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NHL's Soft Rulings on Crosby and Stepan Hits Encourage Vigilante Justice

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistNovember 29, 2015

Boston Bruins' Matt Beleskey (39) checks New York Rangers' Derek Stepan (21) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Boston, Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The decline in one-dimensional fighters in the NHL in recent years has been attributed to many different causes. The rise of analytics, mandatory visors for new players and a greater emphasis from coaches on running four lines have all been mentioned as possible causes.

One item that should rank near the top of any list is the newfound credibility of the league’s Department of Player Safety, the agency responsible for handing out suspensions. Tougher punishments have made it more difficult to ice enforcers (who tend to be suspension magnets) while simultaneously reducing how much teams feel they need those players.

It’s a shame then that Player Safety worked against that trend with its approach to a pair of nasty hits this week.

The first worth considering is a one-game ban to Brandon Dubinsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Dubinsky and Crosby have some history, including a fight last season, and were engaged in a running battle when the incident occurred. Here’s how Player Safety saw the hit:

Much of the preamble of the explanatory video is spent talking about mitigating factors in this kind of incident, how a player’s stick can ride up the back of an opponent or an opponent’s sudden move can make an otherwise legal check illegal. All of that explanation is rendered superfluous when the narrator explains that none of those things happened here.

Dubinsky’s cross-check is ruled “an intentional strike to an opponent’s head,” though it’s excused somewhat as “not overly violent or forceful.” His second cross-check to Crosby’s prone body is briefly mentioned, though the fact it was violent and forceful enough to break his stick is ignored entirely. We might also note, though Player Safety does not, that Crosby has famously suffered through serious concussion in the past; there likely isn’t a player in the game who doesn’t know of that history.

Crosby and Dubinsky fighting last February.
Crosby and Dubinsky fighting last February.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Leaving aside whether this ruling is consistent with others in recent history—Dustin Byfuglien, who had never been previously suspended, got four games last April for a cross-check where there was no injury—what does this punishment tell Pittsburgh? Essentially that a division rival can target Sidney Crosby’s head and not worry about getting more than a slap on the wrist.

Given how much Crosby’s health means to the Pens, there’s ample incentive for the team to take whatever other measures it can to protect him, given that the Department of Player Safety seems disinterested in doing so.

The other incident worth looking at is a hit by Matt Beleskey of the Boston Bruins on the New York Rangers’ Derek Stepan on Friday, a hit that resulted in no supplemental discipline:

According to Sportsnet’s Damien Cox, the league didn’t suspend Beleskey because the hit came 0.7 seconds after Stepan had released the puck, and its threshold for a late hit is 0.8 seconds. Cox also noted that Stepan suffered two broken ribs on the play.

The trouble with the NHL’s argument is that in many cases, a late hit is a situation where a player is already targeting an opponent who has the puck, and when the puck carrier moves the puck it’s then too late for the hitter to pull out of his check. That wasn’t the case here. Beleskey wasn’t trapped in a hit he had already started; instead he only initiated the hit after the puck had already left Stepan’s stick. As a result, the Rangers are going to be without a key centre for a long time.

McIlrath and Beleskey fighting
McIlrath and Beleskey fightingMichael Dwyer/Associated Press

New York’s Dylan McIlrath jumped in immediately and pummeled Beleskey. McIlrath had played in just a single game in the previous three weeks, but the Rangers were obviously pleased that he stepped in and fought Beleskey immediately, because they dressed him again in a Saturday night contest against the Flyers.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety clearly felt that these weren’t egregious hits, and it’s possible to make that case. One might argue, as DoPS did, that Dubinsky’s cross-check to Crosby’s neck was a mild shot and not worth a long suspension, or that Beleskey’s hit, which didn’t start until the puck was gone, was nevertheless not especially late. Reasonable people can disagree on the extent to which these were dirty hits.

However, it’s impossible to argue that these weren’t dangerous hits on players who are of great importance to their teams. The loss of Stepan with broken ribs is a massive blow for the Rangers. A concussion to Crosby would be an even more staggering blow to the Penguins. With a slap on the wrist for Dubinsky and no punishment at all for Beleskey, the NHL is telling teams that it will not protect their star players from these kinds of hits.

That’s precisely the kind of message that is going to encourage teams to take the job of protecting into their own hands. That’s dangerous to a league being sued over concussions, a league that wants to put retaliatory violence like the infamous Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore incident in its past.

The NHL has made strides in recent years in protecting its stars. It can’t afford to stop doing so now.

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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