PHT chats with Patrick Burke, who can’t stand ‘lazy criticism’ of the Department of Player Safety

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You may remember Patrick Burke from such hit shows as “Raffi Torres is not going to play hockey for a while” and “Sorry everyone, we couldn’t find reason to suspend Zac Rinaldo, maybe next time.”

Burke is a director in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Formed in 2011, with the mandate of administering supplemental discipline, the DOPS was originally headed by Brendan Shanahan. It’s now led by Stephane Quintal. Another familiar name to hockey fans, Chris Pronger, was hired as a director in 2014.

The following is a transcript of an email conversation I had this week with Burke. I wanted to know about the frustrations of the position, and what it was like to make decisions that can’t possibly please everyone.

To get things started, I asked about a recent DOPS decision that did not please me.

JB: It’s an old blogger adage that you lead with a guy getting speared in the groin. Brandon Prust was only fined $5,000 for what he did to Brad Marchand. He called it the best money he’s ever spent. Is the DOPS bound by the general managers’ belief that plays like that aren’t worthy of a suspension? I just don’t think it’s a very good look for the league when Prust is left joking about spearing a guy in the groin, even though Marchand wasn’t hurt, and even though it was, you know…Brad Marchand.

PB: At the end of the day, our department has the final say over individual decisions regarding supplemental discipline. That said, we regularly look to the GMs for guidance on what is happening in the game. I think when our department begins noticing trends, it’s important for us to research what is happening, document what we are seeing, then presenting this information to the GMs to ask how big of an issue this trend is for our league. How many stick fouls are we seeing? How severe are they? How often are players getting injured on these plays, and how severely? The GMs provide us with their feedback and we go from there. I suspect that recent incidents may have increased the desire of the hockey world to see stick fouls punished more severely. If that’s the case, we certainly have no hesitation to increase the punishment going forward.

JB: Marchand wasn’t seriously hurt on the play, but one player who was injured earlier this season was Sean Couturier, on a hit by Zac Rinaldo. In the video explaining why Rinaldo wasn’t suspended, you noted that you supported the referee’s decision to give Rinaldo a charging major, but then you ruled that the hit was not worthy of a suspension. I think this confused a lot of fans. If Rinaldo broke the rules and Couturier was injured, how was there no supplemental discipline?

PB: Well, I’ll preface this by saying our department doesn’t oversee officiating. Stephen Walkom does an unreal job at that. And our officials have the single hardest job in sports, and are unequivocally the best in the world. I am in awe of what they’re able to do on a nightly basis.

Our department is different. We have replay. We have slow motion. We have ten angles. We have hours, often days, to make our decisions. Referees have to make them in a fraction of a second. We are in an office in New York. They are on the ice with the players in that moment. They’re in charge of policing that particular game in that moment. We don’t know what’s being said on the ice. We don’t know if a player has been warned ten times to calm down. We don’t know if the referee was concerned about a game getting out of hand.

So, when we make a video that seemingly contradicts one of their decisions, it is important to us as a department to make it clear that we support our officials unequivocally. I don’t think there’s anything logically inconsistent in essentially stating, “We completely support our official making this call in that moment. That said, it’s now 48 hours later. I have zoomed in from three different angles and watched the hit 50 times in slow motion. With the benefit of added technology, we can determine that a suspension is not appropriate on this play.”

JB: Right, so “support” doesn’t ultimately mean “agree with.” While I still think that has the potential to cause confusion, I get where you’re coming from. And I agree, refs have a tough job. We all rip players for things like turning pucks over at the blue line, but then we expect officials to be perfect.

With that in mind, I want to let you vent a bit now. Your department receives a ton of criticism. That’s to be expected, but what type of criticism bothers you the most? (And you can’t say that none of it bothers you because you’re a Burke and that’s not how a Burke rolls.)

PB: I wrote about five drafts to this response and each time a little shoulder angel of John Dellapina (the NHL’s senior director of public relations) appeared and went, “You can’t say that. Or that. Definitely not that.”

Lazy criticism bothers me. That’s it. I don’t mind when people disagree with us — hell, we regularly disagree internally. We have screaming arguments about whether something is worthy of two games or three. So, “Wow, I didn’t think that was suspension-worthy” or “They only fined him, but I think it was worth one game” isn’t criticism that bothers me at all. There was probably someone in our ten-person department who felt the same way.

But, if you are a media member covering a team on a regular basis, you have a duty to know what you’re talking about. Unfortunately, there’s a good-sized contingent of media right now that has no interest in being informed or accurate. It’s about being the most retweeted, the snarkiest, having the hottest take on a play. It’s very easy to stoke fan emotion and get the outrage going.

