Wojo: NHL timing is off with Kronwall's suspension
Tampa, Fla. – Niklas Kronwall made a reckless play and paid for it. And thanks to the NHL's dubious system of justice, he overpaid for it.
Kronwall was punished for his vicious check on Nikita Kucherov, suspended for Game 7 against the Lightning on Wednesday night. But really, it seems Kronwall was punished for previous flamboyant hits, and previous hits by other players. This was the NHL's chance to stand on a Game 7 stage and loudly declare it was doing something about head trauma.
A noble stance, but a ridiculous time to take it. I'm not saying the NHL makes up rules as it goes, but there hasn't been this much replay breakdown and word parsing since the NFL began talking about completing the process. With so many other questionable on-ice acts during the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Kronwall's hit — which didn't appear to injure Kucherov, who returned to play — is the only one to draw a suspension?
This is where the NHL consistently screws up, with inconsistently administered sanctions. This is one of the most-impactful one-game punishments in NHL history, reportedly one of only three times a player has been suspended on the eve of a Game 7. Really? For a hit that didn't cause injury, delivered by a guy who'd never been fined or suspended? (Although Kronwall does play on the edge).
And please, don't use the lame line about every game being the same, requiring equal punishment. It's not equal cost and equal circumstance between a regular-season game and the biggest game of the year for both teams.
Kronwall and his teammates stood before the media Wednesday and respectfully disagreed with the ruling, but couldn't spend much time lamenting. Mike Babcock didn't want to talk about it for fear of getting fined. And it's not an easy thing to discuss because Kronwall's hit was delivered with unnecessary force, although it wasn't clear both his skates were off the ice when he made contact. If it is suspension-worthy, Game 7 is the only option, but an incredibly harsh option for the team's best defenseman.
"I disagree with the decision, I feel like it happened a little bit different way than they felt," Kronwall said. "That's how it is. I did something that put them in a situation where they could make the final call. So any way you look at it, that's on me."
It is on Kronwall, and the days of hunting for gigantic hits might be over. I think the league probably is embarrassed it let "Getting Kronwalled" become a thing, even though most of those booming blows over the years were legally delivered to the upper body, not the head.
It's important to keep this in perspective. No, this is not some anti-Wings vendetta by the league and player safety honcho Stephane Quintal. Wings fans will don the conspiracy hats, especially considering Henrik Zetterberg had his head slammed into the boards by Nashville's Shea Weber at the end of a playoff game in 2012. The blows were so forceful, Zetterberg's helmet cracked, and Weber skated away with a fine.
This is a case of the league recognizing past mistakes — such as that non-suspension — and trying to overcompensate when it comes to head blows. Again, it's understandable considering the horrific effects of head trauma in all sports. But pick a stance and stick with it. I think the NHL realized, in the midst of its protect-the-head initiative, it couldn't allow the Kronwall hit to be the highlight reel for league passiveness and hypocrisy. Show that replay again and again and say the offending player didn't even get a penalty, and try to explain that.
Kronwall should have been penalized, and when he wasn't, the league was more compelled to act, in my opinion. Because the NHL obviously needs help differentiating between nasty acts, it at least should heavily weigh whether the "victim" was seriously injured.
Kucherov said he was fine and didn't want to make a big deal of it. Zetterberg said similar things three years ago, and the absence of injury was a factor in Weber receiving only a fine. That's not a perfect standard, but it makes some sense.
To me, it comes down to intent and outcome. The intent of an offending player is difficult to gauge, although there are circumstances — retaliation, history of transgression — that can help define it. The outcome – whether an injury occurred – is easier to define.
For instance, elsewhere in these playoffs, Montreal's P.K. Subban took a well-timed whack at Ottawa's Mark Stone and broke his wrist. He was ejected, but not suspended. Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien slammed Anaheim's Corey Perry's head to the ice after a goal, no suspension.
Even in this series, Tampa Bay's Onrej Palat drove Luke Glendening's head into the boards, and Justin Abdelkader was crunched between Steven Stamkos and Jason Garrison. Those weren't open-ice highlight shots, replayed over and over. Those weren't opportunities for the NHL to make a showy statement about player safety.
It's a fair statement, that head hits must be minimized. It was a wildly arbitrary time to make it.