On Tuesday night Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand made some headlines again when he tripped Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman in the neutral zone with his skate. He did not receive any additional punishment from the league for the play.
As an isolated incident involving two nameless, faceless players it probably wouldn’t have been a play that received anywhere near as much attention as it did. It would be easy, and perhaps somewhat reasonable, to conclude that it was simply a hockey play that involved a player turning to move in the direction of the puck, and at the very least, being guilty of a tripping penalty.
But the play did not involve nameless, faceless players.
It involved Brad Marchand.
On one hand, he is a tremendous player that over the past two years has blossomed into one of the game’s best forwards after getting an increased role in the team’s offense. He is a player that the 29 other general managers outside of Boston would absolutely love to have on their team.
If one of them said they would not want him on their team, you can just assume they are lying. Or are really, really bad at their job.
But he is also player that skates a very dangerous line with the league.
He is a player that had just been fined $10,000 in his previous game before the Stralman incident for a dangerous trip on Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Kronwall. He is a player that has an extensive history of plays in his career that involve him taking out his opponent’s legs.
He was already warned once this season for slew-footing (a play that is very different than a trip), an act that has earned him a suspension (two games in 2014-15) and a fine ($2,500 in 2011-12) previously in his career.
He has been suspended twice for clipping (three games in 2015-16 and five games in 2011-12).
In total, those five incidents, all plays that targeted the legs of an opponent, have cost him 10 games and more than $377,000 in lost salary (between fines and forfeited salary during suspensions) since the start of the 2011-12 season.
That is a lot, and still, the message does not seem to be getting through.
If the NHL’s department of player safety has shown us anything in its existence, it is that players with a history tend to get hammered when the message does not get through. When Matt Cooke kept getting called in for hearings and getting suspended for hits to the head, he eventually ended up crossing the line so many times that he finally got hit with a 17-game ban during the 2010-11 season (10 regular season games and the entire first round of the playoffs, which turned out to be a seven-game series).
When Raffi Torres couldn’t control himself from hitting his opponents in the head, he ended up losing half of a season.
Now, Marchand’s history of incidents aren’t quite on the same scale as those two, but the point remains: He has an extensive track record of a certain type of play, and it would seem reasonable to assume that at least one of these latest incidents would have warranted more than just a fine.
But this is where the NHL is in a tough spot with Marchand.
A player’s history does not become a factor until it is determined that a particular play is worthy of a suspension, and if there is another thing we have learned about the DoPS at this point it is that there are certain plays they do not tend to suspend for. Those are typically the plays that Marchand is involved in.
During the playoffs last year I went back through every suspension and fine the DoPS has issued since the department was formed at the start of the 2011-12 season and compiled a list of what does — and does not — tend to result in a suspension. I updated it to include this season’s 10 suspensions and five fines.
This does not include fines for embellishment or incidents not handled by the DoPS.
Notice where slew-footing and tripping, highlighted in yellow, sit.
Marchand’s borderline acts tend to be those that do not typically result in suspensions, mainly because one of the biggest goals of the DoPS in its development was to focus on direct hits to the head, or plays that could involve the head (boarding, elbowing, etc.).
Of the eight slew-footing incidents that have risen to the level of player safety, only two, including one for Marchand, warranted a suspension (and they were just a few weeks apart during the 2013-14 season). Six resulted in fines.
Astonishingly, two of the three clipping suspensions the league has handed out belong to Marchand.
The NHL, under the DoPS, has never suspended a player for tripping, and that is a precedent they are probably not going to break in the middle of a season unless it is an extremely egregious incident. Had the NHL suspended him for one of these past two plays (specifically the Kronwall one) he probably would have had a reason to appeal based on that, and would have stood a good chance of winning it.
There are two things that maybe the NHL as a league needs to consider here during the offseason.
The first is that maybe it should take into account a player’s history as soon as it looks at an incident. It might not be entirely fair, it might create the mindset that a particular player is getting picked on or targeted, but if it’s a player that has an extensive track record of similar plays it is probably a player that needs to be targeted.
The other is that the league — including the 30 general managers — need to set a new standard for what should happen on plays that target player’s legs like the ones we’ve talked about here. At this point it doesn’t seem to be a primary concern, perhaps because a slew foot or a trip (like the one involving Marchand and Kronwall) has not really resulted in a serious injury, whether it be to their leg or something worse after falling to the ice.
If it eventually did, you could bet that it would start to get more attention. Take, for example, the aforementioned Matt Cooke. When he wrecked Marc Savard‘s career with that horrendous hit a few years ago he did not receive a suspension for a play that everybody in the league — including his own team — wanted to see him suspended for because the league had a long-standing precedent that it was a legal play. Dirty. But legal.
When there was enough of an uproar, specifically because of that hit by Cooke a couple of other similar hits that season, it finally led to the creation of rule 48 and the development of the DoPS.
In the end, this is the fine line that you get with Marchand.
He is a great player. A top-line, possession driving scorer whose on-ice performance appeals to be the analytical and eye-test senses.
But he also skates a fine — and in certain areas reckless — line that makes him a thorn in the side of the NHL as much as it does his opponents.