Saturday, February 16, 2013

On the Justification of Matt Cooke Escaping Supplemental Discipline

When Brendan Shanahan succeeded Colin Campbell as the NHL's chief disciplinarian in June of 2011, the change was fueled by widespread criticism of the latter's tenure, culminating with the leak of certain emails he composed in 2006 and 2007. Already under fire for his inconsistency when handing down suspensions, Campbell's emails worked as additional evidence of biases preventing the proper function of the position to be achieved.

Shortly after Campbell stepped down, Shanahan acknowledged that the goal behind supplemental discipline is "player safety," and has since followed through on his pledge for decision-making to be done in a more uniform and transparent manner. More or less, Shahahan wanted to shift away from Campbell's general ambiguity regarding whether or not a play would receive attention from the league, instead making it widely known why or why not certain conduct would be considered and/or deemed suspendable. In the brief period we've known the "Shanaban" to be in existence, whether or not we agree with the final ruling, Shanahan's videos explaining the reasoning behind every decision have certainly worked to create a more uniform understanding of what the league is looking at in each case.

Enter: Matthew David Cooke.

By now, we've all formed an opinion on the controversial play that occurred during the second period of Wednesday night's game between Ottawa and Pittsburgh. Whether or not one believes that Matt Cooke acted with the intent to injure Erik Karlsson, those charged with deciding whether supplemental discipline was warranted ultimately concluded intent to injure was absent in this case.

For many, this was a suitable end to what was commonly deemed a "hockey play." However, a rather curious word appearing in the reasoning from the NHL and others alike is that of "intent." Granted, it is admittedly difficult to establish intent on a play like this because of the general speed of hockey and how fast things happen at ice-level. Nonetheless, is Cooke's intent something we should be worried about here? The following video points out the validity of such a question:

Using the standard format adopted since becoming the Director of NHL Player Safety, Shanahan goes through an analysis of an illegal check by Colin McDonald on Ben Lovejoy. After determining that McDonald was guilty of boarding, Shanahan candidly admits that he accepts McDonald's assertion of no malicious intent. What is more, Shanahan explains that McDonald's intent is immaterial because it is a "reckless and dangerous play." Running through the other factors commonly considered, he notes that there was no apparently injury and that McDonald has no prior history of discipline.

Moving back to the standard of culpability, if intent was immaterial when suspending McDonald because his conduct was "reckless," why is it suddenly required to discipline Cooke? Moreover, if the league is implying that intent, rather than recklessness, must be the standard for a play to be adjudged illegal after the fact (which doesn't seem to be the case), the league's justification for Cooke escaping supplemental discipline is yet another chapter in a library of inconsistent rulings. We can infer that the Department of Player Safety doesn't believe Cooke to be guilty of their first element, e.g. a rules infraction, but the absence of a clear articulation of such a position is rather illogical.

In other words, why speak to Cooke's intent when it should be immaterial? Though intent to injure is difficult to prove here, can the same be said for recklessness? The league must have felt so, noting that the decision for Cooke to escape supplemental discipline also included the absence of a hearing.

In a video that’s gained praise for establishing how common these sorts of plays are, TSN's Aaron Ward cites two examples from the first period of Wednesday's Dallas at Calgary game, where players go for what he calls a "hit and pin," similar to Cooke's check on Karlsson.

However, after watching the video, there was a noticeable difference between Cooke's attempt and the others that were examined. Rather than establish an absence of blame for Cooke's conduct, Ward's examples actually helped explain just how dangerous the check actually was.

Consider the following images:

When contact is initiated between Cooke and Karlsson, both players are heading toward the boards as they try to retrieve a loose puck. Karlsson's position includes the gap between his legs necessary to pin a player, seemingly Cooke's intention bearing in mind the position of his left leg.

Before the players make contact with the wall, Cooke's right skate is positioned at the same angle of the first image above, while the gap between Karlsson's legs has narrowed, a result of their battle for position. However, Cooke's left skate has risen from the ice, and his skate blade is noticeably at a much wider angle than before, almost parallel to the boards. A bit of a peculiar line to take rather than establishing a pin by pointing his foot at a 90 degree angle to the boards, situated to the left of Karlsson's right leg. Even so, should the two contact the wall in this position, all of this is likely of little concern.

