2011-12 NHL preview: Hits to the head and hits from behind are major issues


Boston's Nathan Horton falls to the ice after a hit to the head in Game 3 of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals. (Elsa/GETTY IMAGES)
October 5, 2011

When the puck drops on the 2011-12 NHL season Thursday, no issue will be under more scrutiny than head shots and hits from behind.

New disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has made sure of that, sending a clear message in the preseason that the league is getting serious about punishment in a game that has seen too many players carried off the rink — or sidelined with devastating concussions — as a result of an opponent’s recklessness.

Who can forget that frightening moment in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, when Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome drilled Boston’s Nathan Horton? Horton’s arm was frozen as he lay flat on his back, and he ended up in the hospital that night.

It’s too early in Shanahan’s tenure as the NHL’s vice president of player safety to determine what effect his tough approach will have, but the former all-star is handling his new job with forceful and decisive action.

Since the start of the exhibition season, Shanahan has doled out nine suspensions, eight of which were for head shots and hits from behind. Seven of those suspensions will carry over into the regular season, benching the offending players for a total of 26 games.

The fines, meantime, will cost them a combined $684,115.01 in salary. For some perspective, that’s more than Washington Capitals forwards Mathieu Perreault, Jay Beagle and D.J. King are each scheduled to earn this season.

“That’s a big number,” one Capitals veteran said Wednesday, opening his eyes wide.

In a sport where changes in attitude occur at glacial pace, Shanahan should be commended for taking such a strong stand.

Last year, under former disciplinarian Colin Campbell, there were two suspensions in the preseason, totaling two regular season contests and $34,946.26 in fines.

In the past, some have giggled after being fined a few thousand dollars for their on-ice transgressions. No one is laughing anymore.

Especially not Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski, who was banned the balance of the preseason and eight games in the regular season for throwing an elbow to head of the Minnesota Wild’s Cal Clutterbuck. Wisniewski, a repeat offender, was fined a whopping $536,585 of his $5.5 million salary.

Shanahan has put the players on notice.

“There are guys that are taking advantage and are out there trying to hurt guys and hit them so hard that they are out of action,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said Wednesday. “We can’t have that. So, as a player, you have to put up with how it is now, with a lot of suspensions. That helps weed out the guys who aren’t listening.

“It’s good and it’s bad,” Alzner added. “A hit might look bad, but nobody knows [the intent] except for the guy who is hitting. It’s one more thing you have to think about out on the ice and pay more attention to.”

Added defenseman John Erskine: “You want to be careful, but I’m not going to change my game around. But I guess I have to be more careful.”

But that’s the point, isn’t it? To force players to think of the consequences, even if they must do it at 25 mph.

Sidney Crosby, who has been sidelined since January with a severe concussion and just returned to practices last week, has never called David Steckel’s hit on him during the Winter Classic malicious.

But the Pittsburgh Penguins captain does feel that players must be more aware and held responsible for careless contact to the head. “I don’t think that’s responsible on his part,” Crosby told reporters a week later. “Whether or not he tried to hurt me, only he knows that, but he’s got to be the one to try avoid me in that situation.”

Shanahan doesn’t leave much for the players — or fans, for that matter — to decode after he hands down a suspension. He thoroughly explains his thought process in a video that’s uploaded to NHL.com.

“Clutterbuck never has the puck and time is expired,” Shanahan said into the camera, speaking in a calm and professional tone. “He has no reason to believe he is going to be checked at this moment, and is therefore defenseless.

“Earlier on this shift, Clutterbuck threw a check on Wisniewski’s defensive partner,” he continued. “Wisniewski engaged Clutterbuck in defense of his own teammate by knocking Clutterbuck down to the ice.

“While that may have led Wisniewski to believe that he potentially had to defend himself, this is not a justification for intentionally hitting a player in the head. If Wisniewski feels threatened, he must choose a different way to defend himself.”

Under the previous regime, the league sent out a news release. Sometimes, it included a descriptive quote from Campbell. Other times, it did not.

Capitals defenseman Mike Green said Shanahan’s video explanations have helped clear up the ambiguity players sometimes encounter when lining up an opponent for a hit. Green also said Shanahan, 42, has more than enough credibility because he not only was a hard-hitting player but an eight time all-star who last skated in an NHL game just two seasons ago.

“There’s always been a gray area of what’s legal and what’s not,” Green said. “He’s making it very clear. I think there are gray areas when it comes to whether it’s intentional or not, and he’s going to decipher which is which. And then all the knucklehead, bonehead plays that guys are making that deserve suspensions will be taken care of. If that includes me, then that’s me.”

A skeptic might say Shanahan’s real test will begin when the games actually count and playoff spots are on the line. Others, meantime, might want to wait until a star player is the perpetrator.

But there’s no doubt that he’s off to a promising start.

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