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Physically Tough or Excessively Rough?

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Note: This article is related to the piece Brian LeBlanc (Commentary: Time for the NHLPA to step up) did yesterday, maybe just a different perspective on the subject.

We're only 1 week into the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs and already we have been treated to a variety of games that show what makes the NHL Playoffs so exciting to watch. We've seen everything from games full of offensive flair to goaltenders standing on their head, shutting down the opposition. Most of the games have been tightly contested battles that come down to the final minute of play. Even the series that look almost decided could have swung the other direction on a play or two. But what seems to be the defining issues of these Playoffs so far are the unusually high amount of excessive physicality and the punishment that the league office is handing out.

Through these first 22 Playoff games, we have seen both a significant increase in the number of recorded hits and the number of questionable hits as compared to the regular season. While it is commonplace for the intensity to reach higher levels with more on the line, when does the physical play become too physical? When do players cross that line from playing with an edge to headhunting or goonery? When do officials need to step in and change the course of a particular game? What is the NHL's stance on the subject? Are these the types of games the NHL wants to showcase? Are these the types of games we want to watch?

The NHL is riding high right now. The sport is as popular as ever, revenue for most of the teams are up, and with the new TV deal there are even more outlets for people to watch the sport. But one issue keeps rearing its ugly head: players are taking cheap shots at one another and injuries continuing to mount. Physical play in itself is not the problem, it actually has it's place in the game and helps make hockey what it is. The problem is when players cross that line of playing tough, physical hockey and enter the area of dirty & illegal.

I would even say that the vast majority of players in the NHL play a clean brand of hockey, but if you look at this first week of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and this past regular season, it appears that it is becoming more common to see these egregious hits occur. Just look at these first 22 Playoff games and you will find at least 8 more than questionable hits taking place. You had Shea Weber slamming Henrik Zetterberg's head in the glass, Byron Bitz blindsiding Kyle Clifford, Carl Hagelin elbowing Daniel Alfredsson in the head, Matt Carkner sucker punching Brian Boyle in the face, Aaron Asham throat checking Brayden Schenn, James Neal headhunting the Philadelphia Flyers, and Andrew Shaw steamrolling Mike Smith. This doesn't even include Dustin Brown spearing Henrik Sedin (which some believe was a late hit). And as you see, it's not just the "goons" that are committing these infractions.

Part of the issue is that the rules seem to be slightly shifting from year to year and even between regular season and postseason. In 2005, when the NHL was coming out of the lockout, the NHL adjusted the rules to promote a more free-flowing game that you could say catered to scoring. But since that season, the game has slowly made it's way back to being more of a physical game. Right or wrong, disagree or not; NHL hockey today is not the same as NHL hockey played in 05/06. As each season goes, the physical play seems to increase and the league/officials seem to allow more & more. And where this becomes most evident is in the NHL's showcase event; the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Officials swallow their whistles and calls made last season or during the regular season are let go. It gets to a point where the players are policing themselves and you get events like we have seen this past week.

The other part of the issue is that there is no consistency from the officials to the NHL front office. Each official calls the game as they see it and that will always be the case, but the league needs to do a better job of getting more consistency out of their officials. The league office also needs to figure out a better system for determining suspensions & fines. How is it that Hagelin & Bitz knock a player out of multiple games and receive different suspensions? How is it that Weber & Carkner commit outrageous penalties and one receives a suspension while the other receives a slap on the wrist? From an outsiders point of view this might seem to be credibility issue. Hagelin knocked out a "star", Bitz knocked out a role player; Weber is a league "star", Carkner is a role player. I'm sure that wasn't the only factor in Brendan Shanahan's decision, but could it have played a factor?

The real question is; when is enough, enough? The NHL has 2 courses of action it can take; be proactive and address the issue now or be reactive and wait for some horrendous event to occur before any changes are made.

Let's take Jeff Skinner for example. Go back to the 10/11 season; Jeff Skinner is a fresh faced 18 year old with a smile from ear to ear. Yes, he took some punishment in his first season, but it was never over the top and he just kept on smiling and making teams pay for their mistake. Fast-forward to this season and a whole new picture starts to appear. Skinner gets elbowed in the head and misses about a month due to concussion symptoms. Once he returns, he doesn't seem to display the same demeanor anymore and his play starts to borderline on questionable from time to time. Now just imagine Jeff Skinner playing in the Playoffs. For as much abuse as he takes during the regular season, could he even hold up through a 7 game playoff series? What if he took that elbow that Daniel Alfredsson received? Would we be talking about Jeff Skinner's career being in question or even worse, his long-term health?

The NHL needs to address this issue now before it becomes too late. They need to take the disciplinarian duties out of 1 man's hands and make it a committee (maybe 3 to 5 people). They need to set that any "egregious" hit, as determined by the committee, will automatically receive a 3 game suspension for a 1st offence, a 5 game suspension for a 2nd offence, and so on. They should also set that if the player that receives the "egregious" hit is out for any amount of time, the offender must miss the same number of games before his suspension even begins. The league needs to make it a detriment to deliver these illegal and unnecessary actions. I believe this is way that you prevent players from deliberately injuring other players.