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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.

Robin Lehner to make Golden Knights debut; Mark Stone injured

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The Vegas Golden Knights have been one of the league’s hottest teams over the past month and will be looking to extend their current winning streak to eight games on Friday night when they host the Buffalo Sabres.

Coach Pete DeBoer had some significant lineup news ahead of the game on Friday afternoon, including a potentially significant injury.

First, is the news that big trade deadline acquisition Robin Lehner will be making his first start in goal for the team. The Golden Knights acquired Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks just ahead of the NHL trade deadline on Monday for a draft pick and a prospect. Lehner has been one of the league’s best goalies for the past two years and alongside Marc-Andre Fleury should give them one of the league’s best goaltending duos.

The far more serious news, though, was the announcement that forward Mark Stone will not play on Friday due to a lower-body injury.

DeBoer had no immediate information on how long Stone could be out, only to say that he is still being evaluated.

When asked if it could potentially be a long-term injury DeBoer said “There’s always fear. We don’t know, but we’ll see,” via NHL.com.

Stone is one of the league’s best all-around forwards and has not only been a point-per-game player for the past three seasons, he is also one of the best defensive forwards in the league. He finished the 2018-19 season as the top runner-up for the Selke Trophy, something that has become almost unheard of for a winger.

The Golden Knights enter Friday’s game in first place in the Pacific Division, four points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks.

Related: Blackhawks trade Robin Lehner to Golden Knights

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.

 

Oilers’ Mike Green to miss 3-4 weeks with sprained MCL

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Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland was busy at the NHL trade deadline adding Mike Green, Andreas Athanasiou, and Tyler Ennis to his roster in an effort to improve its depth. But just two games later his team has already lost one of those new players to injury.

The Oilers announced on Friday that Green, acquired from the Detroit Red Wings for Kyle Brodziak and a draft pick, will be sidelined for the next 3-4 weeks due to an MCL sprain.

That is the way things seem to be going for the Oilers right now as injuries keep adding up throughout their roster.

Green joins an injury list that already includes the team’s top defenseman (Oscar Klefbom), as well as James Neal, Kailer Yamamoto, and Kris Russell.

Green played 19 minutes in the Oilers’ 3-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday.

Athanasiou was also injured in that game, but is expected to play on Saturday when the Oilers host the Winnipeg Jets.

The Oilers enter the weekend in third place in the Pacific Division with 74 points, four points back of Vegas and only two points ahead of the non-playoff teams in the Western Conference.

Related: Red Wings send Mike Green to Oilers

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.

Report: Islanders will play all home games at Nassau Coliseum in 2020-21

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March 22 will be the final Islanders’ game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, according to Newsday.

Randi Marshall reports that New York governor Andrew Cuomo will announce on Saturday that the Islanders will play any home playoff games this season and all of their 2020-21 home schedule at Nassau Coliseum.

The Islanders are currently building a new arena by Belmont Park race track which is expected to be ready in time for the 2021-22 NHL season. The franchise played all of its home games at the Coliseum from 1972-2015 before moving to Brooklyn full-time in 2015. That lasted until 2018 when they split home games at both arenas, with Nassau Coliseum playing host to their Round 1 matchup against the Penguins and Barclays for their second round series against the Hurricanes.

While Barclays Center helped keep the Islanders in New York, it has not been the easiest arena to travel to for fans. The ability to get there via mass transit was a positive that the Coliseum doesn’t have. Yet when the Islanders returned back to Long Island last season, there was plenty nostalgia over the building that was home for the franchise’s glory days.

In September the Islanders broke ground on the new 19,000-seat arena by Belmont Park which is less than 10 miles from Nassau Coliseum.

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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.

David Ayres gets own hockey card, stick on display at Hall of Fame

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It has been quite a week for David Ayres.

At this time seven days almost no one in the hockey world knew who he was. But after being forced into action as an emergency backup goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes, and then getting the win in the game over the Toronto Maple Leafs, he is still getting some pretty big honors.

First, there was the shirt that the Hurricanes started to produce with his name and number on the back (with Ayres getting royalties, and other proceeds going to a kidney foundation). He was also invited to the Hurricanes’ home game on Tuesday night to sound the siren before their game against the Dallas Stars.

Now he is getting his own hockey card from Upper Deck, while the stick he used in Saturday’s game is on display at the Metropolitan Division exhibit at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The card is part of Upper Deck’s Dated Moments e-packs.

From Upper Deck:

David Ayres, a 42-year-old maintenance operations manager and part-time Zamboni driver, was called into action as the emergency goaltender about halfway through the Carolina Hurricanes’ game against Toronto after both Carolina goaltenders were injured. In his surprise NHL debut, he helped Carolina to a 6-3 win over the Maple Leafs.

Meanwhile, the stick he used in Saturday’s game to stop eight out of 10 shots, is now on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

The 42-year-old Ayres had previously served as an emergency backup goalie for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies but never entered the game. He was forced to play on Saturday after Hurricanes goalies James Reimer and Petr Mrazek were both injured.

MORE: Hurricanes emergency goalie David Ayres beats Maple Leafs

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.