The most-debated hit of the young postseason will now be met with the most-debated suspension of the postseason. Ottawa Senators defenseman Eric Gryba has been handed a two-game ban by the NHL for his hit on Montreal's Lars Eller Thursday.
There are a lot of factors in play, but the hit resulted in an injury and a gruesome scene on the ice.
While a lot of folks seem to agree that the hit was clean with an ugly result, it was contact to the head leading to a player stretchered off the ice. This isn't the type of imagery the NHL wants during its period of highest exposure, but does the punishment fit the crime?
Even after Brendan Shanahan's explanation, it's difficult to say for sure.
Looking at the facts, however, and based on the numerous replays shown in the disciplinary video, the head is the principle point of contact.
Shanahan says, "We do not feel he makes enough of a full-body check for this hit not to qualify as an illegal check to the head."
Shanahan also explained that Gryba did not intend to make an illegal check, but did not succeed in his attempt at a clean hit.
This is an interesting explanation. In fact, this ruling may actually fly in the face of Rule 48, which outlines what an illegal check to the head consists of.
Rule 48 states: “A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.” Targeted and the principle point of contact means it needs to be both, not one or the other.
In this instance, did Gryba target Eller's head? That's not clear in the video and it doesn't seem Shanahan ever got the point across that the department of player safety thought it was targeting. Gryba certainly made the head the principle point of contact, but it's less certain he was targeting the head.
This hit offers a tremendous case study for the debate surrounding checks to the head.
In the effort to more effectively curtail checks to the head, perhaps it is best not to differentiate intent from result, kind of like what it seems Shanahan did with the Gryba decision. That leaves less to interpretation and keeps the onus on the player delivering the check to avoid head contact at all cost.
If Rule 48 was altered to simply read, “a hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is the principle point of contact is not permitted,” it's a black and white rule. There's no interpretation necessary. Then it just comes down to the severity of the hit, which still allows for some subjectivity.
A cut-and-dried Rule 48 would also plainly spell out for players what is or isn't suspendable, leaving less room for debate.
There will always be plays in which head contact cannot be avoided, but if the head is hit as the result of an attempted body check, the NHL could be well within its rights to suspend a player. It isn't technically right now, but again, it seems like that's what Shanahan just decided to do with Gryba.
The NHL, its general managers and almost certainly the NHLPA would be reluctant to make all head contact illegal. However, Gryba's hit on Eller highlights the gray area between a legal and illegal hit, which makes it that much more difficult to make a suitable or at least consistent disciplinary decision.
No suspension for Gryba would have probably been too little, but there seems to be a wide opinion that two games seems too great. If following Rule 48 by the letter of the law as it reads now, the latter opinion might be accurate.
Maybe strengthening Rule 48 isn't the ideal solution, but it's certainly better than making up new interpretations as they go along.