The Islanders tied the Leafs 4-4 through OT and lost the shootout on another one of Jason Blake's artificial only-found-in-the-
laboratory-shootout spin moves. But the story of this tanktastic match of shaky goaltending will be the suspension, er feeble fine, er whatever it is Brendan Witt gets from his league disciplinary hearing for his elbow to the head of Niklas Hagman.
We'll get to game notes in a moment, but first some words on Witt, and why this happens, and how to prevent it.
Leafs fans at Pension Plan Puppets are already understandably up in arms, reviewing video of the incident here and comparing it to Tie Domi's away-from-the-puck 2001 playoff assassination of Scott Niedermayer here. I strongly believe it was not nearly as bad as Domi's cowardly headshot -- the difference in intent is clear -- but most would agree with the conclusion of that FanPost: That the suspension decision (or lack thereof?) from Colin Campbell's motley crew of coin-flippers will be unpredictable and ultimately unsatisfactory.
How long should Witt's suspension be? Well, that depends what standard you're going by, what factors you think matter (injury? player discipline history? precedent? media spotlight/market size?) -- and which previous joke of a suspension you consider a palatable "standard." Because if you're thinking of deterrence, few suspensions the NHL has ever given out have been "deterrents" of anything.
Sure, they taught Chris Simon not to stomp on a guy last season (but later thought, "Well, except..." when it came to Chris Pronger). They taught Dale Hunter not to level a guy five seconds after he scored just because your turnover just clinched your team's elimination -- but I've not seen an example of Hunter's peculiar kind of uncontrolled pouting rage on the ice before or since, and "stomps" are rather rare, too. Those are pathological offenses, not in-game mistakes players make. As I've written before, the NHL has no disciplinary standard, only an ambiguous magic 8 ball of randomly cited conditions.
Ah, but Witt. What did he do last night, and why? Some reflections after the jump...
What happened is a classic case of how NHL players are not wired to err on the side of an opponent's cranial health. Witt lost his stick just before the play, and with a loose puck popping toward his bench at the blue line, he began racing to kick it out of the zone. But Hagman, coming from closer to the line, had taken the lead on him, so Witt knew he had to adjust and take his man out when they met at the puck. Witt had his arm in close to his torso and his shoulder lined up for a legal check, but Hagman -- who already has a concussion history -- slammed on the brakes, poked the puck and deked out of Witt's path.
Now, this is the pivotal, split-second moment that separates a blown assignment from a dangerous mistake. The moment when a checker must exercise the proper instincts not to endanger someone's brain. Witt at this point realizes he's going to miss his man -- but he is programmed from years of testosterone-infused coaching that he should not let this happen at any cost. So Witt doesn't let it happen: He breaks proper checking form, throwing his elbow out and even opening his knee up to get a piece of Hagman via whichever appendage can do the job.
This is like '90s-era obstruction theory -- if you can't keep up with your man, hook the hell out of his spleen and groin -- carried out to its violent extreme.
This is awful, unacceptable. No matter how short the reaction time, no matter how a player has been coached, no matter what "A Few Good Men" speech you want to submit to defend the supposed realities of "old-time hockey" and work in hockey's trenches, a player shouldn't put someone's career in jeopardy rather than accept that he's beaten. That's what these plays come down to, and that's a false choice the league has the power to eliminate, if it bothered to try.
Like Taking in the Groceries, Protecting the Eggs
The easiest way for a player to correct this is to discipline himself into maintaining sound checking form throughout the entirety of an attempted hit. That means keeping your arm in at all costs. Treat it like you're carrying too many bags of groceries from the car: Once you realize your mistake, you don't want drop the bag of canned goods -- but you'll do that and whatever other inconvenience it takes to keep your arm from dropping that precious bag of breakable eggs and perishable fruit. It's a silly analogy, but it's the truth: An opponent's head should be the eggs. If players put their fellow union brothers' safety over their own pride, this wouldn't happen. If they all played like they actually knew how to check, they wouldn't excuse their own instantaneous physical mistakes as "just finishing my check."
This is not a defense of Witt, but it is an attempt to separate deliberate headhunting from the kind of mistake Witt made. We need to divine a way to reduce this kind of offense, which is independent of the pathology that possessed Domi and Hunter. I saw the hockey conditions of the play and I've watched too much of Witt to write this off as some tool out for blood: He's out to impose and lay a body, but not to kill. He's guilty of doing what Islander Thomas Pock (5 games) and Devil Mike Mottau (2 games) did earlier this year: Adjusting dangerously at the last moment because the man you're checking is about to elude you. Putting your own fear of blowing an assignment over the legally protected well-being of an opponent.
So should Witt be suspended? Hell yes. Several games. All players who do this should get long suspensions -- longer suspensions than they currently do in Campbell's random scheme. And all players should be schooled in training camp about why this happens. The league needs to do something to make players realize the consequences of wrong decisions at high speeds. They need to take leadership -- and ownership -- to drive home the lessons that years of minor hockey never taught them, the awareness void that the NHL has declined to fill.
Because the only way to correct a hard-wired instinct is to make the consequence severe enough that the player will actually think twice the next time he's in that situation. The league has managed to do that with hooking and stick fouls and such by over-enforcing them.
Will they ever do it with the kind of fouls that shorten players' careers? I'm not holding my breath.
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As for the game ... Joey MacDonald's un-square positioning and pair of soft goals continues to open the gap between him and Yann Danis. At this point, if you could only re-sign next year, Danis is the choice.
Sean Bergenheim continued his progress from recent games, finally landing that breakaway goal on the shorthanded turnover after missing on the penalty shot in this game and on a broken breakaway the other night in Pittsburgh.
The Kid Line continued its relative quiet, save for Kyle Okposo's determined play, which is becoming a refrain for me. Time for Okposo to send that fancy shootout move to the shop for refining, though.
Waiver survivor Jon Sim's uptick in play keeps me hoping someone will toss a late pick our way for him. Bill Guerin's diminished role and recent rumblings indicate he'll have an option to move in front of him that he just might want to take.
Radek, oh Radek, Martinek. On the day I defended you and hoped your injury curse might finally end, you go break yourself in the corner. Good health to you, comrade.