Everyone has their favorite harbingers that a new NHL season is upon us. Fresh ice. Awkward player photos. Unsigned restricted free agents threatening to sit out of meaningless games. Optimism in Toronto.
Mine? The preseason penalty crackdown.
Every year, the NHL’s hockey operations department, egged on by disgruntled and aggrieved general managers, zeroes in on a rule it wants to overenforce in exhibition games and during the first month of the regular season, in order to change player behavior.
Previously, we had the crackdown on interference. The crackdown on slashing. The crackdown on faceoff violations, which Brad Marchand memorably called “an absolute joke” in the 2017-18 preseason.
For the 2021-22 season? It’s a crackdown on cross-checking.
“On cross-checking?” asked Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy, rhetorically.
Yes, on cross-checking.
“I mean, I don’t think guys really think about it,” he explained to me at the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago. “OK, maybe around the net, where you’re being a little bit aggressive. But you’re never taught to skate around the ice with two hands on the stick, cross-checking guys.”
The NHL doesn’t care about how the behavior was learned. It just wants to change the behavior — by any means necessary.
In a video shown to the Board of Governors this week that will be distributed to the teams in training camp, the NHL states that there will be “stricter enforcement” of Rule 59 on cross-checking. Specifically, the “stricter enforcement” will occur in three areas where cross-checks are delivered:
Around the boards: The example provided by the NHL included a series of cross-checks being delivered to a player as he battled for the puck in the corner, as well as a cross-check from behind that knocked down a player along the boards. Basically, a tap by a defender will be tolerated, but if he starts acting like an amateur chiropractor, it’s a penalty.
Open ice: Players are allowed to use their sticks to “push or guide” a player defensively. But it’s when that push involves excessive force that’s the problem. Among the examples given here: Connor McDavid being knocked down by a stick while driving into the opposing defensive zone. (Someone please tell Connor that’s he’s been heard and seen.)
Net front: The specific infraction here isn’t necessarily the battles in front of the goal, where offensive and defensive players can sometimes trade cross-checks as they jockey for position. Rather, the league wants to crack down on cross-checks from defensive players from the faceoff dots down to the crease, sending opponents to the ice while there’s a shot coming from the point.
Cross-checking is commonplace in the NHL. It’s actually refreshing to hear players openly discuss using the tactic, as opposed to when they talk about embellishment and say that every other player in the league dives except for them.
“I’d be lying if I said I never cross-checked guys,” said Mark Stone, the defensive ace for the Vegas Golden Knights and a four-time Selke Trophy finalist.
He told me a cross-checking crackdown could have a huge effect on the NHL.
“Cross-checking has become almost natural in the game. I cross-check. I get cross-checked. That’s just how it’s been. But if they’re trying to get rid of injuries, I can understand why they’re doing it. It’s a sensitive area. In the playoffs especially, it can get a little out of control,” he said.
Roman Josi won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman two years ago.
“Obviously, it does affect me. It’ll be an adjustment. It’s part of your game in the corners, trying to get forwards off pucks. They’re big and strong. You have to do something to get them off pucks. You give them a little cross-check in the back,” he said.
“But there has to be a line. It can be dangerous. You never want to cross-check a guy when there’s a risk for injury. So as a defenseman, we’ll have to adjust a little bit.”
Especially now that cross-checks are suddenly suspension-worthy events.
Last season, there were seven fines but only one suspension for cross-checking. In 2019-20, there were four fines and just two suspensions. That’s about to change.
The Department of Player Safety is going to scrutinize two kinds of cross-checks for potential supplemental discipline: Cross-checks away from the puck to a vulnerable area of an opponent, and cross-checks delivered the back while a player is skating towards the boards at a significant speed, causing a collision. In the case of the first, there’s an element of intent to injure. In the case of the second, the results of the plays can be accidental, but Player Safety will still ring them up for being reckless.
The players I spoke with weren’t as uniformly in agreement about suspending for cross-checks as they were about increasing the frequency of penalties for them.
Stone actually winced when I mentioned possible suspensions.
“I don’t know if it’s that dangerous. There are definitely other things I’ve like to see them crack down on as far as supplemental discipline, compared to cross-checking,” he said.
New York Islanders forward Anders Lee takes his share of cross-checks in front of an opponents’ goalie, but didn’t believe that suspensions for them were a necessity.
“I don’t think you see it enough to really need it. But Player Safety are the ones that have been focused on this. We just go out and play,” he said.
