I want to preface this article with the following: I understand it is difficult to be an NHL official, and even harder to dole out punishments while working in the Department of Player Safety. It’s a thankless job. No matter what you do, or don’t do, it is or isn’t enough for one party or another. At the same time, the NHL has always struggled to nail down consistent punishments and this year it’s found a new level of ineptitude.
In the past month or so the NHL has lost any semblance of consistency, or actual punishment for that matter, as they levied bizarre punishments and fines for incidents that should have been handled far differently. I don’t expect them to get 100% of the calls correct, that would be lunacy asking for perfection, but currently it seems like they’re doing a really good job of missing a lot of things. The Department of Player Safety is supposed to be there to protect the players in the NHL, and based on their recent actions, they no longer seem capable of doing that.
It was always a question lingering over the league when former enforcer George Parros was named to the head spot in the Department. To Parros’ credit, he’s a very smart man with an Ivy League degree and highly successful hockey brand off the ice, but therein lies an issue. The NHL thought it wise to appoint a man who sells clothing with “Make Hockey Violent Again” printed on it, as the head of their player safety branch. He was also one of the last of the old school enforcers, the guy who was out on the next shift after a questionable hit on a teammate to settle the issue with fists. That isn’t the modern game, and it begs the question of whether his on-ice experiences cloud his judgement on some of these punishments.
This year, Joel Farabee was assessed three games for an interference penalty on Mathieu Perreault, a hefty punishment for a first-time offender. It’s similar to the situation involving Paul Byron last year when Byron was assessed a charging penalty against Mackenzie Weegar and was suspended three games as a first-time offender. These suspensions would be fine, if they set a practical standard that the DOPS followed. However, they have done almost the opposite.
About ten days before the Farabee hit, there was an incident involving Nikita Zadorov and Jesperi Kotkaniemi where Zadorov finished a hit with a slew foot that left Kotkaniemi unconscious on the ice.
Scary moment as Jesperi Kotkaniemi is hurt after a hit by Nikita Zadorov pic.twitter.com/DQWMFgfcwx— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 6, 2019
The NHL saw no issue with this hit, despite evidence to the contrary. Even if Zadorov has no player safety history, this is the kind of play that has no place in the game. Kotkaniemi missed most of the month with a concussion, and his wasn’t the only slew foot related injury in the month of December.
A game between Detroit and Toronto got heated after a knee-on-knee hit by Andreas Athanasiou (unpunished) sparked things. Robby Fabbri then speared Alexander Kerfoot furthering the anger, and in a scrum along the boards Jake Muzzin slew-footed Anthony Mantha.
Mantha and Muzzin scrumming. Muzzin grabbed Mantha's face, swept his leg, and threw him backwards onto the ice. Mantha hit his head hard. Down for a long time.— Ryan Hana (@RyanHanaWWP) December 22, 2019
Slewfoot/leg sweep/whatever. Dangerous and stupid. #LGRW #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/B9L5ELughl
Mantha has been on injury reserve since this incident, and again, the NHL thought it was wise to not levy any punishment towards Muzzin. In fact, out of all the nonsense in the above incident, only Fabbri was fined for spearing. That’s not good enough of a response from the league when we take into account the previous season when Mike Matheson was suspended for slamming Elias Pettersson to the ice.
The league decided on just a paltry fine for Brady Tkachuk for his assault on Scott Laughton as well. Tkachuk, upset at Laughton chirping the Senators, took matters into his own hands and used his stick to cross-check Laughton in the back. Laughton, unaware that Tkachuk is behind him, takes the full brunt of the stick in the lower back and is knocked to the ice. The official, who was looking right at them, does nothing. Then Tkachuk throws off his gloves and starts attacking a defenseless Laughton laying on the ice.
Tkachuk was fined $2,486 for this act. A drop in the bucket for someone making nearly a million dollars a season and, even more so, it seems like the league saw no problem with Tkachuk attacking a player from behind. If this is the kind of play the league won’t actually punish then a lot more players are going to get hurt.
Then, of course, there’s Tom Wilson, who escaped punishment despite a blindside hit on Jakob Lilja, but it’s almost expected at this point. The league hasn’t seemed to figure out how to actually punish anyone and are more willing to dole out minimal fines that do little to deter those who skirt the rules.
The league, to its credit, did finally seem to make the right call after so many missteps recently. Corey Perry threw a dirty elbow that knocked Ryan Ellis out of the Winter Classic and sent Perry to an early shower. The league this week ruled Perry is going to sit for five games, the first time in a while they seemed to nail the punishment for a player.
It’s frustrating to see a league that can’t seem to get it right consistently in regards to player discipline and safety. I don’t trust the league to actually do anything right in this category anymore, and it’s made even more frustrating that they won’t adapt rules that might help. The IIHF and NCAA both have stricter in-game punishments for hits to the head and a review process to make sure the call on the ice is correct, in addition to minimum two minute plus ten minute misconducts for a hit to the head. The NHL has not, and likely will not, adopt these rules despite the fact it could likely help mitigate some of these player safety woes.
There’s so many issues plaguing the NHL, and player safety is chief among them. As it stands right now, I just do not trust the Department of Player Safety to do right by the players... or at least the players that are being injured by other players.