However, the moment Karlsson reaches the wall is where the issue develops. Cooke's skate still remains at a wide open angle rather than pointed at the "GH" in "Highmark" along the boards, and has actually reached its highest point above ice level. Karlsson's legs have slowly closed prior to impact, the gap required for a pin now removed. Whether it was Cooke's decision or natural reaction to channel his inner Captain Morgan, his skate being parallel to the boards instead of pointed toward them has put Karlsson in a vulnerable position should it contact the unprotected back of his legs.

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Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens. There remains a wide disparity between the angles of Cooke's left and right skates, and Cooke's failure to place his left skate between either of Karlsson's results in his blade contacting the back of Karlsson's left Achilles. An unfortunate result to an unfortunate play, but just how common is something like this?

Let us move to Aaron Ward’s breakdown below:

Right away, we see that Ward's first example of a "hit and pin" involving Dillon and Stempniak is markedly dissimilar to when the contact initiated between Cooke and Karlsson. Rather than having both players engaged with one another and gliding into the boards together, Stempniak is already close to the wall as Dillon approaches from a distance. Stempniak also has neither his back turned, nor the unprotected back section of his legs vulnerable to a skate blade.

Stepmniak then plays the puck around the end-wall, while Dillon goes for the "pin," which seems to resemble more of a standard body check. Regardless, notice where Dillon's skates are compared to Cooke's just before impact.

The noted whirling dervish that he is, Stempniak jumps out of the way of the check. It is only after Dillon contacts the wall that his skate rises above the yellow.

Example number two involved Dennis Wideman making a pin attempt as he skates in, also from a distance:

The difference between this hit and Ward's first example is that the Dallas player gets the puck tangled between his legs, meaning the disc wasn't moving prior to contact as with Dillon's missed check.

Once he receives the puck, the gap between his legs necessary for a pin is exhibited.

Again, just prior to contact, both of Wideman's skates remain on the ice. Wideman then moves into position to establish the pin.

It is only once contact is made and the puck battle is established that Wideman's right skate comes above ice level, again nowhere near as high as the skate that injured Karlsson. What is more, his blade is at a 90 degree angle to the wall, ensuring the Dallas player is in no danger of unnecessary injury.

Though it is inarguable that pinning a player along the wall happens during every NHL game, it does not follow that Ward's examples absolve Cooke of wrongdoing. Whether or not Cooke intended to hurt Karlsson, there is an argument to be made that Cooke's reckless positioning of his left leg and skate blade worked to put Karlsson in a vulnerable situation, as opposed to the examples of Dillon or Wideman. Perhaps conduct similar to Cooke's is more common than Ward's illustrations seem to suggest, but players have engaged one another heading into the boards with few similar resulting injuries to-date.

It is true that we don't know whether Matt Cooke intended to hurt Erik Karlsson. However, it is rather evident that the way he approached his check doesn't seem to do Karlsson many favors, while the league's sudden fixture with Cooke's intent ignores a play with the signs of reckless conduct. If the Department of Player Safety doesn't want to suspend Cooke, that's ultimately their call. However, relying on his failure to meet a level of culpability that until now hasn't been required, all the while refusing to grant a hearing when signs of recklessness could be established, Karlsson suffered an injury on the play, and Cooke has a lengthy prior history, is unjustifiable.

Brendan Shanahan was supposed to help rid ambiguity from the NHL's administering of supplemental discipline. However, if the standard of review is constantly in flux, the NHL's "wheel of justice" shall live long and prosper.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

On Using A Non-Sliding ELC To Your Advantage

I don't blame NHL fans, even very passionate and well-informed ones, for getting the off-ice rules wrong from time to time.  I do blame them for not knowing that a two-way contract has nothing to do with waivers, but that is here nor there.  Still, the rules that guide NHL general managers in their dealings are more complicated than ever, and the document which guides these complications is stunningly opaque.  GMs constantly get the fine points wrong, so why should I expect more out of fans?