Minnesota Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon was a little more open-minded about it. “I guess it all depends on the severity of it. The refs have a tough job in judging the severity of it,” he said.
The refs’ jobs can’t be ignored here. Whenever the NHL gets a bee in its bonnet about a rule that needs to be emphasized, it falls to the referees to not only enforce it, but act as an ambassador between hockey operations and the baffled players wondering how something that wasn’t getting called in previous seasons has now left his team shorthanded.
“A rule change is tough on the refs, too. They’ve been looking at the game and we’ve been playing that game for a long time. To change it in a quick flash … that can’t be easy,” said Lee.
It won’t be easy for a couple of months. Referees will send a conga line of cross-checkers to the penalty box. Coaches will rant, either because something that should be called wasn’t, or because something that used to not get called was. General managers will yell over the phone at Player Safety head George Parros for having their player made an example during an early-season suspension.
Then the penalties will wane. Player Safety will have set its standard. And we move on.
“I think it takes a little bit. In the preseason, it gets called to the max. And then it lessens as the season goes on,” said Lee.
I know some of my media colleagues believe that cross-checking is a scourge on the league. I think using your stick to ward off an attacker, or to create separation from a defender, is part of the game. I have zero tolerance for a zero-tolerance policy here. Everyone does it.
“Standing in front, I might appreciate it if they’re cracking down,” said Lee. “But you’re jockeying for position, I’m sure there are times when I’ll have to do it too.”
Whether it crosses into illegality is, unfortunately, a judgment call. It’s about the placement of the stick. The force behind the cross-check. And, the trickiest part: whether or not the player on the receiving end of the lumber embellished for effect.
I don’t envy the officials tasked with redrawing that line this preseason. It’s like the NHL has told them what a strike looks like, but it’s still their strike zone. But they’ll call the penalties, the players will adjust, and we’ll just ride it out until the playoffs … where we won’t have to worry about anything being called, cross-checking or otherwise.
From the flaming tables of Buffalo:
Jersey foul? pic.twitter.com/923FTwz3d5
— TS Sabres (@tshockeypodcast) September 11, 2021
This is a Frankenjersey that combines two Nos. 26: Rasmus Dahlin of the Sabres and Devin Singletary of the Bills.
Typically, Frankenjerseys follow a Harvey Dent-like construction, with a split down the middle. This one … well this one is chaos. Obviously a Jersey Foul, but you have to respect the craft and the apparent passion for Rasmus Dahlin.
Three things from the NHL Player Media Tour
1. Jared Spurgeon is considered one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL. He’s worn the crown of “analytics darling” for several seasons. So I asked him if he was aware of that status.
“I don’t really pay attention to that,” he said.
“I don’t really follow analytics or anything. Keith Ballard once told me that stats are for losers … unless you have good ones,” he said.
You’re going to break the stat geeks’ hearts, Jared.
“You can say otherwise if you want,” he said, with a laugh.
2. I watched my colleague Kevin Weekes have a long and interesting chat with Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, and really liked what I heard. Doughty’s 31 years old now. He has a Norris Trophy, two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals. The problem is that all of that was accomplished by 2016, and it’s now 2021. He no longer wants to rest on his laurels.
“Everything I’ve done has been in the past now. I’m not happy with where I’m at in my present. So I need to get back to that,” he said.
I asked Doughty about the Kings’ rebuild. About whether there’s a peek of light at the end the tunnel, as players like himself and Anze Kopitar aren’t getting any younger.
“Yeah, we’re starting to see it. We haven’t put it on ice. We’ve only put it on paper right now. But I’m looking forward to seeing it on the ice. We’re going to be way better this year. There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said, emphatically.
3. Every year at the Players Tour, the NHL’s best and brightest play the media’s reindeer games. We ask them silly questions. We have them do silly things. None sillier than Sportsnet’s bit where they have players attempt to draw their team’s logo, which gifted us this Roman Josi classic:
We challenged Roman Josi to draw the @PredsNHL logo in 60 seconds.
This is art. 🎨 pic.twitter.com/V9zECKRJAG
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) September 16, 2021
I don’t know if that’s a Predator. Or a manatee. Or if a manatee is in fact a predator. I just know art when I see it. And I see it, Roman.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Columbus Blue Jackets
Winger Zac Rinaldo and assistant coach Sylvain Lefebvre aren’t exactly irreplicable. Sending the player to the AHL and firing the coach because they refused to get vaccinated isn’t the team taking a monumental stand, especially given how the NHL’s protocols would impact their respective jobs.
