The NHL's Department of Player Safety has suspended Ottawa Senators defenseman Eric Gryba for two games as a result of his hit on Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller from Thursday night's game at the Bell Centre.
Eller had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher and was sent to a local hospital, but according to Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette, his condition has improved.
Excellent news: #Habs terrific athletic therapy crew tell me Lars Eller is feeling very good, resting at home— Dave Stubbs (@Dave_Stubbs) May 3, 2013
Here is the suspension video provided by league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan.
Shanahan has one of the toughest jobs in sports, and while it's difficult to get every one of these decisions correct, but he got this one wrong.
No one wants to see a player bleeding on the ice or suffer any sort of injuries, but this was a clean hit that had a terrible result.
Gryba did not leave his feet, it wasn't charging, his elbow stayed down, there's no case of interference (even though that's the penalty he received) and he traveled in a north/south direction (not a blindside hit), so the only issue here is a possible violation of Rule 48, which states (per NHL.com):
48.1 Illegal Check to the Head – A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.
In my opinion, and I've looked at this play many times from a number of angles, it appears that Gryba made body contact with Eller at waist level before the Canadiens forward's head was hit.
Should Gryba have been suspended for this hit on Eller?
Gryba is not a dirty player, and there's nothing in this play that suggests he was targeting the head. He makes substantial body-to-body contact with Eller's hips, and then incidental contact with his head is made.
In that case, the Ottawa defenseman would not be violating Rule 48. To violate Rule 48, as explained above, the head has to be targeted or the principle point of contact. I don't see a case of that on this play. Players can make contact with an opponent's head if there is body-on-body contact.
We saw a good example of this type of situation earlier in the regular season when San Jose Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart hit Colorado Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog in an enormous body collision while also creating incidental contact with Landeskog's head (video below). These plays are different, but they both show a player making significant body contact before a collision with the opponent's head occurs.
The NHL did not suspend Stuart, which is what should have happened with Gryba.
Shanahan disagreed with the notion that there was substantial body contact, saying in his video that "we do not feel that he makes enough of a full body check for this hit not to qualify as a an illegal check to the head."
He also says that "Gryba's route is not correct." It's not easy to agree with this because Gryba travels toward Eller in a north/south direction and does not catch the Canadiens forward from a lateral position or the blindside.
Shanahan also explains in his video that he saw "no malicious intent" on the part of Gryba, which is apparent in the video. If Gryba had raised his elbow or left his feet, then you could say that there was some intent, but none of that was present in this play. The only intent I see on this hit is Gryba thinking that he could change the momentum of the game with a hard but clean hit.
Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun shared his opinion on this via Twitter:
Let's see @nhlshanahanShanahan saw NO "malicious intent" but suspended Eric Gryba anyway. Called it "reckless". This one is odd "Shanny".— Bruce Garrioch (@SunGarrioch) May 3, 2013
The NHL has put a major emphasis on player safety over the last few years, especially in regard to hits to the head. After Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke ended Boston Bruins star Marc Savard's career with a blindside hit to the head during the 2009-10 season, the league created Rule 48.
Since that time, the NHL has a done a decent job protecting its players by suspending guys who violate the these rules.
But at the same time, as long as there is hitting in hockey, there will be huge collisions where players suffer injuries. This is a violent sport and there will be massive collisions. Nobody likes injuries, but unfortunately, they are part of the game.
Should the NHL take Gryba's hit out of the game?
The bottom line is that this hit from Gryba was clean and there was no clear indication that the head was targeted. It's also difficult to pinpoint what the principle point of contact was, and since you could easily argue that it was at the waist and not Eller's head, giving Gryba a two-game suspension is unfair.
In fact, there shouldn't have even been a penalty of any kind for this check, but to be fair to the referees, they did not have the benefit of replay and needed to make a call after seeing the collision develop at full speed.
The NHL let the physical play get out of hand in the first round of last year's playoffs, and they may be trying to prevent that from happening this year with two suspensions in the first three days of the postseason.
But the league got this decision wrong, and now Gryba will have to sit for two games despite the fact he made a clean hit.