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On Tom Wilson, Player Safety and avoiding suspension

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For the second time this postseason Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson has been fortunate enough to avoid discipline from the NHL Department of Player Safety for a hit to the head that injured an opponent.

In the first-round it was Columbus Blue Jackets forward Alexander Wennberg, who went on to miss three games after he was hit in the head early in their series. Wilson was given a two-minute penalty for charging on the play, but the hit did not warrant a disciplinary hearing, let alone a fine from the DoPS.

On Sunday, it was Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin who was knocked out of the Capitals’ 4-1 Game 2 win. Dumoulin was back on the ice at practice for the Penguins on Monday and seems like he will be available for Game 3 of the series on Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Wilson once again avoided a disciplinary hearing and a suspension for what could probably be best described as a borderline and controversial hit.

He avoided a suspension on this one because, in the NHL’s view (via ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski), head contact was unavoidable because Dumoulin, in bracing for contact from an oncoming Alex Ovechkin, changed the position of his head just prior to contact. There did not seem to be any word on the changing position of Wilson’s shoulder, which seemed to play just as big of a role in the contact as Dumoulin changing the position of his head.

He avoided a suspension in the first-round on the Wennberg hit because the DoPS could not determine if the head was the main point of contact given the available camera angles.

[Related: Tom Wilson avoids suspension for hit on Brian Dumoulin]

Viewed in a vacuum and as isolated incidents those explanations might hold up. They might make sense. They might even be justified.

Here is the problem with that: This same thing keeps happening with Tom Wilson.

He always seems to find himself in these positions. He always seems to find himself at the center of the controversial play where “there is nothing else he could have done,” or “the contact could not be avoided,” or “there was not a clear view of what happened.” No matter the situation, no matter the hit, no matter the result, there is an always an excuse for why it was okay or why it shouldn’t have been elevated to the level of supplemental discipline. The story of his career to this point can probably be summed up as: Hey, that was probably a bad hit with an unfortunate result for the guy on the receiving end of it but there just wasn’t enough evidence to suspend him … this time.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Since entering the NHL at the start of the 2013-14 season no player in the NHL has been penalized more than Wilson. His 806 penalty minutes in the regular season are 85 more than the next closest player, and he is one of just three players in the league to be assessed more than even 600 penalty minutes during that stretch (Antoine Roussel at 721 and Cody McLeod at 707) are the only others.

He is third when it comes to penalty minutes in the playoffs (only seven behind the leader, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin) even though he has only played in 46 playoff games during that stretch. The two players ahead of him — Malkin and P.K. Subban — have played in 71 and 59, respectively, during that same stretch.

His career to this point is littered with borderline plays that leave plenty of room for debate as to whether or not they are clean, dirty, or something in between.

A brief sampling:

  • In 2015, he was given a match penalty for a hit on Ottawa Senators forward Curtis Lazar (play here) that was later rescinded, allowing him to avoid the mandatory suspension that comes with a match penalty.
  • During the 2015-16 he was ejected for boarding Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell (play here), a play that he was not suspended for.
  • Later that season he obliterated Colorado Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov on a hit that left Zadorov concussed (play here). There was no suspension.
  • During the 2013-14 season Wilson had a phone hearing for a violent hit on Philadelphia Flyers Brayden Schenn. He was not only not suspended — something that is extremely rare when a player has a hearing with the DoPS — the DoPS released a nearly four-minute video (seen here) explaining why he was not suspended (the DoPS rarely goes on the record for why a player was not suspended, let alone singling out a specific play for this sort of in-depth description).

Those are just some of the borderline plays that didn’t result in punishment. Amazingly, for all of the penalty minutes he has received, the times he has been ejected, and all of the plays that create arguments he has only been fined or suspended three times in his career.

During the 2015-16 playoffs (also against the Penguins) he was given a $2,900 fine for kneeing Conor Sheary on a play where he deliberately went out of his way en route to the bench during a line change to deliver a hit away from the play.

He was suspended twice for incidents this preseason. The first was a slap on the wrist that kept him out of two preseason games for this hit on St. Louis Blues forward Robert Thomas.

Then, just one week later in another preseason game against the very same Blues team, he was given a four-game suspension for boarding Samuel Blais.

