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Amid bevy of head shots, NHL attempts to explain rationale

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Drew Doughty watched other playoff games this season and couldn’t believe that George Parros, the NHL’s discipline czar, had suspended him for a head shot.

”I saw four hits last night that deserved more than that,” the Los Angeles Kings defenseman said.

Doughty’s one-game suspension was the first of several in the first round for a hit to the head of an opponent. Toronto’s Nazem Kadri got three games and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey and Nashville’s Ryan Hartman got one game each. Washington’s Tom Wilson and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov were among those who got off without significant punishment.

The criticism, from Columbus to Colorado and from New Jersey to Los Angeles, was loud enough that the NHL’s department of player safety put out a video last week explaining its reasoning for suspending Doughty and Hartman but not Kucherov or Predators center Ryan Johansen.

”The illegal check to the head rule is often misunderstood or misstated,” the league said in the video. ”Illegal checks to the head and legal full body hits often look similar at first glance because the difference between legal and illegal can be a matter of inches in a sport that moves fast.”

Discontent over the goalie interference rule has been grabbing headlines for weeks, but the head shot discussion carries far more serious implications for a league still grappling with how best to protect its players. What’s acceptable has evolved from the early days of hockey through Scott Stevens’ then-legal crushing blow on Eric Lindros in 2000 to today, where checks to the head are parsed frame-by-frame to determine if a line was crossed. The NHL, too, is still facing a federal class-action concussion lawsuit filed by former players alleging it failed to warn them about the health risks associated with head injuries.

Meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted there was nothing new about the subject. Asked about player safety, Bettman said Parros is off to good start in the former enforcer’s first season as vice president of player safety. He said he is proud of player safety’s transparency in the form of videos detailing the reasons for suspending a player.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”Sometimes we get accused of splitting hairs, but that’s exactly what they have to do,” Bettman said. ”I think he’s reached the appropriate conclusion when it’s been a hockey play that doesn’t transcend the rules and I think he’s been appropriately punitive in cases where it warranted it. There’s never going to be a shortage of critics of what they do.”

Doughty, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, said he hit Vegas forward William Carrier‘s shoulder first before his head in Game 1. Kings coach John Stevens added: ”As long as I’m on the earth, I’m going to agree to disagree with that decision.”

The league video emphasized that an illegal check to the head concerns a player’s head being the main point of contact, not the first point of contact. Based on experience, the league said, a player’s head snapping back on these kinds of hits indicates significant head contact.

Los Angeles general manager Rob Blake, who worked under Brendan Shanahan in the department of player safety from 2010-2013, said it’s a tough job while at the same time reiterating the organization was unhappy with the suspension of Doughty. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen was upset forward Josh Anderson was ejected from Game 1 against Washington for boarding Michal Kempny and called a hit to the head of Alexander Wennberg from Washington’s Tom Wilson that got only a minor penalty ”dangerous.”

Wilson was not given a hearing or suspended. Wennberg missed Games 2, 3 and 4 and the hit was not included in the NHL’s explanation video.

Columbus coach John Tortorella didn’t want to weigh in on the lack of punishment for Wilson, a common refrain across the NHL because nothing can be done after the fact. For a more specific reason, Bettman doesn’t weigh in on suspensions because any appeals go to him. He does look at suspension videos before they are issued.

”I watch as a fan to make sure they make sense,” Bettman said. ”I want to make sure the videos we send out are clear.”

”I think player safety as a whole has done an extraordinarily good job of changing the culture,” Bettman said.” We have players not making certain types of hits anymore. We have players who are more accountable for their conduct and understand it and I believe that they’ve been consistent.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and Sports Deputy Editor for Newsgathering Howie Rumberg in New York contributed.

Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM

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After completing their four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights began Wednesday as the new favorites to win the Stanley Cup, at least according to the folks at Bovada.

Whether they actually do it doesn’t really matter at this point because this season is already one of the most stunning stories in North American sports history. A first-year expansion team finishing the regular season as one of the best teams in the league, winning its division, and then blowing through an organization in the first round that just a couple of years ago was one of the elite powers in the league is the stuff that gets turned into movies.

The popular consensus on how this all happened always seems to go back to the expansion draft and the rules that opened Vegas up to more talent than any first-year team in league history.

In all fairness to the teams that preceded them, Vegas certainly had an advantage in that area.

