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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.