It's five games into the season. Just five, and the NHL's Department of Player Safety is already reeling thanks to the number of reckless, dirty hits dished out so far this year. Raffi Torres got the hockey world riled up in the pre-season when he delivered a vicious hit to the head of Ducks forward Jakub Silfverberg. The DoPS handed down a record 41-game suspension to Torres, a decision that would appear both simple and long overdue given Torres' history of being suspended for these exact type of hits (example A and example B). The message was sent loud and clear that enough is enough.
Or so we thought.
There are two keys to the "Putting Your Foot Down" concept. First there needs to be a very strong and clear statement. The NHL did that with the Torres suspension, not only because of the record 41-games, but also because it potentially will end Torres' NHL career. He's 34 years old, now has two historic suspensions on his record, and he's played only 44 games over the past three seasons. When you add his actual on-ice skill or production to the equation, which is that of a very replaceable gritty fourth-line forward, and the writing on the wall is pretty clear. When playing with excessive risk and aggressiveness could mean being out of a job, players take notice. The DoPS nailed the first key, but the second and more important key to the concept is being consistent with the message. One incident doesn't exactly set a precedent.
This crackdown on aggressive behavior didn't even last until Opening Night. In a rivalry game between the Sharks and Kings, Dustin Brown (a player who has been known to cross the line with a hit or two) crushed the Sharks Logan Couture with an open-ice head-butt. This was a golden opportunity for the higher-ups to reinforce their stance on the issue, and they dropped the ball. Literally no consequence. No fine, no suspension, not even a warning. To add insult to injury another Kings player, Milan Lucic, earned a match penalty and five-minute major for going across the ice to elbow Couture in the head later on in the game. Why not?
The opening fortnight of the NHL has seen numerous borderline and dangerous hits, many of which have gone unnoticed by the DoPS so far this season. Connor McDavid sent Johnny Oduya crashing head first into the boards on a reckless play that received no mention. Oduya has since been diagnosed with a concussion. Chris Kreider (a player whose history of reckless play should be familiar with Wild fans) knocked Alexander Wennberg out of a game with a late hit that received no penalty and no notice from the DoPS. Then just recently there was this disgusting hit by Nikita Nesterov on Curtis McKenzie in a game between the Stars and Blue Jackets.
The DoPS took the Nesterov hit under review for discipline and decided on a mere two-game suspension for the infraction. The mess just keeps getting worse. There's so much bluster on player safety, concussions, getting bad hits out of the game, but where is the follow through? Where are the actions to back up the words? The isolated incidents are not the illegal hits to the head, but the NHL actually holding players and coaches accountable for what happens out the ice. How many more careers need to be ended? How many more lives need to be permanently altered? Even just talking about the NHL's bottom line, how many potentially league-changing lawsuits need to be filed before the league actually starts taking this issue seriously?
There have been so many opportunities in the past 5-10 years for the NHL to be proactive and make serious changes. The Matt Cooke hit on Marc Savard, Steve Downie on Dean McAmmond, Randy Jones on Patrice Bergeron- the list goes on and on. Every moment led one to believe that the spark to remove those plays from the game had finally arrived, and yet here we still sit, discussing the same issue with little progress.
The NHL can rewrite the rule book and revamp the Department of Player Safety over and over again, but until they are willing to use those resources to enforce those rules with real consequences and consistency, nothing will change.