I think good media members have an understanding of NHL rules and how they’re applied. Even when they disagree with our decisions they’re able to articulate the thought process, analyze the play intelligently, and then disagree.

Then there’s the group that sees a hit and rushes to tweet, “CLEAR ELBOW BY JOHN DOE BET DOPS SCREWS THIS ONE UP TOO.” They yell about our incompetence as they incorrectly apply an NHL rule; they’re calling us lazy as we’re already in the process of reviewing ten plays; they’re calling us biased while painting their player as a kindhearted superstar who loves to adopt puppies and the opponent as a brutal monster with no place in the game. It’s constant, it’s hypocritical, and it’s tiring. You’re entitled to your own opinions. You aren’t entitled to your own facts.

We are, by FAR, the most accessible and open of all the disciplinary groups in sports. On a daily basis we speak to media members to clarify, explain, teach, or discuss plays, rules, and decisions. Not just the Bob McKenzies and Elliotte Friedmans of the world either. We regularly speak with local beat reporters. We invite media to come tour our room and see us in action. We provide videos explaining our decisions and our controversial non-decisions. We even have educational videos on our website that explain our standards for hits. Everyone in hockey has the direct email to NHL PR, and most media people have a direct line to either myself, Stephane Quintal, Damian Echevarrieta, or Chris Pronger.

Damian and I spend half our night texting with people to keep them informed. Hell, I’ll regularly text with local bloggers just to give them clarification on something they may not understand. I think we’ve removed every excuse the media has for not being informed, and yet there’s still a significant portion of them remaining willfully ignorant out of laziness or lack of professionalism.

So, disagree with our decisions all you like. Dislike us on a personal level (Prongs and I are used to that). But if you’re calling yourself media, don’t act like a drunken fan.

JB: Confirmed: You’re a Burke. I look forward to seeing the evolution of your hair.

Speaking of your father — and I’ve wondered about this before — in today’s NHL, how many games would Pavel Bure get for his elbow on Shane Churla? Your father was in charge of discipline when that occurred during the 1994 playoffs. He didn’t suspend Bure. He only fined him $500.

PB: I’d have to go back and review the factors surrounding it to give an exact game number. I seem to recall they had an ongoing battle during the series itself. That could elevate it, as could injury or history. But yeah, based on my recollection of the play, it’s a fairly easy suspension in the modern DOPS era. Not to oversimplify it, but you can’t do that.

By the way, I was only 11 in 1994, so $500 actually seemed like an absurdly punitive punishment to me at the time.

JB: I grew up a Canucks fan, so I thought a $500 fine was perfectly appropriate. The Aaron Rome suspension, on the other hand….but that was right before the DOPS was formed, so we won’t go there.

PB: You answer one of my questions now. If you could change one thing about how the DOPS operates, what would it be?

JB: Hmmm. OK, as a media guy, it might be helpful to have some sort of checklist that outlines all the criteria that need to be met for a play to be worthy of a suspension. Just something we can reference whenever there’s a close call. Kinda like Sean McIndoe’s flowchart, which I’ve always found to be quite helpful, though I’m not sure it’s officially endorsed by the league.

PB: I think the difficult part of doing that is that it’s so difficult to account for gray-area elements of a play — like, say, level of force — in a description. That’s why we’ve favored videos showing multiple examples rather than a strict flowchart.

Intent is just such a gray area. There’s a women’s hockey play under review right now where a player shoved another into an open door. Did she intend to shove her? Clearly. Did she intend to shove her into an open gate? Probably not. And even if she did, it’d be tough to prove it. How does that fit into a flowchart?

The truth is we see thousands of plays and none of them are identical. Having a strict flowchart has been discussed, but it simply doesn’t work. How do you flowchart “reckless” or “intentional” in a way where it applies to every play?

JB: Sure, sure. You just don’t want to paint yourself into any corners. That way you can totally screw over [reader’s favorite team] whenever you feel like it. Like, say, after Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. In the year 2011. For example.

PB: In just over two years with the NHL, I have been personally accused of actively hating every club in the league. And while some of the justifications for my supposed hatred are absolutely hilarious (that would actually be a fun list to compile), I would like to assure all six people still reading this that the Department of Player Safety has no strong feelings about the team you cheer for. We do our best to be transparent and consistent, and we work our asses off to get it right. We know we won’t ever be popular in the media, but…well, Burkes get used to that at a young age.

PHT Power Rankings: Blackhawks hit bottom

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If you turn on any random Chicago Blackhawks game on any random night against any random opponent it is a good bet they are already going to be losing by two or three goals 10 minutes into the first period. It has been a constant trend for about two months now.

