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.

Video: AHL goalie Jonas Gustavsson scores his first career goal

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He didn’t shoot, but Jonas Gustavsson still scored.

The former NHL netminder, now with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, scored his first career goal Friday, as part of his team’s victory over the San Diego Gulls.

From the AHL:

With San Diego goaltender Dustin Tokarski on the bench for an extra attacker and the Gulls working on a power play, Gustavsson made a save before an errant San Diego pass slid down the length of the ice and into the vacated net at 16:56 of the third period.

Gustavsson is the fifth AHL goaltender to be credited with a goal without actually shooting the puck into the opposition net. In addition to his goal, Gustavsson stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Condors victory.

Bolts and Islanders both win, which is bad news for Bruins

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The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each had to work overtime to decide their separate games, but when they ended, both clubs were victorious.

And that makes things even more interesting in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

With their shootout win in Pittsburgh, the Islanders tie the Bruins in points but take over the final playoff spot for now with fewer games played. The Lightning, despite an abundance of injuries all season, are just a point back of Boston and New York.

Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay against the Red Wings. He’s up to 38 goals, which is second most in the league behind Sidney Crosby, currently at 42 goals.

Sellers leading up to the trade deadline, and without Steven Stamkos since the middle of November, the Lightning are in the thick of this race, even if others may have counted them out.

“Once again, people counted us out,” defenseman Victor Hedman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we showed a lot of character. And we’re right back in it.”

The Bolts don’t play again until Monday, when they host the Chicago Blackhawks — only one of the hottest teams in the league.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s busy slate of games includes a showdown between the Bruins and Islanders. For Boston, it’s a chance for redemption after a particularly costly third period against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

The Ducks defeated the Jets on Friday, moving into a tie with the Sharks at 91 points.

San Jose’s struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.