It still should not have resulted in a team this good, this fast.

The fact it happened is not an indictment on the rules the league put in place to aid Vegas in becoming an immediate success.

It is an indictment on the NHL’s 30 other general managers, the way they build their teams, the way analyze and value their own talent, and what they value.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The NHL begins to make a lot more sense if you just go into every season with the mindset that nobody really understands what they’re doing, what will happen, or why it will happen, and that everything is just random.

Maybe that’s overstating things. Maybe it’s unfair. Maybe there a lot of variables that go into moves that get made (or do not get made), but every year otherwise smart people that have been around the game forever make inexplicably dumb transactions that just look like a mistake the second they get completed. The 2017-18 season was a treasure trove for this sort of thing. Look no further than the Artemi Panarin trade, or the fact that Taylor Hall is probably winning the MVP one year after being run out of Edmonton.

The expansion draft also exposed a lot of the sometimes backwards thinking that goes on around the NHL.

To be fair, there were some teams that were stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to protecting assets in the expansion draft. A lot of teams were going to lose a good player through no fault of their own, other than the fact they had too many good players to protect.

Nashville comes to mind as one. The Predators needed to protect four defensemen (P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis) which meant a really good forward was going to be left exposed. Maybe you can quibble with the fact they chose to protect Calle Jarnkrok over James Neal, but their decision makes sense. Jarnkrok is $3 million cheaper under the cap this season (that extra cap space would come in handy for moves that followed — signing Nick Bonino, trading for Kyle Turris) and signed long-term, while Neal was probably going to leave after this season anyway as an unrestricted free agent.

Pittsburgh was definitely going to lose a good goalie (it turned out to be Marc-Andre Fleury).

Washington was definitely going to have to lose a good defenseman or a good goalie (it turned out to be Nate Schmidt).

Anaheim was kind of stuck because it had to protect Kevin Bieksa (no-move clause) which meant it had to leave Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen exposed. So the Ducks gave Vegas Shea Theodore to entice them to take Clayton Stoner, leaving Manson and Vatanen in Anaheim. That was a lot to give up, but Manson is a really good player and Vatanen was used as the trade chip to acquire Adam Henrique from the New Jersey Devils when the Ducks quite literally ran out of centers.

Vegas was able to get a solid foundation out of that. Fleury has been everything they could have hoped for him to be and probably more. Had he not missed so much time due to a concussion, he might have been a Vezina Trophy finalist (he probably could have been anyway), and he just dominated the Kings in the first-round. Neal scored 25 goals in 71 games, while Theodore and Schmidt look like solid young pieces to build their blue line around.

Those players alone weren’t enough to turn Vegas into an overnight Stanley Cup contender. Other than Fleury, none of them were really the most important pieces on this year’s team.

So who is most responsible for what happened in Vegas?

[Related: Golden Knights sweep Kings, becomes first team to advance to second round]

Let’s start with the St. Louis Blues, a team that has seemingly escaped criticism for the way they handled the expansion draft which resulted in them losing David Perron.

In his first year with the Golden Knights, Perron went on to finish with 16 goals and 50 assists in 70 games and was one of their top offensive players. While his production increased from what it was in recent years, Perron has still been a 20-goal, 50-point player in the NHL with a really high skill level. He’s a good player. Sometimes a really good player.

The Blues decided that it was more important to protect Ryan Reaves and Vladimir Sobotka over him. Why? Who knows. Maybe the Blues soured on Perron because he had a bad playoff run a year ago (which would be dumb). Maybe they figured they weren’t going to re-sign him after this season and he was going to leave as a free agent (more sensible). But even if it was the latter, protecting Sobotka, and especially Reaves, over him just seems like misplaced priorities.

“But Adam,” you might be saying. “The Blues had to protect Reaves so they could trade him a week later at the draft to the Penguins to move up 20 spots in the draft where they selected Klim Kostin, and he’s a really good prospect! It worked!”

Fair. Fair point.

But do you really think Vegas was going to select Reaves over the other players the Blues had exposed? I know Reaves later ended up in Vegas, but that was mostly due to the Penguins having to send a warm body their way in an effort to re-work that convoluted Derick Brassard trade. Reaves barely played once he arrived in Vegas and may never see the ice in the playoffs. And beyond that, St. Louis traded Jori Lehtera to Philadelphia three days after the expansion draft for Brayden Schenn and didn’t feel the need to protect him in order to preserve that trade.