Sometimes they are able to push back a little and tie the game only to lose in backbreaking fashion, just as they have done in their most recent losses to the Vegas Golden Knights and Montreal Canadiens.

Sometimes they never push back and just get completely run out of the building.

Either way the result is the same — a loss. Those losses keep piling up at an alarming rate and are sending the Blackhawks toward what is looking to be their worst season in years.

Thanks to the seven-game losing streak they are carrying into the week the Blackhawks officially have the worst record (based on points percentage) in the entire league and are just 3-11-2 since firing Joel Quenneville.

In other words, things are bad. Really bad.

The problems are obvious. The good players that were part of the core that won three Stanley Cups in six years are older, more expensive and not as good as they once were (if they are even still on the team). Those larger contracts, combined with the salary cap, once again ripped apart the depth that always made the Blackhawks such a strong team.

The latter point is where a lot of the problems really start to show up. The Blackhawks went through salary cap purges before but were always able to find ways to restock the cupboards, often times to the point of them still being able to compete for, and even win, championships.

They have not done that over the past few years.

Just consider this question: Who is the last truly impactful and useful the Blackhawks have added to their organization through free agency or a trade? Have there been any over the past three or four years? The re-acquisition of Brandon Saad is probably the answer you could come up with because he is a fine, decent player. But when you had to give up an even better player (Artemi Panarin) to get him back that does not really help things.

Big contracts, an aging core, and no fresh talent entering the organization is a bad combination, and for this week it has the Blackhawks at the bottom of the PHT Power Rankings. They may be there for a while, too.

On to the rest of the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Quite simply the best hockey team in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are early season MVP candidates, Steven Stamkos is a point-per-game player right behind them, and they are 11-3-0 since their Vezina Trophy finalist goalie has been injured. That includes the six-game winning streak they carry into the week. They also are coming off of a dominant 7-1 win against a really good Colorado Avalanche team.

2. Winnipeg Jets — The Jets are 10-4-1 in their past 15 games and are averaging more than four goals per game during that stretch. There may not be a better collection of top-line forward talent anywhere in the league.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs — Not too worried about the fact they haven’t won since William Nylander returned. The biggest concern here, just like last season, is that Frederik Andersen gets worn down from the workload he is being asked to carry. His play will determine how far they go in the playoffs.

4. Nashville Predators — They have cooled off a bit in recent weeks but that has coincided with the team being crushed by injuries. When healthy this is still one of the league’s best teams.

5. Washington Capitals — The champs are starting to get on a roll and Alex Ovechkin is still scoring goals at an unprecedented pace given his age.

The Surprises

6. Colorado Avalanche — Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon are both on pace for more than 120 points this season. Doubtful they will maintain those numbers over 82 games, but the fact they have done it over even 30 games is incredible.

7. Calgary Flames — Have to be honest, did not see the Flames being the team to crawl to the top of the Pacific Division at any point this season. How long will they remain there?

[Related: Are the Flames ready to contend?]

8. Buffalo Sabres — When every game you play is decided by a single goal sometimes you are going to get the breaks, and sometimes you are not. Thirteen of the Sabres’ past 15 games have been one-goal games, a stretch that has seen them win 10 games in a row and then also lose five games in a row.  They are not as good as they looked during the winning streak and they are not as bad as they have looked during the losing streak. Things balance out.

Strong Playoff Teams

9. Boston Bruins — They are still going to have to find some secondary scoring if they are going to be a serious threat to win the Stanley Cup.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — Sergei Bobrovsky picked a terrible time to have his worst season as a starter. How good would the Blue Jackets be this season if he was playing at his normal level?

The Middle Ground

11. Vegas Golden Knights –– They might still be the best team in the Pacific Division and when all is said and done will probably end up winning it.

12. Dallas Stars — The rapid emergence of rookie defenseman Miro Heiskanen has helped make up for the absence of John Klingberg.

13. Anaheim Ducks — John Gibson should be a finalist for MVP at this point, while Daniel Sprong has made a nice little impact in his first few games with the team. Nice move in the shootout on Sunday night to help pick up the win.

14. Edmonton Oilers — If this team makes the playoffs Connor McDavid should be a unanimous MVP winner. He is doing even more than he did a year ago.

Related: Seven stunning numbers from the first two months of the NHL season]

15. San Jose Sharks — They have won three out of their past four and they don’t have a tough schedule coming up this week. Is this where it starts to turn around?

16. Montreal Canadiens — The P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade gets ripped (and deservedly so) which makes it kind of easy to forget that Weber is still pretty good. He is just older, has a worse contract, and might be starting to break down a bit physically. Still, he can play a little. He has five points in his first six games since returning to the lineup this season.

