With all the new rule changes that the NHL has made over the last few years, including Rule 48 that prohibits blindside hits to the head, playing the game hard and clean is more difficult in 2013 than it was 10 years ago.
For some players, adjusting to the new rules has been a challenge.
Buffalo Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta, for example, is one player who has not changed his game over the last few years despite the rule changes and the medical knowledge we now have on head injuries and other health problems.
Kaleta was suspended for five games last week for his dirty hit on New York Rangers forward Brad Richards. He pushed Richards from behind, which caused him to fall head-first into the boards. It was the third suspension of Kaleta's career.
In today's NHL, players like Kaleta must change the way they play the game or their careers could be over quickly. Teams aren't likely to sign players who play on the edge too much and risk the health and safety of their opponents on a regular basis.
If Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke did not change his style of play following his 10-game suspension (which also included first round of the 2011 playoffs) at the end of the 2010-11 season, it's hard to imagine that he would earn a contract this summer as a UFA.
Perhaps the best example of a player who walks the line between playing hard and dirty but rarely, if ever goes over it is Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall.
The 32-year-old veteran is one of the hardest hitters in the NHL, but he has the rare ability to deliver bone-crushing hits on opponents (see video below) without breaking any of the rules on headshots, kneeing and charging, among others.
The new rule changes have impacted the enforcers more than any other group of NHL players. The enforcer role is slowly becoming less important in today's game, which is unfortunate. With that said, there are still plenty of ways for these kinds of players to earn contracts on a consistent basis.
Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton is a great example of a player who regularly finishes among the leaders in fights but plays an important role on his team because of his ability to kill penalties, add grit and toughness to the lineup and serve as a veteran leader. Playing him 10-12 minutes per game is not going to hurt the Bruins because he can play physically without going over the line by taking stupid penalties and injuring opponents.
Unless Kaleta becomes more like Thornton by helping his team in multiple areas while playing hard without being dirty, it's hard to imagine his career lasting much longer.
The league can also do a better job in helping the players find the line between playing on the edge and being dirty.
When former NHL star Brendan Shanahan took over the league's Department of Player Safety, he quickly began to suspend players in an attempt to make the game safer. There were 57 suspensions last year, including the preseason, regular season and playoffs.
Unfortunately for the players, his inconsistent suspension decisions that don't follow any sort of pattern or precedent have made it harder to figure the difference between a physical play and a suspension-worthy play.
To the league's credit, it has began releasing a series of videos to help players, coaches and fans learn about safety and the rules. This will help players understand how they can play on the edge without doing something that will result in a phone call from the league office.
No matter what rules the NHL comes up with to make the game safer, there's always going to be injuries due to the nature of the sport and the strength/speed of the players who are on the ice. For players to impact games physically without taking their aggression too far, these three things must happen:
- Players must have a higher level of respect for each other.
- The Department of Player Safety needs to make some sort of chart that describes what hits/actions are suspendable, how many games you will lose depending on which rules were broken and how being a "repeat offender" plays into the decision.
- Player equipment needs to be smaller, specifically shoulder pads. They are bigger and stronger than what they should be.
It is possible to play the game hard without being dirty, but for this to happen, players must respect their opponents and stop putting them in vulnerable situations where serious injury can occur.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.