Separating body from puck: The evolution of hitting, as weighed by the Kings - LA Kings Insider

There was a dangerous and controversial hit in the Edmonton-Anaheim game Saturday night that drew some attention around the league but went unpenalized. The attention to that hit – Hampus Lindholm’s shove in the numbers on Connor McDavid, who was skating at high speed in a vulnerable area near the corner boards – has largely dissipated some five days later, but it remains an interesting topic in a league looking to remove the most dangerous hits from the game while regulating engagement as players have become more conditioned and faster, equipment is stronger, and hits more jarring.

Lindholm’s a hard player, not a dirty player, but whether or not it’s a superstar on the receiving end, that’s still the type of play that the league would like to eliminate. It’s a player adding force to someone vulnerable and off-balance in a dangerous area near the boards where an injury may occur. Thankfully, the most exciting player in the game today was able to shake off the collision – which came less than 24 hours after McDavid had been elbowed by Drew Doughty behind the play and weathered a heavy and legal open-ice hit from Jeff Carter.

It’s part of a seemingly effective effort across all levels of the sport to reduce the frequency and severity of head injuries, a nebulous process that requires adjusting rules and re-programming players’ habits and behaviors.

“I think the rules are huge,” Willie Desjardins said. “It seems like all of us will push the rules as far as we can, but I think they’ve done a good job of putting the rules in and putting them all the way through at all levels, and I think that’s making players more and more aware. And, the other thing, too, is just the respect for each other. The head injuries, for sure. You’re going to have hard hits, you’re going to get injuries, but that can happen in a game, but I think they’ve done a great job with targeting in the head and they’ve been pretty strict on it, and I think it’s good for hockey all the way through.”

But this behavior is designed to affect decision-making as players have a tenth of a second to make decisions that affect the health and livelihood of other players, all of whom are constantly in motion. This is an extremely challenging process, and though the desired effect appears to be taking root, it’s non-linear and difficult to gauge exactly how and where behavior has evolved.

To discuss these nuances in hitting, I spoke with several “heavier” members of the LA Kings who’ve been on both the sending and receiving sides of heavy hits. One is Kyle Clifford, who already missed time this year as he went through protocol following an elbow to his face by Vegas’ Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Clifford has also sustained documented head injuries in a March, 2011 fight with St. Louis’ Ryan Reaves, on Byron Bitz’s boarding major in the team’s 2012 first round series against Vancouver, in November, 2013 when he “got his bell rung” against Vancouver, as well as a “protocol”-requiring injury when he was elbowed in the face by Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman in December, 2015. Jake Muzzin, also queried, has never been suspended or fined because of a hit, but did have a match penalty from the 2015-16 season rescinded and was fined two seasons ago for diving/embellishment. Here’s what they had to say about the topic:

Kyle Clifford, on Hampus Lindholm’s hit on Connor McDavid amidst efforts to eliminate bad hits:
That hit, like, McDavid’s super-fast, and Lindholm’s probably like, ‘I can’t let this guy beat me, because he’s just burning everybody,’ so that’s just the type of respect McDavid gets. You let up for half a second with him, and you’re on the wrong side of it. So, I think with that one, he was coming in fast and it kind of looked like McDavid lost his balance a little bit, and then that shove makes it look really bad. But it’s so fast, it’s hard to describe because as a fan you’re sitting there, you’re looking up, you’re like ‘oh, that was totally avoidable,’ when you see the play happen. But as a player, you’re only seeing so much. You’re not seeing everything. You don’t see a guy coming in on your blind side, and it’s on the offensive and the defensive player, too. It’s hard for both guys to see it.

Clifford, on whether league intervention and education has helped change player behavior:
When I first came in, you could definitely get away with a lot more, and now I think you’re just watching some of the hits, and a big thing is just trying to keep your hands and elbows down. That’s where guys get in a lot of trouble. For guys that are big hitters, that’s how they make their big hits – they get their hands up and they lunge a little bit. Sometimes it’s better not to have as big of contact, it’s just making contact and slowing the player down. [Reporter: Separating body from puck.] Yeah, I mean that’s what it is now. You can run around and kill guys, but you’re going to find yourself in trouble eventually because some of the way the offensive players are, they’re really gifted and shifty, whereas before, you know the guy’s coming down the wall and you’re going to line him up and it’s going to be shoulder-on-shoulder, where now, they will be shifty and their head’s moving from one direction to another, and it’s like a split second.

Clifford, on hitting while being respectful of your opponent and avoiding injuring them:
I think it’s changed with the game. You either figure it out, or you sit in the box and you hurt your team. The way the game’s played, special teams are a huge factor. You either learn the hard way or you don’t. There have been players where their careers are shortened because they didn’t learn to change the style of play. I remember there’s one guy on San Jose, he was a really effective player, he played hard but he just got himself in trouble a lot. It’s tough when you’ve got a guy that’s going to continuously be suspended. It hurts the team taking penalties, and you just can’t do that to your team.

Jake Muzzin, on the lightning-fast thought process of deeming whether a player is eligible to be hit, and following through:
It’s a judgment on the player, too. Sometimes things get heated in a game where you’re not thinking straight, you’re thinking you want to get payback, right? I think a lot of injuries that are bad hits come from emotion that takes over the proper way to think of when you’re going into a hit. I think that has a big effect on it. I don’t know how to say this – some younger guys, too, try to play tough, and it’s not really their style. They don’t know how to [regularly hit cleanly], so when they go to do it, they do it the wrong way and it hurts someone. So, I think a lot of that has some input into it. But I think for myself, going into a hit, I’ve found myself this year not letting up, but just getting in the guy’s way as opposed to taking advantage of a player that’s in a vulnerable position to get hit. It’s different when it comes to playoff time and you’re trying to make a statement and play hard – you’re still playing hard, but you’re playing the right way. Guys are getting fined all over the place and you don’t want to cause injury and stuff like that, so there are a lot of different factors that go into a hit.

Muzzin, on whether the NHL’s intervention has helped change players’ habits:
There are ways of going about it where you can still play physical and not be dirty. Some hits, it happens so quick. The game is so quick. A lot of it, too, sometimes the hit is going to be clean, and the guy who’s getting hit turns, and then it forces an injury. We talked about that with the NHL, the safety – those situations happen, too. It’s not just a hit. There’s a lot that goes into a hit. You want to play hard and physical, but you want to be safe at the same time.

Via Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts:

4. When there was no penalty on Hampus Lindholm for driving McDavid into the boards during that game, I wondered if the Oilers captain had a bad reputation among officials or something. In fact, I’m told it is the exact opposite — that he barely says anything and just goes about his business like a true professional. That penalty has to be called, though. Thankfully, there was no injury. You can’t call everything, but McDavid deserves better protection from the officials than that.

-Lead photo via Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire