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Revisiting Doug Weight's Sutter hit: As open-ice as they come

On the topic du jour, hits to the head: Puck Daddy explores the NHLPA's wish to alter rules to deter hits to the head -- a move that, in spirit, is worth looking at. But one thing alarms me: The PA -- according to Puck Daddy, at least -- is using the Doug Weight-Brandon Sutter hit as an example.

If the intent is to deter blind-sided yet otherwise legal hits -- the kind that come from east-west movement, anticipating a puck-carrier's move like he's oblivious prey -- then Weight's hit doesn't apply. Brandon Sutter knew Weight was there. There was no one else between Sutter and the Islanders net, which is why Sutter tried to poke-and-go around Weight. What felled Sutter was his own decision to try to make that poke move around the last man, who happened to be a veteran with two-decades of NHL experience -- a man who knows: One-on-one? Take the body, not the puck.

As I wrote then:

This was not a head-hunting job. This was Weight keeping his arm in (unlike a lot of fierce hitters) while Sutter -- at the last moment -- pulled a roller hockey-esque head-first lean, leading with his head, to try to poke the puck around Weight.

It turns my stomach to see anyone get a concussion like that. But I don't think Weight "took advantage" of Sutter. I think he was surprised to find Sutter, at the last moment, do something you normally see in no-checking leagues (i.e. where you can count on your opponent having to avoid hitting you). There is only a little bit Weight could have done to "pull out" of the hit; and in that split-second situation, that's not something Weight should [be expected] to do.


The only mitigating circumstance is that the puck was being played off the boards -- so it wasn't like Sutter carried it all the way and pretended Weight couldn't hit him. Still, given the circumstances, Sutter should know that last man between him and a breakaway was likely to take the body.

Some guys -- Mike Mottau, even Scott Stevens, come to mind -- use their defensive partner or another player as a screen to help them blindside the puck carrier when the puck carrier evades that original obstacle. Like in the famous Kozlov hit, where Kozlov is worried not about Stevens but about the closest defenseman (Scott Niedermayer, who is also taken out by Stevens but of course is left better off), and Stevens comes from the blindside, east-west direction to take out Kozlov.

But Weight's hit wasn't even like that. I don't know if kids these days (::sigh:: yes, I really used that phrase) try moves like Sutter's because they grew up with full masks covering their chin (that you can afford dangerous moves that risk severe facial impact), or because Internet highlights and no-check roller hockey have encouraged fancy moves at the expense of playing like your one-on-one opponent can, you know, hit you.

But if you legislate away a compact, open-ice hit like Weight's, you're pretty much telling everyone that open-ice hits are not worth the risk. You're allowing the moves that only happen in no-check leagues to enter the game. You're telling the puck carrier: "Go ahead, lead with your head, and they aren't allowed to touch you."

So please, NHLPA, take that out of the discussion. Weight's wasn't a blindside, it wasn't sneaky -- it was simply the result of a one-on-one encounter that Weight handled in textbook fashion, and players like Sutter should be trained to approach differently.

It amuses me that people discuss hits to the head as if they're all the same, as if hockey players don't know from experience when they or their opponents are most vulnerable. The reason many of Stevens' highlight hits often include the (never talked-about) aspect of one of his own teammates also hitting the deck like shrapnel is because Stevens very brilliantly used his defense partner or backchecker to funnel his victims into his sights. Often, that involves collateral damage.

Open ice hitting is hard; using a teammate as your decoy makes it less so. As Stevens well knew, it's a lot easier when you can use a teammate as a screen to guide the victim into your path. Weight had no such help on the Sutter hit, the way Stevens did on roughly half of his most lethal hits. (The other half, I assert, were just Stevens lining up a puck carrier in open ice -- although you can certainly question Stevens' intent.)

But they are different situations. I hope the NHLPA doesn't pretend they're the same.