When NHL fans heard there would be a 3D animated game played inside the world of Disney’s “Big City Greens,” many asked the obvious question: What happens if there’s a fight? Would Tilly chuck knuckles with Cricket?
The animators had a contingency plan for that — the digital avatars of Washington Capitals and New York Rangers players would just sort of bump into each other before the camera would cut away to a mo-capped Kevin Weekes. But it got me wondering about other potential acts of violence in the game.
What if the Capitals’ Tom Wilson had a disciplinary relapse against the Rangers and did something suspension-worthy? Would the animated chicken referee have voiced the NHL Player Safety video? (“This, BWOCK, is charging…”)
We’ll never know because Wilson thankfully didn’t do anything reckless on Tuesday night. That’s actually in keeping with a larger trend this season: NHL players have been on their best behavior when it comes to supplemental discipline, to an unusually genteel degree.
If it feels like there are fewer suspensions in 2022-23, that because it’s true: Through Wednesday night, suspensions and games lost to suspension are at their lowest levels at this point in an 82-game season than they’ve been at any other point over the last 10 years.
Even if (or when) the NHL suspends St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington for his unsportsmanlike conduct against the Minnesota Wild, that’ll still be the case.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety has given out 16 suspensions for acts of violence, resulting in 34 games lost in both the preseason and regular season. At this point last season, the NHL had issued 25 suspensions for 63 games lost. This season’s 34 games lost are even lower than in the 2019-20 season (44 games), which was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We wonder about that too,” said George Parros, the NHL’s VP of Player Safety, speaking to ESPN from this week’s general managers meetings in Florida.
“Our goal is taking care of the hits that need to be taken care of and educate players through our actions. That’s clearly working,” he said. “But you can’t give credit anywhere else than the guys in the ice. It’s a fast game. These guys are so skilled, flying around at such high rates of speed. We ask a lot of them to operate within our rules and they’ve done so to even a greater degree than in the past.”
With Parros giving full credit to the players, I asked one of them for his theory about the lack of suspensions this season.
“We’ve paid so much in escrow over the years, we don’t want to be giving any more money back to the league,” New Jersey Devils defenseman Damon Severson said, with a laugh.
Severson had his snark-tastic theory, but I had a few more of my own. So I decided to run them past Parros.
Theory No. 1: Rosters have changed to the point where repeat offenders — or players that play “hit first, score later” — are fewer and farther between
This theory has been used primarily to explain the decline in NHL fighting during the salary cap era. While a team’s fourth line used to be populated by eight-minute-per-game enforcers that were offensive abysses, the speed and skill of the modern game means those roster spots are better utilized on faster and younger players. On the blue line, there’s more of a premium on offensively skilled defensemen than those who lay out opponents with thunderous hits.
“We haven’t really changed the rules around fighting per se,” Parros said. “I just think that roster spots have become all the more important in the cap world. Teams need production out of all their lines.”
The NHL can’t have fighting without fighters. Perhaps the NHL has less headhunting because it has fewer headhunters.
The players that are physical can also contribute to other facets of the game, and hence want to find that line between violent hits and not costing their team with a suspension.
“We still have players that make a lot of hits and stay off our radar and can do so. So those are the players that I guess have stuck around,” Parros said.
Theory No. 2: Thanks to rules changes, the game has become so offensive and free skating that there are fewer “boiling point” moments of physicality and less opportunity for injurious plays
This drop in suspensions comes during an explosion in offense in the NHL. The league is currently averaging 3.17 goals per team per game, which would be the highest average since the 1993-94 season.
Scan the game offerings on ESPN+ on any night in the season and the stylistic changes are obvious. Teams are playing much more off the rush. Speed into the attacking zone is usually more important than grinding in the corners. There are fewer battles at the net-front between large forwards and even larger defensemen at 5-on-5, and more offensive flow around the entirety of the zone.
So perhaps there are fewer suspensions because there are fewer opportunities to make plays that result in them, because the game is being played at such a high tempo.
Again, just a theory — and one Parros disagrees with slightly.
“Our guys are certainly looking to play the game fast, but still play it physical. As you can tell, based on our numbers, there’s been a lot of conformity [to the rules]. It’s resulted in a great product on the ice,” he said. “But I wouldn’t discount the fact that we still play a very physical game and try to maintain that. I wouldn’t talk about the boiling point or anything like that. We’ll see when the playoffs come around.”
Speaking of boiling points …
Theory No. 3: Suspension-worthy plays are more reactionary than intentional
There are three kinds of plays that receive suspensions. There are accidental hits that meet the criteria of an in-game penalty and earn suspensions, even if they’re just a split-second misjudgment. There are intentional acts of violence that are targeted and premeditated — and those get lengthy bans. Then there are reactionary plays — not premeditated but certainly intentional, fueled by the emotions of the moment.
Severson believes that rather than headhunting, reactionary plays make up the majority of supplemental discipline these days.
“The stuff that does happen seems to be more reactionary, more heat of the moment,” he said. “That’s what I’ve seen recently. Sometimes guys get carried away.”
As one NHL executive put it to me: “You don’t see guys just saying, ‘I’m going to go on the ice and kill this guy on my next shift’ anymore.”
Parros agreed there’s been a shift in motives. “Most of the stuff we deal with does not have the intentionality that maybe it used to decades ago,” he said.
While that might not reduce the number of suspensions, it’s likely played a role in the total number of games for which players have been suspended. There hasn’t been a ban greater than three games so far in 2022-23. At this point last season, there had been five such suspensions.
Theory No. 4: After over a decade of education, players have more respect for each other
Admittedly, this theory has the greatest potential to make one’s eyes roll. The whole “when players respected each other” trope has been used as a defense of more barbaric times. But respect among the players might also be the reason we’re experiencing a more civilized one.
“A hundred percent I think so,” Parros said. “I think there’s so many examples of guys playing this game with respect, having respect for their opponents but obviously still wanting to compete and do anything necessary. But more than ever, we’re seeing guys showing signs of respect. They know now to try and avoid the head best they can. I think that’s pretty evident in the way the game played and the way that hits are even made.”
A lot of that falls to the education players have received about player safety. The videos the NHL releases detailing how and why a suspension was handed out. The briefings players receive during training camp about rules enforcement standards. It’s also having a better understanding about the aftermath of violent acts, not only in the short term but well after a player’s career has ended.
“The videos and stuff that we do watch, it just shows that people don’t want to see the aftermath of that,” Severson said, adding that there’s much more consideration from the players about what it would be like to be on the receiving end of a catastrophic hit.
“I think there’s more respect. If you’re cutting across the middle, would you want a guy to just drill you?” Severson asked. “But it goes both ways. If you’re going to hit somebody like that, you better be expecting to get something back.”
I asked the Devils’ defenseman about his counterpart across the river, Jacob Trouba of the New York Rangers.
Trouba is arguably the league’s most impactful hitter — and its most controversial one. Chicago forward Andreas Athanasiou claimed earlier this season that Trouba is “almost trying to hurt people” because “he’s an $8 million man with zero goals, so he has to figure out how to do something when making that much.” (For the record, Trouba now has seven goals.)
While fans on social media have handed out a dozen suspensions to Trouba, he’s been banned only once by the NHL, for a hit on Mark Stone in 2017.
“He lays some big hits,” Severson said. “He’s going to hit somebody one day, and there’s going to be a big tough guy that’s on the ice, and [Trouba] is going to get his clock cleaned.”
This is the other side of “respect among the players,” the side celebrated by old-school fans from the days when enforcers roamed the ice. It’s the notion that the delicate balance of player safety is maintained, in part, by the potential threat of retribution.
Interestingly, vengeful “clock cleaning” was addressed in this week’s GM meetings. They discussed fights that occur after clean hits, and whether there needed to be more in-game penalization for them. I’ve heard that suspensions for such acts weren’t on the table, but an additional roughing call or better enforcement of the instigator rule could be applied.
“Good, clean hits are part of the game,” Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion said this week. “It’s been in the game for over 100 years. I think the players police themselves pretty well. …The rules are great. Just apply them, and let the game go on.”
Theory No. 5: The Department of Player Safety has become more lenient and selective in its suspensions under George Parros
For the record: This was not a theory that George Parros appreciated.