When the NHL DoPS reviews a play for suspension the first thing they do is eliminate the players involved and simply look at the hit itself as an isolated incident. Past transgressions do not matter. Reputations do not matter. Repeat offender status does not matter. It is simply the play itself they are looking at. The discussion at that point is centered entirely around “does this play warrant discipline on our part?”

If the answer to that question is yes, then — and only then — does a player’s past come into play when determining the length and severity of the punishment.

This, of course, is done in an effort to be fair and to not let any bias play into the ruling. That is entirely understandable. In most cases it probably works in handing out punishments.

It can lead to some issues.

When it comes to Wilson and the plays he has been involved in throughout his career there is always some amount of gray area in them. The Lazar play could be written off as accidental. Same as the Dumoulin play. Maybe the head wasn’t the main point of contact or targeted on Wennberg or Zadorov. On any one of them you can look at them and come to the conclusion that it wasn’t the intended result, or that isn’t what he was going for, or that there was some other extenuating circumstance that made the play what it was.

At what point, though, does this no longer become an accident?

If a player — in this case, Wilson — keeps finding himself in these situations when does it stop becoming an unfortunate series of events and start becoming a trend? At what point does it simply become about the player that is the common denominator in all of these situations?

At any given time there are more than 700 players on NHL rosters and there are only a small handful of them that we keep having these discussions about when it comes to their style of play and the incidents they are involved in. Matt Cooke used to be one of those players. Raffi Torres used to be one of those players. Brad Marchand, quite famously, is still one of them. And like Wilson, Marchand always seems to leave enough gray area for debate on a lot of his incidents (the old, accidentally on purpose type of play). Even though he has been suspended and fined more than any other player in the league during the DoPS era, there are countless other plays that seem to toe that line.

Even though the NHL’s DoPS won’t handle it this way, all of those players should lost the benefit of the doubt when it comes to this stuff. Wilson should be right there with them.

Wilson and the Capitals will argue that all of this is because of his reputation and the fact he has a target on his back.

“Yes, a little bit, yeah,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz on Monday, via the Washington Post, when asked if Wilson has a reputation to overcome.

“It’s something that you try to grow out of. He’s grown as a player. He’s gone from being a fourth-line energy guy to first-line power forward, and sometimes those reputations stay with you a little bit and you have to outgrow that, if you will, or it takes a little time. I think he’s doing a really good job. He studies it, he looks at it, he’s trying to get better all the time. It’s something he has to battle a little bit.”

Maybe he does have a reputation to overcome. Maybe he does have a target. But it is a target he has more than earned given his chosen style of play throughout his career. A style of play that carefully toes the line, always leaving just enough room for debate as to whether or not he intended to do the thing that he did that resulted in the unfortunate result for the opponent to avoid a suspension. After all, there was probably just nothing else he can do that situation.

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.

The Buzzer: Tarasenko’s three-point night; Nyquist nets OT penalty shot

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Three Stars

1. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues: The Blues forward had a hand in all three of their goals during a 3-1 defeat of the Avalanche. The loss was Colorado’s first regulation defeat of the season, while St. Louis snapped a four-game losing streak. Tarasenko assisted on goals by Brayden Schenn and David Perron before being on the receiving end of this nice bank pass by Jaden Schwartz:

2. Michael Raffl, Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers built up a 5-0 lead by the end of the second period en route to a 6-2 win over the Golden Knights, snapping a four-game losing streak in the process. Raffl chipped in a pair of goals and added an assist for his first multi-goal game since March 15, 2016. Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny each recorded a goal and an assist, while Brian Elliott turned away 33 shots.

3. Anders Nilsson, Ottawa Senators: The Senators netminder put forth a strong effort during a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars. Nilsson stopped 41 shots as the Stars won consecutive games for the first time this season. This was the second straight start for the Swedish netminder where he faced at least 43-plus shots.

Highlights of the Night

• Raffl showed off his moves on this one:

Gustav Nyquist‘s penalty shot goal in overtime put the Blue Jackets over the Maple Leafs 4-3:

Factoids

Scores
Flyers 6, Golden Knights 2
Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT)
Blues 3, Avalanche  1
Stars 2, Senators 1

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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.

Avs’ Rantanen leaves game with ugly-looking foot injury

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The last thing the red-hot Colorado Avalanche wanted to see was an injury to one of their star players. Off to a 7-0-1 start and atop the Central Division, things have been going well for a team many expect to take a large leap forward this season.

