Max Pacioretty

Will the NHL eventually make all hits to the head illegal?

For the second year in a row, the spring GM meetings will come right after a brutal hit jarred the hockey world even as the player who delivered the respective checks received no fine or suspension.

Last season, Matt Cooke’s hit placed Marc Savard on the shelf and blindside hits to the forefront of hockey debate in time for the GM meetings. This season, Sidney Crosby’s concussion issues and the much-discussed Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty will do the same for this season’s version.

Once again, some of the league’s most powerful figures must consider where to draw the line of violence. While ESPN’s Scott Burnside rightly asserts that the meetings will be the time in which change begins to take place, Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier wonders if the league will eventually take a drastic step toward curbing hits to the head.

That step would be simple yet radical: will the NHL eventually make all hits to the head illegal? Various GMs discussed the concept with The Globe & Mail’s Eric Duhatschek.

“To the extent that there are 360 degrees around a player’s head in a circle,” Regier said, “and we’re now covering off under the current rules, I don’t know how many degrees. But I would think, ultimately, we will have to consider 360 degrees [for hits to the head].

“That’s the easy part. The really hard part is the role and responsibility that Colin [Campbell, the NHL’s senior vice-president of hockey operations] has. If anyone watches enough games, the deciphering of that is really the hard part while maintaining the fabric of the game,” the Sabres GM said. “I wouldn’t view it as impossible. I would view it as doable, if that’s ultimately where we end up.”

A number of Regier’s colleagues, including Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, also believe the league will eventually need to make all head hits illegal. Others, such as Toronto Maple Leafs boss Brian Burke, fear such a shift might too radically undermine the fabric of the game.

They represent the ranks of the hawks and the doves. Ultimately, the meeting in Boca Raton will determine if enough support has been transferred from one camp to the other to effect an immediate rule change or to put in motion rules that could reduce the number of concussions in the game.

Obviously, there would be some inherent problems with establishing a zero tolerance policy toward hits to the head. One of the bigger issues would come in situations in which a player puts himself in direct risk (particularly if that player’s head is lower to the ice for whatever reason). For such a rule to work, there would have to be a certain level of fairness regarding players looking out for their own safety along with the safety of others.

The biggest strength to a no head shots policy is that there wouldn’t be much – if any- confusion regarding what is legal and illegal. Perhaps there would be hemming and hawing in determining where a hit landed (was it his chin or his shoulder?), but it makes a largely gray issue mostly black-and-white.

It’s tough to say if that would be the correct direction to take, but perhaps the NHL could test it out in the AHL before instituting the new rule?

Either way, only the blindest pom-pom waver would say that the current system is working. The league’s discipline system is in need of a dramatic overhaul, but perhaps making the issue more obvious would help.

What do you think? Should hits to the head be illegal across the board? If not, how should the league make the game safer for its players? Let us know in the comments.

Hitchcock going to more aggressive attack for Blues

Ken Hitchcock
Leave a comment

ST. LOUIS (AP) After three straight first-round playoff exits, the St. Louis Blues have learned to temper expectations.

They have been consistently among the NHL’s best in the regular season and realize it is past time to build something for the long haul. The sting still lingers from the latest failure, against the Minnesota Wild last spring.

“We’re all disappointed, everybody can agree on that,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “It’s never easy to kind of think about your failures, but we grow every time it happens.”

Management isn’t ready to tear it all down yet.

“We play, in my opinion, one of the toughest if not the toughest division in the NHL, and we’ve finished first or second in the last four years,” forward Alexander Steen said. “So we have an extremely powerful team.”

Maybe a change in strategy will be enough: Coach Ken Hitchcock is back with a mandate for a more aggressive, even reckless, style of play from a roster that hasn’t changed appreciably.

“We’re coming hard from the back and we’re coming hard to see how close we can get to the attack,” Hitchcock said. “I think it’s where the game’s at; I think it’s where the game’s going to go.”

The 63-year-old Hitchcock is pushing forward, too, unwilling to dwell on the flameouts. Coach and players agree that would be “wasted energy.”

“My opinion is when you sit and think about the past, you do yourself no good,” Hitchcock said. “If you learn from the past, that’s when you do yourself a whole bunch of good.”

There were only two major roster casualties. Forward Troy Brouwer came from Washington in a trade for fan favorite T.J. Oshie. Defenseman Barret Jackman, the franchise career leader in games, wasn’t re-signed.

“If you were expecting 23 new faces to be on the roster this year, I don’t think that was realistic,” captain David Backes said. “We’re going to miss those guys in the room and on the ice, but there has been some changeover and I think it’s pretty significant.”

Things to watch for with the Blues:

GOALIE SHUFFLE: Just like last year, there’s no true No. 1 with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen sharing duties. The 25-year-old Allen missed a chance to seize the job last spring when he failed to raise his level in the playoffs.

TOP THREAT: Vladimir Tarasenko had a breakout season with 37 goals and was rewarded with an eight-year, $60 million contract. The 23-year-old winger is by far the Blues’ most dangerous scoring option and said he won’t let the money affect his play. “I never worry about it,” Tarasenko said. “If you play good, you play good.”

NEW FACES: Brouwer and center Kyle Brodziak add a physical element that was perhaps lacking a bit last season. Brouwer has three 20-plus goal seasons and Brodziak, acquired from Minnesota, fills a checking role. Veteran forward Scottie Upshall got a one-year, two-way deal after being coming to camp as a tryout. Rookie forward Robby Fabbri, a first-round pick last year, will get an early look. Another promising youngster, forward Ty Rattie, begins the year at Chicago of the AHL.

RECOVERY WARD: Forward Jori Lehteri bounced back quickly from ankle surgery and opens the season without restrictions. Another forward, Patrik Berglund, could miss half of the season following shoulder surgery.

TRACK RECORD: The Blues won the Central Division last season and Hitchcock, fourth on the career list with 708 regular-season wins, has consistently had the team near the top of the standings. “He is our coach, tough cookies if you don’t like it,” Backes said. “From my experience, he puts together one heck of a game plan.”

It looks like Havlat won’t make Panthers

Martin Havlat

As PHT’s mentioned before, the Florida Panthers stand as a fascinating contrast between youth and experience.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though; fresh faces usually beat out gray beards, at least when it comes to teams that are still trying to build toward contender status.

While it’s by no means official, two Panthers beat writers – the Miami Herald’s George Richards and the Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Harvey Fialkov – report that the Panthers are likely to pass on Martin Havlat.

It wasn’t just about the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad leading the charge. Other young Panthers (maybe most notably Quinton Howden and Connor Brickley) made the team, thus making Havlat less necessary.

One would assume that it might be tough for the 34-year-old to find work, at least if he insists upon only an NHL deal.

Health issues continue to dog him, but he’s no longer one of those guys who tantalizes with talent when he is healthy enough to play.

Havlat also doesn’t really bring much to the table defensively. While other veterans can kill penalties and show a little more verstaility, Havlat’s greatest selling point is scoring.

Could this be it for a solid career that may nonetheless end with a “What if?” or two?