on the play.


Any way you put it, Wilson's hit is not legal and deserved a penalty. Section 6, Rule 42 in the NHL Rulebook is Charging which is defined below.

In this case, the referee judged that Wilson skated into Visnovsky in a violent manner. As you can see, you do not need to leave your skates to get a charging penalty. It does not appear that Wilson leaves his skates, but he does launch up into the hit and the PPOC is Visnovsky's head.

Wilson's momentum is up into the contact, causing him to leave his skates. He follows through on his hit and eventually lands on Visnovsky.

So Wilson launches up from his hit, makes primary contact with Visnovksy's head and doesn't attempt to make a play on the puck, which is nowhere near. Yes, Visnovsky is crouching a bit as he braces for Wilson's hit, but he does not turn or change the direction of his head. Is it on Wilson as the checker to make a legal hit or avoid contact. Visnovsky's head is avoidable, so I'm not sure how this doesn't violate the NHL's Rule 48 (illegal check to the head) as shown below.

In addition, Visnovsky was injured on the play and is probably  finished for the series and possibly for his career. How does Wilson's hit differ in context to some of the DOPS other suspensions? There's an injury, the hit is avoidable, Wilson makes no play on the puck (breaking Charging & Interference rules) and the PPOC is the head.

Does the NHL need to clarify it's definition of illegal checks? Or checks to the head? Wilson clearly hits Visnovsky in the head on an avoidable hit, but it doesn't violate Rule 48? This is a rule that was made in response to a huge problem in the NHL - concussions. Visnovsky suffered a concussion on the play. Reckless hits in this sport need to fade away if we want to reduce concussions, but if hits like Wilson's aren't suspend-able, what's stopping players from continuing to do them?

Is the Department of Player Safety doing a poor job these playoffs? Have they defined head checks well enough? They are constantly criticized by fan bases across the league. I didn't even mention Dustin Byfuglien's Dale Hunter-like hit on Corey Perry. Comments/criticism always appreciated.