By Allan Muir
Pretty much everyone who saw Lars Eller lying face down in a pool of his own blood on Thursday night was horrified by the results of Eric Gryba’s devastating open ice hit. But there weren’t many, outside of Montreal loyalists who looked at that collision and thought it was the sort of play that needed to be eliminated from the NHL.
Apparently that number swelled by at least one today as the Ottawa defender was handed a two-game suspension by Brendan Shanahan for what he called an “illegal check to the head of Eller.”
No doubt this was a tough call for the NHL’s chief disciplinarian. Arguably the toughest he’d faced all season. Despite the injury suffered by Eller, there was no black or white in this incident. Watch the replay a dozen times and you won’t see incontrovertible proof of Eller’s head being the primary point of contact – -or of an innocent hit gone awry — unless that’s exactly what you’re looking to see.
But Shanahan’s position doesn’t really allow him to equivocate here. He sees Gryba missing a chance to deliver “enough of a full body check” and “targeting the head.” And if that’s what he sees, well, then he’s obliged to hand down the suspension to discourage similar hits in the future.
Shanahan also directly addressed those of us who point to the culpability of Canadiens defenseman Raphael Diaz in the incident.
“A hockey player bears some responsibility to be aware of an impending check,” Shanahan said. But “the pass Eller receives just before the hit is completely irrelevant to whether or not” this is a good hit.
That makes sense, at least in terms of how he has to address the situation. Diaz’s teammates may want to pop him for exposing Eller to the hit with that suicide pass, but the lead-up isn’t what Shanahan is charged with addressing.
Personally, l don’t see a bad play here. If anything, I see a defender executing exactly as he should when faced with an attacker steaming his way in possession of the puck. Diaz made a split second decision that led to Eller being knocked senseless.
Brutal? Sure, but this is a contact sport. Hard hits and injuries are part of the program. Barring an obvious targeting of his head, I think Eller’s vulnerability was on him.
But Shanny felt differently. Gryba, the Sens, and a lot of people around hockey will just have to deal with that.