The Devils recently used 2012 draft pick Stefan Matteau in his 6th game of the season, meaning that his contract stops sliding - he'll now be a restricted free agent in July 2015.  Matteau was drafted 29th overall, which is about where he was expected to go.  He put up unremarkable numbers in the QMJHL during the lockout.  In the NHL, he's been getting about ten minutes a game, almost all of it at even strength, and has recorded zero points.  In short, it seems very stupid to start an ELC for a player like this - Matteau's not that good now, he'll now be restricted in 2015, and he's going to be an unrestricted free agent in 2019, two years earlier than his age suggests.  Or is he?

Unrestricted free agency is governed by two things.  First, a player's age - if he's 27 or older when his contract expires, he's an unrestricted free agent.  The other thing is accrued seasons - if a player has 7 or more accrued seasons, at the conclusion of his contract, he is an unrestricted free agent.  The key here is the words 'accrued season', which means something very specific - an accrued season happens when a player is on the roster for 40 or more NHL games in a season.  He doesn't have to play those games, just be on the roster.  I don't know what counts as an 'accrued season' in a 48 game schedule, but I'm guessing it's in the same proportion as X is to 48 as 40 is 82  (which is around 23).  Now the Devils can still send Matteau back to junior even though his ELC has begun - it's just that teams don't frequently do this because ELCs on 18 year olds capable of playing in the NHL usually represent tremendous value - that player is likely a future star.  It doesn't make sense to use a year off that contract unless you're going to use the entire year.  However, Matteau is not a likely star, and his contract this year is for $925,000, and the Devils are not close to being a cap team, either now or in the future.  If that's the case, while Matteau's second contract will probably be for something between $1 million and $1.5 million per season, his making a few extra hundred thousand dollars on his second contract is largely immaterial.  Furthermore, Matteau having not played in junior hockey in 2011-12, is eligible for the AHL next year - the Devils could keep him there and use him in the NHL as an injury replacement, making sure that he only goes over the 40 game limit in an emergency (or if he gets injured).  Conceivably, the Devils could get 57 games out of Matteau before his free agency clock starts ticking, giving him NHL experience while not sabotaging the far future.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Ottawa Senators Deserve Your Respect

Through the course of two twitter conversations today, I have again noticed a sentiment that seems to underrate the Ottawa Senators:

This could merely be my own confirmation bias at play, but I get the feeling that the majority of NHL fans that watch the games, let alone those of us refusing to leave our mother's basement, would say that the Senators have no place near the top of the standings and are playing above their heads. Cue the reason that you've been linked to this post: the numbers.

Lest we forget, Ottawa made a trade last December, sending Derek Rundblad and a 2nd round draft pick to Phoenix in exchange for the services of Kyle Turris. Turris was dubbed 'selfish,' a 'flake,' or [insert non-Good Ol' Canadian Boy stereotype here] as a result of his contract holdout at the start of the season, seemingly the prime candidate for the old 'a change of scenery could be what he needs' narrative after a mediocre boxcar-stats start to his career.

At the time of the trade, Ottawa was just a .491 Fenwick team with the score tied, and a .498 team with the score close. Over the next 49 games with Turris in the lineup, the team improved to .502 and .512, respectively. They would finish 13th and 12th overall, but their latter score would have ranked them 9th (behind Vancouver) had they maintained such a level for the entire season. In a 49 game sample, I'm inclined to give greater weight to the category that provides us with about 60% more data to work with on average.

What is more, post trade deadline, the Senators were ranked 6th in the league in Score-Adjusted Fenwick, and promptly beat the Rangers both territorially and in scoring chances. Since then, the team traded Nick Foligno to the Blue Jackets for Mark Methot, signed Guillaume Latendresse, and began to utilize a slew of young talent in their system growing closer to NHL contribution every day. After seven games this season, Ottawa has picked up right where they left off and currently sit third in both FenTied and FenClose with a 5-1-1 record.

It remains to be seen whether natural progression leaps from heavily relied on players such as Turris and Karlsson will be enough to sustain company among the league's elite, but it shouldn't come as a surprise that Ottawa is performing this well; the writing has been on the wall for some time now.

Kudos to the New York Rangers for catching on before the rest of us; had I realized how good Ottawa was at the time, I too would have showered fans with confetti after squeaking by the conference's 8th seed.