17. Pittsburgh Penguins — Every time it looks like they are going to get everything together and go on a roll they put together a terrible showing. Still, they have picked up 13 out of a possible 20 points over their past 10 games.

18. Minnesota Wild — They have some concerns right now, with the biggest potentially being whatever is wrong with starting goalie Devan Dubnyk.

19. New York Islanders — Still not sure they have enough offense to emerge from the pack and make the playoffs this season.

20. Carolina Hurricanes — The Hurricanes can not catch a break in goal. Curtis McElhinney came out of nowhere to solidify the position for a little bit, played extremely well, and then ended up injured. Now it is back to the Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek duo that was not working earlier this season

21. Arizona Coyotes — It is really tough to see the Coyotes hanging around in the Western Conference playoff race given the injury situation with Antti Raanta.

22. Detroit Red Wings — Dylan Larkin is on track for the best season of his career and several of their potential trade chips (Gustav Nyquist, Jimmy Howard) are having productive seasons. So they have that going for them.

23. New York Rangers — Henrik Lundqvist is still getting it done, he just doesn’t have enough around him for it to really matter.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Now that they have a new general manager in place it will be interesting to see where this team goes from here and where “bias for action” takes them.

[Related: Chuck Fletcher’s plate will be full as new Flyers’ GM]

25. Ottawa Senators — Losing Matt Duchene and Bobby Ryan to injury for the foreseeable future is really going to hurt what has been a surprisingly good offense this season.

26. Florida Panthers — With better goaltending this season they may not be needing another second half surge just to get back into playoff contention.

Lose For Hughes

27. Los Angeles Kings — The worst goal scoring team in the league by a huge margin and the third-fewest shots on goal per game. They are redefining what bad offensive hockey is in this era.

28. Vancouver Canucks — Since starting the season 10-6-2 the Canucks have managed to go only 3-10-1 over their past 14 games. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are still studs, though.

29. New Jersey Devils — Taylor Hall has to be having flashbacks to his Oilers days.

30. St. Louis Blues — After getting blown out on Sunday the Blues sounded like a completely broken team. They are still better than their rivals.

31. Chicago Blackhawks — Maybe Jeremy Colliton goes on to be a good NHL head coach, but right now the decision to fire Quenneville just looks comical.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Koskinen has Oilers thinking playoffs again

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A lack of quality goaltending was one of the reasons the Edmonton Oilers missed the playoffs last season. Cam Talbot, who was an integral part of Edmonton’s run to the playoffs in 2017, saw his numbers slip in a big way in 2017-18. Now, it’s another goalie that has the Oilers back in the playoff hunt.

Many hockey fans were left scratching their heads when Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli signed Mikko Koskinen to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. The move was a little random considering Koskinen hadn’t suited up in the NHL since the 2010-11 season. The 30-year-old had spent the previous five seasons in the KHL.

Talbot opened the year as the starter and Koskinen didn’t make his first appearance of the season until the nine-game mark, but things have changed. Not only is Koskinen coming off 24-save shutout over the rival Flames on Sunday, but he’s also been victorious in four of his last five and he has just one regulation loss since Nov. 20 (seven games).

Not only did Koskinen put an end to Calgary’s five-game winning streak on Sunday, he also helped extend his team’s streak to three games. So all this means is that the Oilers are just a single point behind the Vegas Golden Knights for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference and they’re also one point away from the San Jose Sharks, who are in third in the Pacific Division. The Oilers have played two fewer games than Vegas and one less than San Jose.

He now owns a 9-3-1 record with a 2.06 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. He’s been totally unbeatable at home, as he’s a perfect 6-0 with an 0.91 goals-against-average and a .970 save percentage. That’s unreal. His numbers on the road are a little less flattering, but he’s done enough to go 3-3 away from Rogers Arena.

If we take a deeper look at his numbers, only Pekka Rinne and Jaroslav Halak have better save percentages and only Rinne has a better goals-against-average. Of course, the small sample size is important to keep in mind, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Finn has played really, really, really well.

As good as Koskinen’s been, the Oilers will probably need Talbot at some point in the near future. Over the last five seasons, Koskinen has played more than 41 games just once. He’s currently on pace to play in 38 games, but you’d have to imagine that he’ll keep getting starts if he stays hot. Anyway, a wall will be probably be hit at some point.