But that doesn’t diminish the impact of president John Davidson taking this moment to say that “everything we do, we do together as a team” in a week where some significant players opted not to get vaccinated, despite the ramifications on their seasons and that of their team. True of hockey. Wish it were true outside of hockey.
Loser: Tracking the 1%
I made several calls this week chasing down names that I heard from NHL sources were among the unvaccinated. Some were inaccurate rumors. Some players had voiced concerns about the vaccine earlier this year, before getting the jab in order to play in 2021-22 without restrictions. I can’t articulate how wretched it is to have this be part of our preseason coverage, when it shouldn’t need to be after all these months. But here we are.
Winner: Kirill Kaprizov
Congrats to the most electrifying player in Minnesota Wild history, which is no small feat considering the sample size. Five years and $45 million is about right for a player of his talents. The average annual value might seem high now, given he’s only 55 games into his NHL career. But if he keeps on having “The Ovechkin Effect” on that market, it’s a deal that’s going to age well.
Loser: Future cap of the Wild
The 2023-24 Wild have seven players under contract and just $28 million in open space under the current salary cap, with Kaprizov’s salary added to the $14,743,588 in dead cap space created by the buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Talk about “win now…”
Winner: Seattle Kraken
As I mentioned in my story this week, the Kraken are setting records for jersey sales. But dig this: On Fanatics retail platforms, the Kraken sold more merch on their launch day than the Vegas Golden Knights sold for the first two months combined after their merch launch in 2017. Beware the Kraken, indeed.
Loser: The Coyote Head
Outside of Phil Kessel and relocation speculation, the Kachina logo is the most notable thing about the current incarnation of the Arizona Coyotes. Your time is done, Coyote Head. Long live the Kachina.
Winner: Sibling agents
Gotta love Matthew Tkachuk and Jack Hughes helping out their brothers in contract talks. Hughes defended Quinn from critics, telling Tim and Friends that he deserves the money he should get and that “when you play on one of the worst teams in the division and in the league that’s bound to happen.” (Speaking from experience?)
Tkachuk, meanwhile, got candid about brother Brady‘s talks with the Ottawa Senators while on Sportsnet’s “31 Thoughts” podcast. “Brady might be … he’s doing great. He might be pulling a classic Tkachuk right now. Dad held out, Matthew held out, and Brady looks like he’s on his way right now. So hopefully it can get figured out here. But it’s just a lot of fake stuff out there regarding this. They’re not too close,” he said.
Loser: The inevitable
There’s zero chance that the Hughes brothers and the Tkachuk brothers don’t all eventually play on the same team respectively. I mean, the St. Louis Blues already have nameplates ready for Matt and Brady within the next five years, right?
Enjoyed this from Arpon Basu of The Athletic on Jonathan Drouin and “an important brand of courage” after going public with his battle with anxiety. “Simply by talking about his experience publicly, by acknowledging what he went through and showing people it is possible to take a step back, to ask for help, has already made Drouin a mentor for so many, not just hockey players.”
All’s well that ends well, but the Islanders should have listened to Butch Goring on Zdeno Chara.
Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas on not trading away his core players: “We would have been different, and maybe that would provide some cover and appease the masses, a little bit, but we wouldn’t be better.”
Interesting story on Bear Hughes, a Washington Capitals prospect from Idaho. “His real name: Cassius Hughes, but he’s always been Bear. In fact, he didn’t know that his name was Cassius until elementary school, when after hearing his mom call the school and tell them Cassius will be absent, asked who that was. It was him.”
The top 15 players from the NHL prospects tournaments. “What a steal Guenther is going to end up being for Arizona.”
A deep dive into goalie Linus Ullmark, who appears to be the man between the pipes for the Boston Bruins. “When Boston came knocking, it felt right, it just felt very right.”
In praise of Nick Suzuki: “The fact that some pundits have penciled him in as a possible alternate for the wildly stacked Team Canada at the 2022 Olympics speaks volumes. Not only is he a legitimate first-line centre, he’s seen as having all-world potential.”
From your friends at ESPN
Victoria Matiash offers advice on how to win your fantasy league this season. “With only a handful of performers responsible for carrying the weight of several categories, your fantasy squad needs consistent play from between the pipes.”