By Stu Hackel
If the Brendan Shanahan era was the dawning of a new day in NHL player safety, some clouds obscured the sun on Monday when he found no reason to take further action against the Bruins’ Milan Lucic, who freight-trained Sabres goalie Ryan Miller on Saturday.
It was a decision that felt like a product of the old Colin Campbell era.
Maybe our expectations were raised too high when Shanny came out swinging in preseason with meaningful suspensions to offending players.
Maybe the subsequent backlash has tempered his zeal.
Maybe a few NHL GMs, owners or his superiors suggested it might not be wise to remove highly paid, important players from team lineups for lengthy periods, if at all, and they pointed to the consequences of James Wisniewski’s suspension that took the defenseman from the Columbus lineup for the first eight games of the season, with the Jackets going 0-7-1 (as if Wiz’s absence was all that is wrong with that team).
Or maybe, we’re certainly willing to admit, Shanahan genuinely “saw nothing egregious about this hit that would elevate it to supplemental discipline,” as he said on Monday, or that he and those with whom he consults honestly don’t believe what Lucic did was bad enough to merit banning him for a game or two. The problem with that scenario, however, is that Shanny’s stated reason for letting Lucic off the hook doesn’t stand up.
Well, the world is, quite often, an unreasonable place, and the hockey world is even more so at times. But just for fun, let’s try to get inside this decision a bit more. We devoted our post yesterday to the rules that govern this kind of incident and noted that Miller has suffered a concussion and is out of the lineup indefinitely. Once again, here’s the incident (yesterday we used the Buffalo TV feed, so today we’ll use Boston’s):
Dave Stubbs in The Montreal Gazette advanced the notion that, “The two lunkheads on the Hockey Night in Canada panel (Mike Milbury and P.J. Stock), both former Boston Bruins, thought it was fine. So surely it was a clean hockey play, right?” Surely, he jests. Or perhaps not.
Well, let’s go to Shanahan himself for an explanation of why he let Lucic walk. In his statement on NHL.com Monday, Shanahan said. “I had the hearing because I did make an initial assessment of the play as I do with all plays, but I did have some questions for Milan and I wanted to hear directly from him. They were regarding his intent; at what point did he know there was going to be a collision; and whether or not he felt he had the time to avoid the collision. I was satisfied with his answers.”
So Shanahan seemed to already believe there was little wrong here, but just needed to entertain his curiosity on a few points. What was he expecting to hear?
“Well, I’m guessing Lucic wasn’t going to say something like: “Oh, yeah, Shanny, I saw a chance to lay out that skinny ’keeper and I got him good,’” wrote Chris Stevenson in The Ottawa Sun. “‘Oh, Shanny, you see his mask go flying? Ha, and not one of those Sabres even hit me with a pillow. Bet you wish you were still playing now, eh, Shanny?’”
Instead, Lucic probably said something more like his words after the game: “I just put my head down and tried to get to (the puck) first. And next thing I looked up he was out of his net and it was a collision. Obviously, going into a situation like that I’m going to brace myself. And I was going full speed so it was pretty hard for me to put on the brakes.”
Lucic may have added that he was trying to get in the zone hard to establish the forecheck, or even that he might have been a bit frustrated with himself that he pushed the puck too far in front of him and was hustling to get it back, adding that he’s often criticized by coach Claude Julien for not moving his feet. But the essence of Lucic’s position boils down to the collision being accidental and he shouldn’t be responsible for its severity and result.
Lots of people take issue with that, this writer included. For one thing, as advocates of rugged hockey are fond of reminding everyone, NHLers shouldn’t skate with their heads down. Whether he knew where he was going or not, Lucic is responsible for the path he took.
Regardless, not many are buying that Lucic had no time to avoid hitting Miller. For what it’s worth, over two-thirds of TSN.ca readers (68.7 percent) in a poll of nearly 20,000 people believe it was a cheap shot (31.2 percent had no problem with it). That proves nothing really — except that lots of people who have seen it don’t believe Lucic’s explanation. Shanahan is in the minority on this one, but supplemental discipline is not done by popular vote. Really, very few votes matter and Shanny’s matters most of all.
But while he brings his experiences as an NHL player who understands the game’s realities to his evaluation, a few others who are or were NHLers don’t agree with that assessment.
“He says, ‘Oh, I couldn’t stop’ or “I couldn’t change directions,’ That’s garbage,” said Ray Ferraro, the former NHLer who spoke to Montreal radio TSN 990. “If he wanted to change directions, he could have changed directions. So (instead), he runs right over the top of Miller.”
Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser is another experienced set of eyes who viewed this differently than Shanahan. In his TSN blog post on Monday, Fraser wrote, “This was not a race to a loose puck where a collision resulted through a tie in the footrace. This was not ‘incidental contact’ nor was any effort, let alone a ‘reasonable effort’ made by Milan Lucic to avoid Ryan Miller after the goalkeeper released the puck.
“This was very clearly a hard shoulder body check finished with elevated hands, delivered by an attacking forward on a goalie that did not expect to be hit under protection of the playing rules. Any other player would expect to be hit on the finish of a check — a goalkeeper does not. I deem it a dangerous play.” You should read Fraser’s entire blog on this. It’s quite good.
Both of these guys felt Lucic deserved a major penalty rather than a minor. Fraser thinks it should have resulted in a suspension of two games. Ferraro does not. But Ferraro’s belief that Lucic ran Miller on purpose undercuts Shanahan’s stated reason for not suspending him: that he had no intent.
I wrote yesterday, “Lucic is pretty responsible, not just for skating into the goalie, but for lifting his arms and driving his right forearm into Miller’s upper back and neck area, causing the netminder’s head to snap and his helmet to fly off as he turned to avoid the collision. That Lucic’s arms followed through, and that he did not pursue the puck, but stopped after the collision and stood over Miller indicates to me that he wasn’t interested in playing hockey here.”
Even though he didn’t favor a suspension, Ferraro had a good, broad perspective on why this incident required something stronger than a two-minute minor. “I”ll tell you why they have to be careful here,” he said over TSN 990. “Several defensemen are already getting hurt because the goalies can’t help them out anymore. I think one of the reasons the d-men get run as much as they do is because the goalie can’t go out and chip the puck into the corner and clear some space for them. If the goalies feel they’re going to be ‘in play,’ if you will, they’re not going to leave the net ever. So that puts another layer on the defensemen.
“I think you’ve got to protect the goalies.” he continued. “I think sometimes they’re protected too much. But if you don’t protect them, what stops a player from driving the crease and continuing right through the goaltender? Or what stops a player from doing what Lucic did? They have to be protected. There has to be almost a quarterback mentality to your goaltenders because, in a sense, they’re the most vulnerable players on the ice. They’re job is to stop the puck and if they’re worried about getting run over while they’re playing it or stopping it, they’re not going to be able to play goal either.”
But what I think – and what Fraser, Ferraro and lots of fans and observers think — doesn’t matter. That’s the burden of Shanahan’s job, which is, as we’ve noted before, the worst in hockey, and no one other than the few who have done it can pretend to know the pressures of it. Part of the pressure, however, is that when he makes a ruling, it has consequences for the game as a whole, not just for the teams involved.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff worried on Monday that exonerating Lucic would send the message that goalies were now fair game, which Shanahan later called an “irresponsible” suggestion, saying, “I will have this warning for players: `It’s not. If you run a goalie, you’re going to find yourself in the same situation that Lucic was today, you’re going to have to explain yourself and you don’t explain it sufficiently, and if I don’t buy it, you’re going to be suspended.”‘
Well, he bought Lucic’s explanation. Let’s hope his warning is heeded regardless.