Friday, November 6, 2009

The Hits Really Are More Devastating This Season

This is excellent analysis, and needs to be digested fully:
These are heady times for the NHL, unfortunately not of the halcyon days variety. No, the start to this season is all about headshots and what to do. So far, there's been only head-scratching over the ongoing NHLPA mess and head-shaking about officiating that seems to be okay with much more contact away from the puck than has been the case during the past four seasons.

With an early rash of bodychecks resulting in shoulders-to-the-head, like the one delivered by the Flyers' Mike Richards that left the Panthers' David Booth concussed and hospitalized, there are no easy answers. A bodycheck delivered with a shoulder in and of itself is legal, which is where the gray begins. The pace of play is swift every shift, with players tracking back defensively as fervently as they skate on the attack. As a result, spacing on both offense and defense has evolved, with more bigger, faster players in closer proximity than ever before, thus blurring the issue further.

Here's what I mean:

If Booth comes across the offensive blueline in 1989, the pass to his teammate on the wing might have been 15 feet rather than eight, and Richards would not have been backchecking with the same sense of purpose. There would have been more time to react after making the pass, and if Richards still delivered the check, it would have obviously been late due to the length of the pass. No question, a dirty hit.

Under 2009 conditions, that conclusion isn't as apparent. Booth's pass is shorter and Richards is closer. Both are moving faster. Add it all together and there is almost no time for Booth to disengage from the act of passing and for Richards to rethink his defending tactic.

I think that the fact that Richards had his arm and elbow up indicates an intention to deliver a devastating hit to break up the play. It may have been a hit intended for the chest that caught the head, or it may have been an intentional dirty hit. Either way, the sickening sight of a player's head hitting the ice like that is enough to make you want to question where the officiating really is at.

You cannot eliminate checking from the game, but what you can do is go after the irrational actors and severely punish this behavior. Teams need to get the message that physical hockey is fine, but anything too aggressive will be dealt with more severely this season. That, in turn, puts it on the coaches to scale back their defensive schemes and give players instructions to stay lower with their checking, where possible. I can't believe a coach told Richards to put his elbow and shoulder into the head of a player coming across the blue line like that. I can believe that Richards was given instruction to break up an aggressive move across the blue line.

In the case cited above, even though it is three on three, the defense is slightly out of position and about to give up a good shot on goal if Richards doesn't go aggressively to break up the play. Sending all of the teams in the NHL a clear signal that players cannot go high to the head like that has to happen before someone fails to get up off the ice.

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