But now they might have to deal with a blow to their lineup after Mikko Rantanen suffered a lower-body injury during Monday’s 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.

The Avalanche forward was skating alongside the wall when his skate got caught in the ice and turned his foot in a very wrong direction. Rantanen, who did not make contact with any Blues player during the play, limped to the dressing room and was later ruled out for the remainder of the game.

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Your foot should not be looking that way…

Rantanen has five goals and 12 points through eight games this season. He’s been relatively healthy in his three full NHL seasons, missing only 16 games since 2016-17.

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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.

Heavy Lifting: Five NHL lines that are carrying their teams

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Let’s take a quick look around the NHL at five lines that are doing the most to carry their teams (or at least their offense) through the first month of the season.

This is always kind of a good news/bad news situation because the good news is your team has a dominant top line that can change a game every night. The bad news is that one line teams do not tend to do very well in the long run. Balance is important!

We are focussing on 5-on-5 production with this look and right now these five teams are fairly dependent on these lines to carry the play.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Edmonton Oilers
The Line: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian

This line might be the definition of “heavy lifting.”

This trio has been on the ice for nearly 30 percent of the Oilers’ total 5-on-5 minutes, a substantial workload even by top line standards. Individually, McDavid and Draisaitl are the top-two forwards in the league in even-strength ice-time per game (Kassian is 22nd), both averaging more than 18:30 per game (Mathew Barzal is the only other forward that plays more than 18 minutes of even-strength ice-time per game).

Then we get to the production.

In 124 minutes this trio has outscored teams by an 11-3 margin and been completely dominant. That is 60 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 goals, while the team has been outscored by a 6-8 margin at 5-on-5 when this trio is not on the ice.

It is the same story as it has always been for the Oilers where they need to skate McDavid and Draisaitl into the ground to compete. So far this season it has worked. But we have seen over the past four years that it is not really the best long-term recipe for sustained success.

Boston Bruins
The Line: Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand

When these three are together they are as good as it gets in the NHL.

Bergeron and Marchand are two of the best all-around players in the league, while Pastrnak is quickly turning into one of the most dangerous goal-scorers around. The big question for the Bruins has always been their depth around this line and if they can get enough offense from lines two through four to complement them. Through the first month of the 2019-20 season that concern is still very much the same.

This line has only played 86 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together (about 22 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 total) and has already scored seven goals in those minutes. The Bruins have just six 5-on-5 goals in the remaining 306 minutes of 5-on-5 time that they have played this season, and two of those goals came when Marchand and Pastrnak were together without Bergeron.

As this line goes, so go the Bruins.

Winnipeg Jets
The Line: Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler

With the Jets’ defense in shambles following the offseason, the team has had to rely on the strength of its forwards to remain competitive.

The big line of Scheifele, Laine, and Wheeler has certainly done its part to make sure that happens. Not only in terms of their own production, but also in how much the rest of the team has struggled when they are not on the ice. In nearly 300 minutes of 5-on-5 play without any of these three on the ice, the Jets have managed a grand total of four goals.

Pittsburgh Penguins
The Line: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon

You could put together a pretty good forward lineup with the players the Penguins have out of the lineup right now. One of the biggest reasons they have kept winning through all of the injuries has been the play of their top line of Crosby, Guentzel, and Simon.

The latter member of this line is a point of much contention in Pittsburgh because he never scores goals himself, but the team loves him on the top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel and the overall numbers justify his existence on that line (it scores more goals with him than it does without him). So far this season Crosby is playing at an MVP level, Guentzel is doing his best to show his 40-goal season a year ago was no fluke, and Simon keeps making plays that keeps the play alive in the offensive zone and leads to offense. In 111 minutes together this trio has already combined to score eight of the the team’s 20 five-on-five goals this season.

New York Rangers
The line: Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad

The third member of this line has mostly been Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich at different times, but the main drivers here are Panarin and Zibanejad.

Panarin has already scored four goals in the team’s first six games and has been everything the Rangers could have expected and hoped when they signed him in free agency. Zibanejad, meanwhile, is off to one of the best offensive starts in franchise history with 11 points in six games. When that duo is together the Rangers have doubled up their opponents on the scoreboard and scored like one of the league’s elite lines.

