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.

Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star

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Alex DeBrincat spent three seasons between 2014 and 2017 absolutely dominating the Ontario Hockey League. He was one of the most productive and prolific scorers in all of junior hockey during his time with the Erie Otters, and never finished a full season with less than 50 goals or 100 points.

That sort of production, combined with his obvious talent level, should have made him one of the first picks in the 2016 draft class.

It didn’t. Mainly because he was listed at 5-7 and under 170 pounds, making him one of the smallest players in the class and, today, one of the smallest players in the NHL. As he slid out of the first round in 2016 there was always the potential for somebody to get a steal of a player.

That somebody turned out to be the Chicago Blackhawks, who ended up snagging him with the 39th overall pick in the draft.

Today, that pick is looking like one of the steals of that draft.

DeBrincat has been one of the offensive stars for the Blackhawks in the early going this season and already has nine points (including six goals) in the team’s first five games. That comes after a rookie season that saw him finish as the Blackhawks’ leading goal scorer. So far, he is one of the most productive players to come out of his draft class as the only players to outscore him have been Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mathew Tkachuk, and Clayton Keller, all of whom were among the first seven players taken in the draft.

Only Matthews, Laine, and Keller have been better on a points per game basis.

All of this is a huge development for the Blackhawks.

Given their current salary cap situation they are going to need young players on cheap contracts to fill in around their big-money stars at the top of the lineup. DeBrincat is well on his way to giving them such a player and should be part of the organization’s next wave of young talent. And that next wave seems to have some promising prospects. Along with DeBrincat the Blackhawks are also getting a ton of production out of rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, and they also have Adam Boqvist, the No. 7 overall pick from 2018, waiting in the wings.

The lesson that the rest of the teams in the league should take away from this is to never let a player’s size stand in the way of giving them a chance. Over the past decade teams have been far more willing to take “undersized” players than they used to be, but they are still a little too fearful of that lack of size because there was nothing in DeBrincat’s production or play as a junior player that should have resulted in him being anything other than a first-round pick … and probably a very high one. Obviously if all things are equal with players the bigger, more physical player is preferable. But in cases like DeBrincat (and Johnny Gaudreau, and Nikita Kucherov, and so on and so on before him) all things are not usually equal.

DeBrincat has always been a highly skilled player that produced at an obscene level. There was always the potential for him to be a top-line player. A lot of teams couldn’t get past the lack of size and allowed him to slip all the way down to the second round. The Blackhawks were the team to take the “chance” on him and are being rewarded with an emerging star that could be a potential difference-maker for them for a very, very long time.

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.

Golden Knights’ Stastny could miss up to two months

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It turns out the injury to Vegas Golden Knights forward Paul Stastny is a lot worse than previously expected.

Originally only thought to be out for a couple of games due to a lower-body injury, Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant announced on Monday that his second-line center could be out of the lineup for up to two months.

“Going to be longer than we thought, probably up to two months. Possibly,” he said.

That, obviously, will be a big blow to a Golden Knights offense that has struggled in the early part of the season.

Stastny joined Vegas over the summer on a three-year contract in free agency and was expected to center the second line alongside the team’s other big offseason acquisition, winger Max Pacioretty.

Now those plans are on hold for the next couple of months.

After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season the Golden Knights are off to a slow start this season having won just two of their first six games as of Monday. One of the biggest problems has been a lack of offense as the team has managed just 11 goals in six games. They have yet to score more than two goals in any one game this season.

While it is a cause for some concern, the Golden Knights are still controlling the shot attempt numbers in pretty much all of their games and being crushed by a dismal 5.2 team-wide shooting percentage. So there is some hope that things will turn around.

The process is there, even if the early results are not.

Still, they need to get more production from a line that isn’t their top one.

When the trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith is not on the ice this season they have been outscored by a 2-12 margin at even-strength. Whether Stastny is in or out of the lineup, that sort of production from the other three lines is not going to be good enough.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of early NHL noise

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Trying to analyze the early season results in the NHL can be a bit of a mess.

Those games and points matter — more than most people realize — but they are not always an accurate representation of what teams are. There can be a lot of noise there when a talented team gets off to a slow start because a couple of bounces went against them or their goalie had a bad week, or when a potential non-playoff team starts off on a roll. In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we try to sort through the noise and separate reality from fiction.