The department has vocal critics for the way it handles suspensions. Veteran hockey writer Ken Campbell refers to Parros as “The Violent Gentleman,” a reference to a clothing line he helped develop. New York Post columnist Larry Brooks recently called Parros “useless” and wrote that “he acts as a human guardrail against prosecuting predators.”
To these critics, low suspension numbers are a product of the department’s refusal to hand them out more than any systemic changes in the players or the sport.
“I don’t know if that sentiment’s out there, but I’d say it’s absolutely false,” Parros said, addressing my theory. “To say that we’ve been more lenient, I think, is absolutely not the right way to describe whatever’s happening with our numbers.”
One recent critic was Rangers coach Gerard Gallant, who saw forward Tyler Motte injured on a hit from Senators forward Austin Watson in a game last month. Watson was ejected for charging. The Department of Player Safety didn’t add a suspension to his punishment.
“I’m not disappointed. But I’m surprised,” Gallant said in the aftermath. “I thought it was a bad hit, and I was shocked the next day when nothing was done.”
Parros said the NHL was working within the rules when it decided not to suspend Watson.
“When players get injured and we’re not taking action, that raises the temperature level and attention on certain types of hits,” he said. “People don’t like it when there is head contact and we don’t take action. But we work within the framework of the rules. There are instances where head contact is allowed based on the circumstances of plays.”
Rule 48 in the NHL rulebook covers illegal hits to the head. It’s been edited a few times since it was established in 2011, defining and refining what constitutes illegality in checks involving an opponent’s head. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the current rule doesn’t read the same way in five years. It’s not written in stone. The rules change as the game changes.
Like Parros said, the Department of Player Safety is working within the framework of that rulebook, even if there’s subjectivity in its suspension decisions. The only way the department’s standards of enforcement change is if that rulebook changes.
If you’re someone that doesn’t believe the department goes far enough in protecting the players — or doesn’t hand out enough suspensions — the first step would be to have the league’s general managers and governors to broaden the scope of those rules.
For example, they’re the ones that can end those nuanced debates about whether the head “is the main point of contact” by banning all hits that make contact with the head, which is something the NHL has faced calls to do in the past.
There’s another party involved in those decisions, of course: the NHL Players Association. It plays a tricky role in player safety debates, having to defend the assailant while the victim is also a dues-paying member.
Along with signing off on rules changes, the NHLPA could strengthen the NHL’s disciplinary apparatus by raising the cap on the maximum allowable fines given to players. For most infractions, fines are currently half of a player’s daily wages up to $5,000, with some exceptions. That’s a pittance for these millionaires, a financial gnat buzzing their brow. Increasing fines would give the NHL the ability to send a louder message on violent acts that don’t rise to the level of a suspension.
I hesitate to heap too much praise on the Dept. of Player Safety for this season’s suspension numbers, just like I will hesitate to blame them if those numbers climb by the end of this season or in 2023-24.
But I do believe Parros and his group deserve some credit for the way things are trending right now in the NHL, thanks to a decade-plus of player education on rules and repercussions. Combine that with systemic changes in the way the game is played, the way rosters are built, and the players understanding the long-term ramifications for their actions, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see suspensions continue to be infrequent.
It’s refreshing that in 2023, the NHL is generating more headlines for being in a cartoon than its cartoonish violence.
Jersey Foul of the week
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) March 15, 2023
This confused me for a moment, because I thought it was some kind of tribute to Rangers legend Jaromir Jagr. Then I saw the number. Why No. 56? Well, turns out there are 56 herbs, fruits, roots and spices in Jägermeister. Why Jägermeister? I mean, it’s the official shot of the NHL, so we’ll assume he won this at a giveaway or something.
Video of the week
When your controller disconnects but turns back on just in time. 😂 pic.twitter.com/SoyzyZkQhO
— NHL (@NHL) March 16, 2023
This shootout goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov against Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen on Wednesday confirmed two things for me.
The first is that Kuznetsov remains one of the NHL’s singular offensive talents when it comes to “video game” goals. There was his winner in the 2015 playoffs that was compared to “The Move” in “NHL 94.” This week, he added to his highlight reel with the “disconnected controller” goal in the shootout against the Buffalo Sabres: a 10-second-long attempt that saw him push the puck forward, collect in slow motion and then burst to life with a speedy shot attempt.