The problem with this Rangers team in the short-term was always going to be the lack of depth around them, and so far the Rangers have looked rather punchless at even-strength when their top duo is off the ice.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Fast starts most likely to continue

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we are taking a look at 10 fast starts around the league and which ones are most likely to continue, and which ones are most likely not to continue.

How are we defining a fast start? It’s pretty simple, actually — teams that as of Monday have a .640 points percentage or better so far this season. A .640 points percentage over an 82-game season would be a 105-point pace, so it is obviously pretty high level of play.

There are 10 teams that qualify, and not all of them will continue that level of play throughout the season. Just for comparisons sake, there were nine teams off to the same start through same date a year ago and three of them ended up missing the playoffs. In 2017-18, four of the nine teams off to a similar start also ended up missing. So it stands to reason that a handful of these teams are going to significantly cool off.

This isn’t necessarily a ranking of which of these teams has played the best so far, but a ranking of which ones are most likely to continue playing well.

Who is for real and who is not? To the rankings!

Fast starts that will continue

1. Colorado Avalanche. Entering play on Monday they are 7-0-1 on the season and have the best record in the league, earning 15 out of a possible 16 points in the standings. The scary thing about them? They may not be playing their best hockey just yet. 

2. Carolina Hurricanes. Speaking of not playing their best hockey yet, the Hurricanes have won six out of their first nine games and have just three goals from the trio of Sebastian Aho, Nino Niederreiter, and Andrei Svechnikov. It is a testament to the depth they have assembled that three of their top players can be off to such a slow start and the team can still win the way it has.

3. Washington Capitals. They are the highest scoring team in the league, have been one of the top possession teams, and still haven’t received great goaltending from Braden Holtby. The latter part should scare the rest of the Metropolitan Division because even if Holtby doesn’t return to his former Vezina Trophy form he can still be better than he has been.

4. Vegas Golden Knights. The top of their lineup is full of impact players (especially Mark Stone, who has been incredible to start the year) but one of the big wild cards on this team is the emergence of rookie Cody Glass. He already has six points in his first nine games.

Fast starts, but with some questions

5. Boston Bruins. The biggest question here is the same one they have had for the past two years — will they get enough secondary scoring after their top line? Right now if one of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, or Patrice Bergeron does not score a goal, no one is scoring. They managed to find enough secondary scoring to reach Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, so it may not be a huge concern in the long-run, but this is still a very top-heavy team so far this season.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins. Interesting team so far in the sense they have probably overachieved given the injury situation that has taken half of their forward lineup away. They are playing the way coach Mike Sullivan wants them to play, and they have played extremely well, but we still haven’t seen the Penguins as they were meant to look this season. Still not entirely sold on the defense, and I question how much of this early success is entirely sustainable.

Fast starts, but with some real concerns 

7. Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks won five of their first seven games last year — thanks mostly to John Gibson — before completely falling apart. The one thing that should give a little more optimism this time around is Dallas Eakins seems to have them playing a more sustainable style of hockey — one that does not rely entirely on goaltending — and they have actually carried the play in some of their wins. The concern is I am just not sure there is enough offense here and their two goalies have a combined save percentage of .940. What happens when that drops a bit?

8. Arizona Coyotes. They barely missed the playoffs a year ago and have probably been better than you realize at the start of the season. The concerns here are the same as in Anaheim, where they are still very dependent on incredible goaltending and there is not a ton of offense to work with.

9. Buffalo Sabres. For the second year in a row the Sabres are one of the big stories in the NHL with a fast start, entering play on Monday with a 7-1-1 record. There is reason to believe they can avoid the total meltdown they experienced a year ago thanks to an improved roster (offseason additions of Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju, Marcus Johansson, while Rasmus Dahlin has a full season in the NHL under his belt) and what seems to be a better coach. But there are also still some real concerns. Carter Hutton won’t keep stopping 95 percent of the shots he faces. Victor Olofsson won’t keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots. They still play in an extremely tough division. There is reason to expect some regression here as the season goes on.

10. Edmonton Oilers. It’s been amazing start, but James Neal is not going to keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots and once that stops this team has the same problem it has had for years in that there is not enough depth after Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They have feasted on a light schedule so far (and those points still count) but this is a team that needs to prove it over a full season before anyone fully buys into it.

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.