This week we’re separating the NHL’s 31 teams into four different tiers:

  • The teams off to the strong start that are for real
  • The teams off to a strong start but the jury is still out them
  • The teams off to a slow start but are going to get beter
  • The mystery teams that could end up going in either direction
  • The teams that are off to slow starts and are not likely to get much better

With that said, on to the rankings…

First Tier: Good start and they are for real

1. Boston Bruins — The Bruins got blown out in the season opener in Washington, but all they have done since is steamroll everyone else they have played. On one hand, yes, they have played four run-of-the-mill teams that are not going anywhere this season. On the other hand, that is exactly what you expect a great team to do to run-of-the-mill teams.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs — The offense is scary good, and it will only get better whenever they find a way to get William Nylander signed. Auston Matthews won’t keep scoring two goals every game but he is still an elite player. Defense and goaltending is going to be a question mark come playoff time but the offense is good enough to make them a force in the regular season.

3. Carolina Hurricanes — Is this it? Is this finally the year? It could be. It might be. I think it is. Not only are the Hurricanes finally looking like the team we have been waiting for them to be, they are also an extremely fun team.

4. Nashville Predators — They laid an egg in their home opener against Calgary and became the butt of many jokes around the league for hanging a banner for pretty much everything they do, but this is still one of the most complete teams in the NHL. And they are playing like it so far.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have only played three games as of Monday, but did you see what they did to a pretty good Columbus team over the weekend? When they are clicking on all cylinders they are as good as it gets.

Second Tier: Good start, but jury is still out

6. New Jersey Devils — The Devils were one of the playoff teams from a year ago that I had my doubts about coming into this season, and while those doubts still remain it’s awfully hard to argue with the early season results. Three wins in their first three games including a dominating 6-0 win over the defending champs and an impressive win over a Stanley Cup contender in San Jose.

7. Anaheim Ducks — Winning four out of six and collecting nine of a possible 12 points while playing mostly without Corey Perry, Ondrej Kase and Ryan Getzlaf is impressive. They haven’t exactly looked good while doing it, and John Gibson is the one doing most of the heavy lifting to carry the team, but that’s why goalies get paid, too.

[Related: John Gibson keeping Ducks afloat]

8. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are picking up where they left off a year ago and doing their thing. That thing? Carrying the offense.

9. Dallas Stars — The Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov trio is making things happen, both individually and as a group. All three have at least eight points through their first four games, while the Stars are outscoring teams by a 6-2 margin and controlling more than 56 percent of the shot attempts when they are on the ice together.

10. Chicago Blackhawks — What does it tell me when a team is 3-0-2 through its first five games with all five games going to overtime while also being near the bottom of the league in goals against? It tells me a lot of things have fallen in their favor early on and that the whole thing might be a giant house of cards waiting to collapse. But those points matter too, and you can’t take them away.

Third Tier: Slow start, but it will not continue

11. Washington Capitals — After demolishing the Bruins on banner raising night they have lost three out of four entering playing on Monday, and at times have not looked great while doing it. But let’s not panic too much. They will get it together.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They have had some problems defensively and with their puck management, but that has been the case with this group over the past two years. They are playmakers that play a high-risk, high-reward game. Only a handful of teams in the league can make that work. They are one of them.

13. Winnipeg Jets — They clearly have not hit their stride yet, alternating wins and losses through the first two weeks but the talent on this team is real. Be patient.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets — Artemi Panarin is the backbone of this offense and he is off to an incredible start. He, along with Sergei Bobrovsky, are going to give them a chance to compete this season. The problem is they are at risk of losing them both for nothing after this season. Still a delicate situation for the Blue Jackets’ management to handle.

15. Vegas Golden Knights — Before you start thinking about regression and that last year was a fluke, keep in mind that Marc-Andre Fleury can — and will — be a lot better than he was over the first few games of the season and that they are currently a dominant possession team. They will be better.

[Related: What’s behind Golden Knights’ slow start?]

16. San Jose Sharks — Other than that blowout win in Philadelphia this has not been what we expected from the Sharks at the start of the season. They are clearly still trying to figure things out, but they will.

17. Minnesota Wild — They are pretty much the exact opposite of the Chicago Blackhawks so far in that they have played a lot of close, one-goal games that have gone to overtime, only instead of everything going in their favor, the bounces have worked against them.

Fourth Tier: The mystery teams 

18. Montreal Canadiens — I had no expectations for this team at the start, but they haven’t looked bad. Carey Price can be a difference-maker, but I don’t trust the offense to be good enough to sustain this better-than-expected start.

[Related: How can Canadiens exceed expectations this season?]