It was just bizarre asset management to protect two bottom-six players over a top-six winger.

Then there’s Minnesota, who ended up trading Alex Tuch — who was a 2014 first-round pick — to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting Erik Haula.

Where teams like Minnesota come away looking bad is that, 1) They may have given up more than they had to in an effort to protect other players, and 2) Not really realizing what they had in previous years.

Tuch, playing in his first full NHL season at age 21, scored 15 goals for Vegas while Haula went on to score 29 goals in 76 games, nearly doubling his previous career high.

Minnesota was another team in kind of a tough spot. It had to protect Jason Pominville (no-trade clause) and one of the players left unprotected as a result was Eric Staal, who went on to score 40 goals this season in Minnesota. They also left a couple of solid defensemen exposed.

Back in November, The Athletic’s Michael Russo wrote about the anatomy of the deal that sent Tuch and Haula to Vegas and the thought process for both teams. According to Russo, general manager Chuck Fletcher’s approach was to clear salary cap space (which was necessary) while also protecting his defenseman so he could trade one for forward help.

All of that ended up happening. Vegas didn’t take a defenseman, and the Wild eventually traded Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis. When combined with losing Haula (who ended up signing for $2.75 million per season) the Wild definitely cleared a lot of salary cap space. They also ended up getting the short-end of the trade-off talent wise when you consider what Haula and Tuch did. Together Foligno and Ennis scored 16 goals this season.

Tuch scored 15 on an entry-level contract and Haula scored 29.

Here’s where Minnesota is deserving of some criticism: Why wasn’t Haula scoring 29 goals for them? Why didn’t they realize what they had in him, and maybe given themselves a reason to keep him instead of giving him away to protect someone else? Or, perhaps having a trade asset that could have actually brought them something meaningful in return if they had to lose him. Over the past two years Haula was getting third-or and at times fourth-line minutes for the Wild and still scoring 15 goals.

On a per-minute basis he was consistently one of their most productive players. Before you write off his 29-goal season this year as a fluke, just look at what he was doing individually during 5-on-5 play.

Kind of the same. The big difference this season is that in Vegas he had the opportunity to play 18 minutes per night instead of 12 minutes per night. Keep in mind that last year Minnesota had Haula on their roster and decided it had to trade for Martin Hanzal (giving up first-and second-round draft picks) and then gave him more minutes than Haula over the final 20 regular season games and playoffs.

It’s your job as a GM to know what you have. The Wild had Haula and wasted him, then willingly gave him away plus another pretty good young forward.

Then there is Columbus, who traded William Karlsson and a first-round draft pick in an effort to rid itself of David Clarkson‘s contract and to protect Josh Anderson and their backup goalie. Karlsson, of course, went on to score 40 goals. I’m skeptical that Karlsson will ever come close to duplicating this season, and I’m a little hesitant to really fault them too much here because nobody should have expected this sort of a breakout from Karlsson at this point in his career. But the optics are certainly bad when you look at who Columbus was trying to protect.

That, finally, brings us to Florida’s contribution to the Golden Knights roster, and with every passing day and every goal that Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith produce it becomes more and more indefensible.

And it was never really defensible.

The Panthers were looking to shed Smith’s $5 million per year contract and were able to trade him to Vegas for a fourth-round pick. In return, Florida would also leave Marchessault, quite literally their leading goal-scorer from a year ago, unprotected as payment for taking Smith’s contract. Wanting to get out of Smith’s contract on its own wasn’t a terrible thought. It was pricey and he was coming off of a down year. But there had to be a better way to do it than by trading a player as good as Marchessault (no contract is untradeable).

Especially when Florida only protected four forwards and instead opted to protect Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk on the blue line.

Vegas was always going to get some solid players out of the expansion draft, but where would it be this season without Perron, Marchessault, Smith, Haula, Tuch, and Karlsson, players that their former teams all willingly gave away when they did not need to? They would not be playing in the second round of the playoffs, that is for certain.

But that’s not the only thing that Vegas exposed this season.

They went into the big, bad Pacific Division where all of the big, bad big boy hockey teams play and basically skated circles around them.

How many times have you heard somebody say that you need to be big and tough to compete with those teams in the Pacific and their brand of heavy hockey?

Edmonton, for example, has spent three years trying to build a team in that image, wasting Connor McDavid‘s entry-level contract in the process.

Now, look at the roster Vegas assembled.

They entered the year in the bottom-10 of the league in both height and weight and were the smallest team in the Pacific Division.

Of the top-200 tallest players in the NHL, only four of them played in Vegas this season.

Of the top-200 heaviest players in the NHL, only six of them played in Vegas this season.

Even those numbers are a little misleading because a lot of the Vegas players on that list barely played. Reaves was in both the top-200 in height and weight and played 20 games for them. Jason Garrison was in there, and he played eight games, as did Stefan Matteau.

It’s a speed game today and with a clean slate, able to build their team in any way they saw fit, Vegas smartly embraced where the league is and where it is going.

The Golden Knights were definitely given a pretty good hand in the beginning, and they deserve credit for taking advantage of that.

They also exposed one of the biggest market inefficiencies in the NHL. That inefficiency being that nobody really knows what they’re doing.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Everyone’s still upset with NHL Department of Player Safety

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The 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs are two days old and one of the league’s greatest ongoing feuds is already starting to reach its boiling point.

No, not the Penguins and Flyers, I’m talking about everybody in the NHL vs. The Department of Player Safety.

Basically, nobody is happy.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

George Parros and his staff have had plenty of plays to examine over the past 72 hours and have already handed out one suspension, a one-game ban for Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty for his hit on William Carrier. It seems like a given that another suspension is coming on Friday when the league conducts its hearing with Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri for his reckless run at a completely defenseless Tommy Wingels.

We still do not know what is going to happen with Kadri, but the decisions the league has already made have definitely been met with some resistance.

On Friday, Doughty had a chance to speak about his suspension and seemed pretty frustrating he will not be playing on Friday night. Well, really frustrated.

“There are obviously a lot of things I want to say here, but first off, I hope Carrier’s OK. I see he’s in the lineup, he’s not injured, so he’s OK, and I never intended to hit him in the head,” Doughty said. “As far as the suspension goes, I don’t think for one second that that is suspension-worthy. On the hearing and whatnot, we came to the conclusion that I did not intend to hit the head. I did get his shoulder, and the thing we kind of didn’t agree on was that he didn’t move or alter position to make him vulnerable for the hit, which you can clearly see in the video that he plants on his right leg, going off his left, opens up his left shoulder and tries to jump to the inside, and that’s why he ends up in the middle of the ice. I don’t think it’s suspension-worthy. I think it’s B.S., really. It’s awful, and watching the games last night, I guess he’s got four or five more [suspensions] to give.

“You got to play physical. What, you want me to let that guy go to the net and get a scoring chance? I’m not going to let him do that. Like I said, I did not at all intend to hit him in the head, and I 100 percent got his shoulder first. I definitely hit the head after that, but maybe a penalty call or something like that. But a suspension, and in the playoffs? I don’t think so. Like I said, I saw four hits last night that deserve more games than that, so we’ll see what [Parros] does now.”

His coach, John Stevens, backed him up and said that Doughty defended the play exactly the way they would expect him to defend it, and that as long as he is on the earth he is going to “agree to disagree with the decision” by the league.

But the Kings aren’t the only team that is a little angry on Friday.

The Colorado Avalanche are also pretty displeased after Nashville Predators forward Ryan Johansen was not suspended for his hit on Tyson Barrie on Thursday night.

In the NHL’s view, Barrie’s head is not the principal point of contact and it was simply a body check, as opposed to the Doughty-Carrier hit where the head was the principal point of contact. That results in Doughty missing a game and Johansen being available in Game 2.

The Avalanche, naturally, disagreed with that assessment with general manager Joe Sakic calling for consistency in the league’s rulings, a common complaint and criticism when it comes to the DoPS.

Barrie also shared his thoughts, via the Denver Post:

“I didn’t see him coming at all. He kind of came from the side and he definitely caught my head. I’m not sure if they determined that he hit my shoulder or whatever it was first,” he said. “But it’s part of the game and that’s in the league’s hands so you can’t really control it. I think you move on. If those are the hits you’re allowed to take then maybe you take one or two runs at guys that you might get away with. But you just got to move on. We got a long series here and there’s not much point in dwelling on that.”

