Monday, February 16, 2015

Who has ever seen a Successful Hip Check Anyway?

The NHL's Department of Player Safety videos explaining suspensions is one of the best innovations in sports in the past 10 years. It has not only increased accountability for those involved in suspensions (making them seem less arbitrary), but also has educated fans on just what is and isn't allowed in the modern game. That doesn't mean there aren't still issues with the system. And Dmitry Kulikov's recent suspension exemplifies that.

Throwing out my own Florida Panthers fandom, and the absolutely ridiculous outrage towards a player who had no prior history of suspensions (and only 1 major penalty to his name before Friday Night), the 4 game suspension raises many questions, especially since Kulikov was a first time offender. Before the discussion becomes about my biases instead of the hit itself, yes it should warrant a suspension. It's clipping by every definition. What that doesn't mean is a) Dmitry Kulikov is a dirty player (unlike what twitter wants you to think), and b) that players should be suspended to the injury and the player they injure.

From the Panthers own backlog this season, Radko Gudas was not suspended for what was a dirty hit on Scottie Upshall in the first game of the season. Keith Yandle was not suspended for a hit to Brandon Pirri's head that knocked him out of nearly a month's worth of games. Mike Fisher was not suspended or even called in for a hearing when he speared Erik Gudbranson in a less than desirable area a week ago. And Dmitry Kulikov is being called dirty for a mistimed hip check, especially when 9 times out of 10 he lands that hit successfully?

4 games seems fair for Kulikov given the nature of the hit and the injury to Tyler Seguin (which is what the DoPS standards are now), but that doesn't mean the standards are wrong to begin with. Suspending to the injury is one of the most dangerous precedents to be set by the DoPS. There are plenty of dirty hits and moments in many games that go unnoticed because there's no injury on the play, leaving many little moments unaccounted for that could well be suspendable offenses. Even if going after those moments would be too severe, It also doesn't look good for the DoPS when the suspension also seems matched up to the player injured. If Vernon Fiddler, who wasn't the cleanest of players Friday night, was on the receiving end of that hit instead of Tyler Seguin, would the suspension even have been half as severe? Probably not. It's understandable why suspensions would be heavier when a player injures another star, but if the goal is to make examples out of these hits and get them out of the game, then who is injured should play no role in deciding the length of suspension.

By the DoPS own admission, the hip check was mistimed, as opposed to "predatory" and "delivered intentionally low" when they suspended Brad Marchand 3 years ago for a low hit similar to this along the boards against Vancouver's Sami Salo. This is a welcome sign of brevity, but it doesn't explain the length of suspension. Even if it was reckless (which it was), it wasn't out of ill intent, it was a sloppy check in open ice that Kulikov normally gets right. Some scouts even thought Kulikov shouldn't have been suspended because "Seguin should take some blame for being out of position" (from the Miami Herald's George Richards). Unfortunately, it seems this is another example of the DoPS suspending based on the player injured instead of the hit.

The hip check is an endangered species in the NHL, but one could easily surmise that it could back in vogue as more hits to the head and shoulders are being outlawed. These kind of suspensions could discourage players from even trying to attempt one, let alone land it, even as more players are going low out of necessity because they have nowhere else to go. Kulikov is one of the few players who tries to hip check regularly, but the likelihood of seeing him try another one for a good while is low.

The Department of Player Safety has done many great things for everyone involved with the NHL, but if this suspension is any guide, they still have a long way to go.

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