Gary Bettman introduces five-point plan to prevent, identify concussions; PHT dissects it

1 Comment

As you may already know, the NHL’s GM meetings began today amid plenty of controversy regarding hits to the head and concussions. From Sidney Crosby’s regrettable absence to the much-debated Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty, the league had to do something.

It looks like Gary Bettman and other NHL executives have a plan … a five-point plan, to be exact. The five different points cover a wide array of issues that factor into concussion problems, from equipment size, to how affected players are treated and – in an obvious nod to Montreal’s infamous stanchion – even how rinks are constructed.

Before we break down Bettman’s plan in a point-by-point fashion, it’s important to note that the NHLPA released a statement in favor of many of Bettman’s ideas. For this to work, it’s vital that the league and its players association stay on the same page, so that’s as good a sign as any.

Anyway, let’s start with point one.

1. Brendan Shanahan has been directed to focus on equipment, in conjunction with the Players’ Association, in an effort to reduce the size of the equipment without reducing its protectiveness but also without compromising the safety of an opponent who is contacted by that equipment.

You would think that the advances in sporting equipment would reduce injuries, but the problem with borderline body armor in athletics is that such protection almost encourages players to be reckless. One of the disturbing findings in Malcolm Gladwell’s game-changing study of NFL concussions was that football players almost use their helmets as weapons rather than for mere protection. In hockey, shoulder pads are often the equivalent of helmets in football in that way, so making that gear less dangerous to other players – while still providing NHLers protection during board battles and collisions – is a great idea.

Of course, finding a good, happy medium might prove difficult.

This issue didn’t directly address Mark Messier’s campaign to change helmets, possibly because there might still be a need to prove that those designs (or something similar) actually do reduce risks.

2. The NHL Protocol for Concussion Evaluation and Management has been revised in three areas: 1) Mandatory removal from play if a player reports any listed symptoms or shows any listed signs (loss of consciousness … Motor incoordination/balance problems … Slow to get up following a hit to the head … blank or vacant look … Disorientation (unsure where he is) … Clutching the head after a hit … Visible facial injury in coombination with any of the above). 2) Examination by the team physician (as opposed to the athletic trainer) in a quiet place free from distraction. 3) Team physician is to use ‘an acute evaluation tool’ such as the NHL SCAT 2 [SCAT stands for Sports Concussion Assessment Tool] as opposed to a quick rinkside assessment.

In my mind, point No. 2 is probably more important than the other concerns combined. To some, it might be stunning that these measures haven’t already been instituted, but they’re better late than never. Considering the undercurrent of thought – fair or not – that maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins erred when they didn’t sit Sidney Crosby after he took that David Steckel hit, these alterations will help teams identify concussions in a more scientific way. This measure takes the decision away from a player or trainer who might want to get a then-unclear concussion victim back on the ice.

After all, when it comes to concussion recovery, it’s not like you can just apply an ice pack or “rub some dirt on it.”

3. The Board will be approached to elevate the standard in which a Club and its Coach can be held accountable if it has a number of ‘repeat offenders’ with regard to Supplementary Discipline.

It’s probably overly simplistic to pin this all on that outrageous New York Islanders-Penguins fight frenzy, but such a rule will likely give the league more power to punish teams for carting out guys like Trevor Gillies to create havoc without any regard for their actual on-ice ability. Chance are, the Matt Cookes of the world will also be affected.

(Mario Lemieux wrote a letter to the league that gives more instructive ideas regarding how the league should handle these situations. We’ll get to that in another post.)

4. In the continuing pursuit of the ultimate in player safety with regard to the rink environment, a safety engineering firm will be used to evaluate all 30 arenas and determine what changes, if any, can and should be made to to enhance the safety of the environment. For the 2011-12 season, the teams that have seamless glass behind the nets, on the sides, or surrounding the entire rink will be directed to change to plexiglass.

Translation: teams will be forced to remove “turnbuckles” or stanchions if at all possible. If nothing else, maybe the league can make them less dangerous to players. (Even if such a measure might make it unsafe for Pierre McGuire and other pundits to stand between players’ benches, which would be a bummer since those segments often provide great insight.)

Getting rid of the seamless glass is almost a no-brainer. That’s a much easier and more obvious fix than handling the stanchions, but both are good changes.

5. A ‘blue-ribbon’ committee of Brendan Shanahan, Rob Blake, Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk — all players who competed under the standard of rules enforcement that has been in place since 2005 — to examine topics relevant to the issue.

It’s a bit odd that Blake is on the committee since giving Peter Mueller a concussion was one of the last things he did before retiring from the NHL, but the “blue-ribbon committee” is a good idea overall. Especially if they make their finds public and encourage open communication regarding this tough issue.

***

Time will tell if these changes make a big difference, but it’s a much better way of attacking the problem than instituting Rule 48. These measures should eliminate some of the guesswork and gut reactions that come from identifying concussions, a crucial change considering the fact that repeated hits only increase the odds of greater problems.

It will be tough to stop concussions from happening altogether, but this plan has some promise in at least reducing them a bit.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

Leave a comment

Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

3 Comments

An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

Leave a comment

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

Leave a comment

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.