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.

Russ Conway, writer who brought down hockey union boss, dies

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LAWRENCE, Mass. — Russ Conway, a hockey writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992 for his stories about corruption in the NHL Players Association that helped bring down union head Alan Eagleson, has died. He was 70.

His death was reported by the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he had started at the age of 18 and later served as sports editor.

A longtime Boston Bruins beat writer, Conway published a series of articles that exposed Eagleson’s lucrative conflicts of interest as the union boss, player agent and organizer of international tournaments. Conway’s reporting spawned investigations in both the United States and Canada that resulted in Eagleson serving six months in prison and forfeiting his Order of Canada.

The Hockey Hall of Fame kicked Eagleson out and gave Conway its Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award in 1999 for bringing honor to journalism and hockey.

Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

Let’s tackle three questions for the Rangers in 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in (and how many new guys will fit in)?

Don’t blame head coach David Quinn if he uses phrases like “learning process” a lot next season, as there are a ton of new faces in New York, including players who figure to be top scorers and minute-eaters.

It’s not just about getting the most from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Really, it’s not even about integrating likely rookie impact-makers like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox.

The Rangers must also decide if prospects like Vitali Kravtsov will make the team out of training camp, and if they’ll stay long enough to eat up a year of their rookie contracts. Quinn must decide if players like Lias Andersson are ready to take another step forward.

From a forwards and defense level, this is a very different-looking team, something that was cemented by the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout. As far as chemistry experiments go, the Rangers are basically mad science.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. Is Henrik Lundqvist washed up?

If you had to choose one Ranger to forget all about last season, it would be Lundqvist.

The Rangers’ defense was abysmal in 2018-19, and Lundqvist buckled under the pressure of trying to carry that sorry bunch, suffering through a season where he had a very un-Hank-like .907 save percentage.

When you look a little deeper at the numbers, you’ll see that his 2018-19 season wasn’t that far from normal, or maybe a “new normal.” Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his even-strength save percentage has been nearly identical for the last three seasons, as it was .919 in both 2018-19 and 2017-18 and .918 in 2016-17.

Before that, prime Lundqvist was regularly beyond .930 at even-strength, and so frequently above .920 overall that you almost set your watch to his elite play.

Considering that he’s 37, maybe the window for his elite play has finally closed, but maybe Lundqvist can squeeze out one or two more great years? Let’s not forget that Lundqvist wasn’t exactly protected in Alain Vigneault’s latter years with the Rangers, as those teams were often horrendous from a possession standpoint.

If Quinn can create more of cocoon for Lundqvist (and Alexandar Georgiev), might the Rangers improve at keeping pucks out of their own net? Even with Panarin leading a big boost in offensive punch, you’d think they’d need a lot more than they got from their goalies last season, Swiss cheese defense and all.

3. Will the playoff picture be an open road or treacherous path?

The Rangers aren’t the only team in their division that should be tough to gauge once prediction time rolls around, making it difficult to tell if the Metro will compare to what was a mighty Atlantic Division last season.

The Devils are just about as wildly different as the Rangers, and the Flyers made bold moves in their own right.

It’s easiest to imagine the Rangers falling in the wild-card range, so a lot may hinge on how other teams perform, both in the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. If the Panthers and Sabres take big strides — as they’re paying to do — then the Atlantic teams could gobble up as many as five playoff spots, forcing the Rangers to break into the top three of the Metro. That might be asking too much, so the Rangers have to hope for a little bit of a buffer when it comes to the playoff bubble.

(You know, unless they end up being far better or far worse than expected.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Rangers put Quinn under pressure to show spending was worth it

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

The Rangers are Broadway’s NHL team, so consider the 2018-19 season a “dress rehearsal” for head coach David Quinn.

Expectations were low for a team that telegraphed a rebuild to the point of sending out a press release, but you can take the training wheels off after the Rangers invested huge money and resources into the likes of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, and Adam Fox.

If this was a video game or fantasy hockey, you’d seamlessly improve with seemingly more skilled players without much fuss. Actually making it all work in reality isn’t always so simple, though, putting Quinn under pressure to make it all come together in 2019-20.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-factor]

Let’s consider some of the challenges ahead.

Manufacturing a Bread Line, and managing young guns

The first question falls under “good problems to have,” as Quinn should ponder how to get the most out of Panarin.

As PHT’s Scott Billeck discussed here, one likely combination would involve Panarin lining up with top center Mika Zibanejad, and rookie Kakko. There are plenty of other ways to experiment with Panarin, though, and a lot of those possibilities hinge on which younger forwards can earn significant reps, or even spots on the roster at all.

One could imagine Panarin setting the table for someone like Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, or Vitali Kravtsov, much like Panarin undoubtedly helped Pierre Luc-Dubois become a quick study in the NHL during Panarin’s days with the Blue Jackets. It could end up working out best if Panarin and Zibanejad power one line apiece, or it may be better to concentrate that high-end, more experienced NHL scoring talent on a first line.

Along with Kravtsov and others fighting for roster spots, there are also players with something to prove, from Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to someone coming off of a rough stretch like Vladislav Namestnikov.

It’s up to Quinn to mold this intriguing, but somewhat unshapen group into something cohesive. Unlike last season, the raw materials are there for something, even if this group isn’t necessarily primed to be explosive out of the gate.

Getting some stops

The good and bad news is that the Rangers’ defense basically had nowhere to go but up. It won’t be easy to generate the sort of gains that can help the Rangers contend, though.

Jacob Trouba’s getting his wish: he’s the man on that New York defense, no question about it; we’ll see if this is a “careful what you wish for” situation, because if this unit’s going to be any good, it will probably come down to Trouba being the minutes-eating top guy.

Adam Fox has been drawing hype for a while, but what can he be right off the bat? Considering the Rangers’ personnel, they might not be able to ease the 21-year-old into the NHL fray as much as would normally be ideal.

Even with considerable gains, the Rangers will probably continue to do what they’ve done for more than a decade: ask a whole lot from Henrik Lundqvist.

The 37-year-old is coming off of the worst year of his NHL career, as he languished with a .907 save percentage behind that lousy defense. Lundqvist can’t be asked to patch up the same mistakes as he did during his prime, but if the Rangers are going to take a big step forward, they need King Henrik to return somewhere close to form.

If not, that presents another hurdle for Quinn. Can he manage Lundqvist’s ego — and placate those around him — while getting results in net, particularly if it becomes clear that Alexandar Georgiev would be the superior option most nights? That’s a potential instance where problems become as much political as tactical, and answers rarely come easily.

***

Change can come quickly in the NHL, yet even by those standards, the Rangers have undergone a dramatic makeover. Quinn is charged with making sure that things don’t end up looking ugly.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Grade the Hurricanes’ new road uniform

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On Tuesday morning Carolina Hurricanes unveiled a new road uniform for the 2019-20 NHL season, ditching their primary storm logo on the front for some diagonal lettering that spells out “Canes.”

It is a rather simplistic design, but it is clean and pretty sharp.

Along with the wording across the front, they also brought back the warning flags along the waistline of the jersey.

Have a look.

Other features as part of the new uniform: The new secondary logo (the hockey stick with the warning flags attached to it) appears on both shoulders, while the helmet will feature a raised 3-D sticker of the primary logo which you can see here.

You can check out all of the features at the Hurricanes’ website.

What do you think, hockey fans?

Is it a good look? Does the diagonal lettering work for a team that is not the New York Rangers? What is your grade for the Hurricanes’ new road uniform?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.