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The NHL Needs to Start Evaluating Hits instead of Injuries

Nino's boarding of Maatta is just the most recent in a disturbing trend developed by the NHL and it's Department of Player Safety.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, Nino Niederreiter laid a very questionable check on Olli Maatta. It was a late hit, from behind, directly into the boards. That is, essentially, the definition of boarding (which wasn't called). Maatta didn't have the puck, made no move to avoid the hit, and was defenseless against Nino's check. To make matters worse, Darcy Kuemper was paying no attention to play (as usual ZING) and opened the bench door for Zucker right as Matta hit where the door used to be.

In fairness to Nino (whom I love almost beyond the point of rationality), the hit wasn't particularly vicious: it is the kind of thing that happens somewhere between a million and a gazillion times in a hockey game, and rarely gets called. There was clearly no intention to injure, it's simply a "hockey play" that gets made throughout games, presumably to get a player off his game (or something similarly vague). In this case, however, the effect of the hit was exacerbated by the bench door opening, causing a bad hit to become worse.

According to Russo, nothing is expected to be done about this hit- a suspension was always unlikely given Nino's "not a repeat offender" status, but a fine was not out of the question. This is indicative of a systemic problem with the NHL's Department of Player Safety (DoPS).

Supposedly, the DoPS exists to protect players. The way to do that, most would agree, is to make play as safe as possible while maintaining some level of physicality in the game. It follows that the DoPS should look at dangerous hits and let players know that they are bad, and if a player continues making those hits, take action.

To an extent, that is what the DoPS does. However, there is a major flaw in its process. The DoPS does not look at "hits" necessarily. They look at the results of hits. On a fundamental level, this makes a lot of sense. On another level, it makes none at all.

A bad hit is a bad hit, regardless of what happens as a result. Compare Nino's late, rather soft hit from behind (which resulted in an injury) to this Byfuglien destruction of Pominville and his head.

The initial trip (which was called) was just that: a trip. Byfuglien then hip-checks the Mayor's head into the boards. Jason was uninjured, and because of that, nothing was done. Does anyone really believe that bashing someone's head into the boards isn't dangerous? Yet, because Pommer was uninjured (or because Byfuglien is a bigger star, some would say) nothing was done.

Nino's hit was softer, and a far more common hit in hockey that resulted in an injury. Byfuglien's hit was significantly more dangerous, yet resulted in no injury. By the DoPS' standards, therefore, Nino's hit was far worse than Byfuglien's. That's problematic on so many levels I'm not even sure where to begin.

Process, not Results

If the DoPS and NHL are really interested in creating a safer game (and they should be) they need to start acting like it. James Neal injured Zach Parise with a late hit from behind, and he very easily could have injured other players in that same game with similar hits. Matt Cooke constantly toed the line and poked toes, feet, and his whole knee over it. You can probably name 10 such players with any help from me.

Until the DoPS starts evaluating hits and not injuries, we will continue to see players make stupid decisions like the one Nino made last night. And as those hits keep being made, we will continue to see injuries that are easily preventable.

Hannah Stuart of High Heels and High Sticks probably says it best:

Obviously (hopefully) no player goes out intending to injure someone else. But until the DoPS starts looking at hits instead of the results, they are leaving injuries up to chance. Injuries will undoubtedly still happen. But avoidable ones like Maatta's, or what could have happened to Pominville, are completely avoidable and the onus is on the NHL to protect their players.

No one (least of all me) is calling for Nino's head; in some ways Nino is just doing what the league tells him to. Hits like that are made throughout games, and the league does nothing; who can blame Nino for doing what the league is tacitly giving him the go-ahead to do?