The second thing it confirmed is that the shootout itself remains an absolutely inequitable, ridiculous way to determine the winner of a regular-season game, especially one with serious playoff implications. Forget the 65 minutes of a different sport you just watched. No opposing skater on the ice to defend him, and the only pass Kuznetsov completed was to himself. A team effort boiled down to gimmickry.
Winners and losers of the week
Winners: Ottawa Senators fans
Sens fans have been clamoring for Ryan Reynolds to join a potential new ownership group. This week, he sold Mint Mobile to T-Mobile for $1.3 billion, clearing … well, enough money to help buy into the Senators, we assume. Fingers (and Deadpool katanas) crossed.
Losers: Houston and Atlanta fans
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman once again reiterated that the league is not in an expansion mode, throwing cold water on the expansion smoke that was billowing from those potentially robust hockey markets last week.
Winner: Leon Draisaitl
The Edmonton Oilers star passed the 100-point threshold this week and in the process made NHL history with teammate Connor McDavid: For just the second time in NHL history, the same teammates were the first two players to land at 100 points in consecutive seasons. Draisaitl is having another whale of a season, even though it’s in the shadow of McDavid’s record-chasing exploits.
Loser: Hurricanes’ health
The Carolina Hurricanes traded for Max Pacioretty last summer because goal-scoring has been their biggest obstacle toward finally playing for a championship. Then he ended up on injured reserve — twice. This week, they lost one of the most important offensive players on their roster in Andrei Svechnikov. Granted, his playoff numbers last season were disappointing: 5 points in 14 games. But before that he had 20 points in 26 games. He’s vital.
Combine the two losses and it might transform Carolina from a serious candidate to knock off the Boston Bruins to a team in danger of a first-round exit.
Winner: Chicken ref
I’m really proud of all the people who worked to make the “Big City Greens Classic” a success — including many of my ESPN teammates. But I have to say that my favorite bit of whimsical weirdness on the broadcast was making the referee an actual chicken. Not only for the hilarious in-game interview where the ref responded to each question with a series of clucks, but because of the sneakily subversive choice of animal to represent the officiating, which I can only hope was intentional.
Losers: David Brisebois and Ryan Galloway
These were the linesmen in the Minnesota Wild‘s win over the St. Louis Blues, aka the people who deprived us of a goalie fight between Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Binnington. How dare they disappoint Ric Flair:
Just caught up with Ric Flair.
Question: Do you wish they would’ve let Binnington and Fleury fight?
Flair: “Hell yeah I was wishing that. I would’ve loved that.” #stlblues pic.twitter.com/hOAtJnwwxN
— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) March 16, 2023
Winner: Slater Koekkoek
The former NHL defenseman shared his truth on a Linkedin post about his struggles with eating during his career. It was powerful: “A vicious cycle of needing to eat but physically being unable.” Hopefully his words make a difference for someone who needs to hear them.
Here’s our coverage of the Carson Briere incident with the wheelchair, including a statement from his father, Philadelphia Flyers interim GM Daniel Briere.
Eric Engels with an interesting look at how a Canadian property law might impact free agency this summer. “Ask yourself: Would you go to a country that takes more than half your money in taxes and doesn’t allow you to buy a home for your family to live in?”
Ten players on the Northeastern women’s hockey team are working co-ops — the university’s signature experiential learning program where students integrate semesters of academic study with periods of full-time employment. That includes at an accounting firm and a “small, family-owned cannabis company.”
Interesting look at the club hockey program at the University of Kentucky and its “Midnight Mayhem.”
Chris Peters breaks down the Hobey Baker field. On Devon Levi: “He should go down as one of the best goalies of the modern NCAA, and Levi also should have won the Hobey Baker last year with near historic numbers against a heavier workload than any of his peers up for the big awards.”
Interesting story from Jesse Granger and Michael Russo of The Athletic on why goalies are knocking their nets off so often. “Goalies stick together. It’s a union of sorts. Asked if they believe fellow netminders could be intentionally dislodging nets to prevent scoring chances, the league’s top goalies all smiled and dismissed the notion.”
Kudos to the Winnipeg Jets for one of the best Aaron Rodgers jokes of the week.
Watch The Drop
Arda Ocal and I broke down the potential NHL expansion cities on the latest episode of The Drop. Plus, why Atlanta deserves a third chance!