But right now, Oilers fans aren’t worried about walls, they’re just glad to be back in the playoff hunt.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL’s broken playoff format; Can Matthews score 50?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• We’re still a few years away from the Seattle expansion draft, but The Tennessean is already looking ahead to who the Preds would protect in 2021. (The Tennessean)

• Speaking of protection lists, who will the Blue Jackets protect in 2021? (The Cannon)

• The New York Post’s Larry Brooks explains why the NHL’s playoff format is broken. (New York Post)

• The Ottawa Senators have gone through some tough times this season, but there are positives that have emerged. One of them is promising center Colin White. (Ottawa Citizen)

• Even though he’s missed some time with a shoulder injury, it’s not impossible that Auston Matthews scores 50 this season. (Toronto Sun)

• The Hockey News breaks down 10 things we’ve learned about the NHL so far in 2018-19. (The Hockey News)

• Sportscaster Rob Simpson is almost done visiting all 31 NHL arenas in 31 days. He’s doing all this to benefit Hockey Fights Cancer. (NHL.com)

• As you’d imagine, Matthew and Brady Tkachuk broke their share of windows while playing hockey in their driveway. (TSN.ca)

• Sports Illustrated takes a deeper look at the connection between being a younger sibling and becoming a goalie. (Sports Illustrated)

• Ready for this random fact? Former Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki was a perfect 17-0-0 against the Atlanta Thrashers during his career. I told you it was random. (Broad Street Hockey)

• It’s been a tough year for Kevin Shattenkirk in New York. What does the future hold for the veteran defeseman? (Blue Shirt Banter)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Is it too early to give Pettersson the Calder?

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Three Stars

1. Elias Pettersson

What’s easier: giving Pettersson the top star of Sunday, or just cutting through the red tape and handing him the Calder right now?

OK, the NHL can’t do that. After all, someone might close the 11-point gap between Pettersson (30 points) and every other rookie (Colin White‘s in second with 19), especially if the league is robbed of the glory of more Pettersson in the event of an injury.

His special Sunday really highlighted the gap between the Canucks wunderkind and everyone else. Pettersson scored the game-winning goal to go with four assists for a five-point performance. The kid is special, and you really don’t need the “for a rookie” caveat.

2. Brock Boeser

Normally, it might be best to lean away from placing two teammates in the top three, but sometimes you just have to acknowledge the truth. These two forwards are a blast to watch. The Boeser + Pettersson combo doesn’t merely make the Canucks palatable. If you’re not ready to go, they can absolutely dominate, stealing games for Vancouver in the process.

Boeser collected a hat trick as the Canucks bombarded the Blues by a 6-1 score:

3. Josh Morrissey

This is a tough call, as Morrissey’s teammate Mark Scheifele and Ducks forward Ondrej Kase also deserve serious consideration with their own three-point Sundays.

Morrissey gets the nod because his goal was a game-winner (Scheifele had three assists, while Kase’s goal and two assists lacked the GWG). Granted, it was the GWG in a lopsided game but … hey, we’re splitting hairs, here.

There were some nice goalie performances, yet with Mikko Koskinen being the only guy getting a shutout – and a light one, needings 24 saves – let’s hand the bronze to a skater.

Morrissey celebrated his first game in a week by collecting those three points as the Jets routed the Flyers. Along with the goal and two assists, Morrissey managed a +2 rating, three SOG, and one blocked shot.

Highlights

Admittedly, it’s strange to use the word “harmonious” to describe a hockey play, especially when Brad Marchand is involved. Such a description comes to mind here, though, as Marchand, David Krejci, and Torey Krug combine for an absolutely beautiful overtime game-winner:

While it doesn’t match the sheer beauty of that Krug tally, Connor McDavid scored the only goal of Edmonton’s 1-0 win against Calgary on another nice bit of puck movement:

Sunday featured at least a couple throwback “pad-stacking” saves, including this one by John Gibson:

Not hockey, but if you have even a passing interest in the NFL, this Miami Dolphins play is just bodacious. Honestly, “Miami Miracle” doesn’t even feel too over-the-top.

Lowlight

Here’s not how to help Cory Schneider, a goalie who’s been struggling for quite some time: the Devils were guilty of three own-goals on Sunday, with this one possibly being the most egregious:

Factoids

Montreal’s tight win against Chicago is more impressive when you realize the procession of penalties they faced, particularly during a high-stick-happy third period:

Could Mikko Koskinen be the latest goalie to flourish under Ken Hitchcock? He already started off pretty well for Edmonton, but the “low-event” Oilers have really helped him heat up:

More impressive: Marc-Andre Fleury‘s wins total(s), or his sweet, sweet pads?

Scores

VAN 6 – STL 1
WPG 7 – PHI 1
BOS 2 – OTT 1 (OT)
MTL 3 – CHI 2
ANA 6 – NJD 5 (SO)
VGK 4 – DAL 2
EDM 1 – CGY 0

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.