19. Calgary Flames — If they are going to do anything this season they are going to need more from Mike Smith because other than the shutout in Nashville he has not been good this season. Johnny Gaudreau is fantastic.

20. Vancouver Canucks — Good news: They have won three of their first five. Bad news: Their best young player is sidelined with a concussion. Worse news: They had a promising start last season, too, (6-3-1 through 10 games), and still finished with one of the league’s worst records. I would anticipate that is where they end up this season.

21. Buffalo Sabres — The big question with Conor Sheary was whether or not he could be a productive player away from Sidney Crosby. The early results in Buffalo are promising with his three goals in four games. If he has a bounce back year that would be a great pickup for the Sabres given how little he cost. Don’t forget about Jeff Skinner, either. There is some talent here, but it feels like we’ve said that about Buffalo before during this perpetual rebuilding phase.

22. Philadelphia Flyers — They can look like a playoff team or a lottery team on any given night. They are the biggest mystery team in the NHL, mainly because their defense and goalie situation is a constant question mark. Early injuries to James van Riemsdyk and Nolan Patrick are not helping.

23. St. Louis Blues — They spent a ton of money and assets to upgrade the offense over the summer, and they are returning a pretty solid defense. But goaltending is really hurting them early on.

24. Los Angeles Kings — They still look like an anemic offense team that is in need of an overhaul. At times they just never seem to be a threat to score, even with players like Anze Kopitar and Ilya Kovalchuk on the roster.

25. New York Islanders — The bottom of the roster is ugly, the defense and goaltending are question marks, but Mathew Barzal has superstar potential and Anders Lee is still scoring without John Tavares next to him.

[Related: Mathew Barzal is Islanders’ reason for hope]

26. Florida Panthers — I wouldn’t read too much into this start of this early ranking. They are winless, but it is also only three games. They are not as good as the team that was nearly unbeatable in the second half last season, and they also aren’t as bad as they were at the start of the season. Having said that, we saw last year what a bad start can do to a team and if they are going to be a playoff team they need to start getting wins. Fast.

Fifth Tier: It is going to be a long season

27. Ottawa Senators — A lot of their early success is driven by a 14.6 team-wide shooting percentage through the first five games. Once that levels off and returns to normal the lack of offense combined with the abysmal defense will be a bad combination.

28. Edmonton Oilers — Connor McDavid has scored or assisted on this team’s past nine goals dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season. He is literally the only thing they have right now.

29. New York Rangers — For the most part they have been competitive and in most of their games, but there just isn’t enough talent here to compete at a high level.

30. Arizona Coyotes — There were a lot of reasons for optimism entering the season — and they still exist — but this is not the start anyone in Arizona wanted, having been shutout in three of their first four games.

31. Detroit Red Wings — There are not many positives here right now. They are every bit as bad as they were expected to be. Maybe even a little worse.

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.

Pens’ Justin Schultz out four months with fractured leg

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to be without Justin Schultz for a while.

Schultz underwent successful surgery on Sunday to repair a fracture in his lower left leg, according to the team. Schultz was injured on Saturday night in a game against the Montreal Canadiens after falling awkwardly on his leg.

He’s expected to miss four months, pegging his return in the middle of February at the earliest.

Fair warning: the video isn’t for the faint of heart.

Schultz had been producing at a point-per-game rate before getting injured, with four assists in Pittsburgh’s first four games. That was good for second on the team in terms of defensemen scoring behind Kris Letang while averaging over 17 minutes during his first three games.

It goes without saying, but it’s a big blow to the Penguins’ back end.

With Schultz out, the Penguins are going to be looking for players to step up, including his partner Jack Johnson, who signed a five-year deal with the club this summer. Johnson has yet to produce a point so far this season. Olli Maatta is also another candidate that needs to jumpstart his season in a hurry. Maatta has already been a healthy scratch this season, and like Johnson, has yet to put up a point.

The Penguins started the season with Maatta and Johnson together so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them give that a go again.

“We have capable NHL defensemen so I’m confident that we can put guys in that I know can help us win games,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s not an easy guy to replace. He’s a very good player and has been very good for us for a long time. So it’s a tough loss from our standpoint, but certainly we’ve got to be prepared with the guys that we have.”

The injury will also mean more time for rookie Juuso Riikola and Jamie Oleksiak, who could be paired together going forward. Both players have spent time in and out of the lineup early on. Riikola could stand to benefit most from Schultz’s absence, so there’s a big opportunity there for him to grab some extra minutes.

Schultz was the second man over the boards on the power play after Letang. Perhaps Riikola gets a look there as well.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck