The Capitals don’t want to play without Johansson, of course, and he helped them mount their furious push at the end of Monday’s loss. But one player is a forward who has toggled between the second and third lines this year. The other was a fringe Norris Trophy candidate who is on the ice half the game. Taking them both out would benefit Washington.
This wouldn’t be a concern — even a hypothetical one — if the league did not explicitly include injury among the factors it considers when levying suspensions. But the CBA between the NHL and its players union specifies that injury to the opposing player is a factor in supplemental discipline, as the Caps were reminded Sunday night. That’s when Brooks Orpik was suspended three games for a high, hard and bad hit that sidelined Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta indefinitely.
Orpik was shown “making significant head contact and causing an injury” in the Department of Player Safety’s explanation video. The key strikes against Orpik: “interference, injury and history.”
Letang’s punishment video, on the other hand, noted that “Johansson went to the dressing room for treatment, but returned to the game and completed it.” Exactly which team should be happiest about that development?
And so Tuesday morning brought immediate quips that the Caps were engaging in postseason gamesmanship by keeping Johansson off the ice at their off-day workout. The team chalked his absence up to “an upper-body injury,” which highlighted another absurd twist to this process. NHL teams are as stingy releasing accurate injury information as any pro sports league; an NHL coach would refer to post-guillotine Marie Antoinette as day-to-day because of an upper-body injury.
The league receives official medical reports about injured players before passing down judgment. Still, if a fourth-liner is ever on the receiving end of a superstar’s shoulder, could there be a temptation to hold out that lesser player, putting more pressure on the league to penalize the star? And what of an initial misdiagnosis, or an injury that turns out to be worse than it initially appears?
“We’ve seen players shake it off: They come back and they play, and maybe two or three days later they’re messed up,” former Capital Alan May said. “It’s no different from someone getting in a car accident: They feel fine, and a couple days later, they can’t walk.”
This isn’t a new issue, and as several Capitals said Tuesday, there might not be a perfect solution. Suffering a concussion after a high hit is almost prima facie evidence that something went wrong in the hit, and any debilitating injury — especially in the postseason — will lead to calls for justice. “Our player isn’t well enough to play,” goes the theory, “so yours shouldn’t be allowed to.”
But that’s retribution, a less noble goal than deterrence. This marquee series already has been marred by multiple hits that players on both teams have said should be removed from the game. The way you remove them is by penalizing the action, not the consequence.
“It’s got to be judged primarily based off of the hit, not the result,” said Caps winger Tom Wilson, who has himself delivered several hits this postseason that had opposing fans calling for punishment. “A lot of the time you see intent, and it’s too bad that it has to be a guy that’s hurt in order to have repercussion.”
Professional hockey is impossibly fast, and head injuries will never disappear. The crucial moment, though, should be before contact, when a player consciously avoids delivering a head shot, rather than after contact, when a player hopes his head shot didn’t happen to cause a brain injury.
“I think that some guys just get hurt easier than other guys or some guys will battle through things that other guys won’t,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Every play is different, and it’s hard to say, but I don’t think injuries should factor in.”
So then consider Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s hit from behind on Dmitry Orlov during Washington’s bruising first-round series against the Flyers. As Orlov careened head-first into the boards and was slow to get up, many observers assumed he was seriously damaged.
“This was as close as I have seen to somebody possibly breaking his neck,” NBC’s Jeremy Roenick said, while calling for Bellemare to be suspended for the rest of the postseason.
Orlov, remarkably, didn’t miss a game. And Bellemare, a player without a checkered history, received just a one-game suspension.
“I cringe every time I see that hit,” May said. “I felt it was unintentional, but I still felt it was suspendable. A quarter of an inch [in a different direction], he never plays hockey again; he’s a quadriplegic, a paraplegic or worse. Does that make it any less worse of an incident? I don’t think so.”
A league and union serious about reducing head shots would adopt the NCAA policy: Any direct contact to the head or neck of an opponent is a major penalty and a game misconduct. Barring that, they’d agree to punish hits to the degree to which they violate rules, not the degree to which they cause harm.
“It shouldn’t be based on injury,” Washington Coach Barry Trotz said Monday morning, before Letang’s hit. “It should be based on situation.”
The most important outcome of the Letang hit is that Johansson was apparently unharmed. Indeed, everyone was glad to see him complete Monday’s game. Because of this peculiar suspension policy, it’s possible no one was gladder than Kris Letang.