After a relatively quiet first few weeks of the season, the department of player safety was back in the spotlight over the weekend, faced with decisions on two controversial plays: Brandon Dubinsky's crosscheck to Sidney Crosby's neck and Matt Beleskey's late hit that injured Derek Stepan.
The verdicts: One game for Dubinsky and nothing at all for Beleskey. The reaction, as always: Frustration, eye rolls and plenty of criticism that the league just isn’t doing enough to get questionable hits out of the game.
The department has an important job, and because of that it deserves to be scrutinized. For my money, I thought Dubinsky got off too lightly with a one-game suspension, and I gave my thoughts on the Beleskey hit as it happened. I’d like to see the DOPS hand out harsher suspensions overall, although that's something that will happen only when the bosses -- the league’s 30 teams -- give it the go-ahead to start doing so.
But after we’re done shaking our heads over another round of relatively light sentences, let’s do something else. Let’s take a step back and recognize how far this league has come in recent years. Because when it comes to discipline and player safety, the current lay of the land, imperfect as it is, would be all but unrecognizable to fans even a generation ago.
Remember, in 1994, Mark Messier on Mike Modano was considered clean. Pavel Bure's "mother of all elbows" on Shane Churla wasn’t clean; instead, it was judged to be worth a measly $500 fine. A dozen years ago, Scott Stevens KOing guys with shoulders to the head wasn’t just clean, it was celebrated as textbook example of how the game should be played. And even as recently as just five years ago, Matt Cooke could end Marc Savard's career on a blindside headshot without violating a single word of the rulebook.
Compare those hits to Raffi Torres on Jakob Silverberg in the preseason, a hit that earned the San Jose Sharks forward a record 41-game ban. Granted, that suspension was as much a lifetime achievement award as anything, but it came on a hit that just a few years ago would have been completely unremarkable. It’s not that we would have debated it back and forth and finally judged it fair game; it wouldn’t have occurred to us to even debate it at all.
The same could be said for the Beleskey hit. Or, for that matter, Zac Rinaldo on Sean Couturier, or Nino Niederreiter on Olli Maatta. Not long ago, these sorts of hits would have (maybe) made the nightly highlight reels, generated a few high-fives among fans of old-time hockey, and then been immediately forgotten.
Today, these plays are flagged immediately, and at least sometimes subjected to supplemental discipline. And when a decision is made, it’s explained clearly and quickly, with frame-by-frame breakdowns instead of vague press releases. All of that is progress, and that’s true even if we don’t always agree with the final outcome.
Maybe that progress isn’t happening fast enough. Maybe the league would be both better and safer if it erred on the side of too many games instead of too few, and it didn’t take a track record like Torres' to get more than a game or two. You could make a very strong case that the DOPS isn’t hard enough on players who cross the line. But while you’re doing that, let's acknowledge that that line has moved over the years, and it has moved by a lot.
The NHL has a long history of talking about its problems for years on end without ever actually doing anything about them. But when it comes to player safety, and to redefining the sort of hits that do and do not have a place in the game, real strides have been made. Let's not lose sight of that, even as we haggle over an occasional extra game or two.