That was not the only play from Thursday’s games that received some attention.

Late in the Washington-Columbus game the Blue Jackets lost Alexander Wennberg after he was on the receiving end of a tough hit from Capitals forward Tom Wilson. Wilson was penalized on the play. Given that Columbus tied the game on the ensuing power play and then won it in overtime it was a pretty decisive play in the game and was pretty damaging to the Capitals. But it will not result in a suspension from the NHL, in part because there were no clear camera angles that could allow the NHL to determine whether or not Wilson made direct contact with Wennberg’s head.

Columbus’ Josh Anderson, who was ejected in the first period of that game (resulting in a pair of Capitals power play goals), will also avoided supplemental discipline from the NHL. Given that the NHL seems to weigh playoff games more heavily that regular season games when it comes to supplemental discipline it is not a surprising that Anderson avoided anything further. His ejection happened earlier enough in the game that it was probably deemed enough of a punishment.

When it comes to the rest of the decisions … well, there is always going to be pushback and disagreement when these decisions end up hurting a team, and it’s already been a tough, controversial week for the DoPS. That has to be mildly concerning because at this point the Penguins and Flyers have only played one game and Brad Marchand hasn’t gone full Brad Marchand yet.

The playoffs are still early, though, so there is plenty of time for everything to go completely off the rails.

Good luck everybody when it does.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Nazem Kadri to have hearing for dangerous hit on Tommy Wingels (Video)

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs are only in their second day and The Department of Player Safety already has its hands full.

After suspending Drew Doughty for one game for a hit to the head on Wednesday night, all heck broke loose around the league on Thursday night.

In the Washington-Columbus game you had Josh Anderson getting ejected for boarding Michal Kempny and Tom Wilson knocking Alexander Wennberg out of the game. Then midway through the third period of the Boston Bruins-Toronto Maple Leafs game we had what might be one of the dirtiest plays of the NHL season when Nazem Kadri was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct for charging Boston’s Tommy Wingels.

The DoPS has already announced that Kadri will have a disciplinary hearing on Friday for boarding/charging.

 

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

As Wingels was down on his hands and knees along the boards, Kadri took a deliberate run at him and launched himself into the vulnerable Bruins forward.

You can see it in the video above.

Kadri had been skating a fine line for most of the night with his physical play. Just four minutes before he was ejected he was penalized for boarding, and was also involved in a knee-on-knee collision with Rick Nash. It was an eventful night for him, needless to say.

This one, though, will be the one that gets him a phone call from the league on Friday and will probably keep him out of the lineup for at least part of the series.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Artemi Panarin completes Blue Jackets comeback with incredible OT goal (Video)

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The Columbus Blue Jackets needed a forward that could take over a game.

They got one in Artemi Panarin and after making a huge impact during the regular season, he helped lift the Blue Jackets to a 4-3 overtime win on Thursday night against the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.

After Seth Jones scored on a power play late in the third period to send the game to overtime, Panarin scored the game-winner by completing an incredible rush where he blew past Dmitry Orlov and then casually roofed a shot under the crossbar, beating Capitals goalie Phillip Grubauer from a sharp angle.

You can see it in the video above.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Columbus’ acquisition of Panarin was one of the great moves of the offseason.

For as good as the Blue Jackets offense was a season ago (they finished sixth in the NHL in goals scored) they still lacked a go-to-forward that could be a difference-maker. A player that other teams had to constantly worry about every time he was on the ice.

Panarin has been all of that and so much more.

In his first season with the Blue Jackets he showed that his production the past two years in Chicago was not simply the result of playing alongside Patrick Kane (if anything, it seems now that Panarin seemed to help elevate Kane). He set career highs in assists (55) and total points (82) and was one of the most dominant possession-driving forwards in the NHL, finishing the regular season with a 57 percent Corsi rating (also the best mark of his career).

In his first playoff game with his new team he scored a goal (the game-winner), picked up an assist, and was a 63 percent Corsi player (26 shot attempts for; only 15 against for the Blue Jackets with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play).

In other words, another dominant night.

The Blue Jackets had to overcome an early two-goal deficit, and then another deficit late in the third period, to get the win.

More from this game

Alexander Wennberg exits game after hit to head

Blue Jackets’ Josh Anderson ejected for hit from behind

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.