I’ll get it out of the way early… when I suggest the NHL should make sure to protect a player like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews during this season’s NHL playoffs, what I really mean is players like McDavid and Matthews. Sure, there is only one Connor McDavid and no one seems to score goals like Matthews, but there are a ton of skilled NHL stars about to make their way to the postseason and showcase the game in a way only they can.
The reason I use someone like McDavid as an example is because his 100-point season is fresh in our collective minds and the easiest way to represent the fact that a skilled NHLer has brought a ton of positive attention to the game of hockey in an otherwise tumultuous year.
The reality is, the NHL needs to do a better job of protecting all of its stars, period. McDavid and Matthews the biggest among them. That people were talking about whether or not he could hit 100 points in a 56-game season and now they’re talking about whether or not he could hit 105 or 110 is great publicity for a league that does a pretty lousy job of marketing their top-end talents. That Matthews easily hit 40 is incredible.
Unlike the NFL or the NBA that capitalizes on the marketability of its best players, the NHL seems to be way behind in that respect. Moreover, the rules themselves don’t protect the best players in the world and the recent incidences with Tom Wilson and Artemi Panarin are just the latest example of it.
Some will argue that a player like McDavid gets away with just as much as he takes. That simply isn’t true. It’s not true of Matthews, Nathan McKinnon, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane or any of the other stars the fans are tuning in to see on a nightly basis. And, if these players are taking liberties with the rules — see a McDavid elbow on Jesperi Kotkaniemi earlier this season — it’s because he’s grown increasingly frustrated with a lack of calls, specifically for obvious infractions.
It doesn’t excuse it, but it might explain it.
What the NHL doesn’t seem to realize (until it’s too late) is that protecting these players before something happens is a better course of action versus waiting until something does happen. The league is too busy protecting the “integrity of the game” to protect the players that make it entertaining and the playoffs are a time of year where the NHL really wants to draw in viewers.
Imagine what happens if the Oilers play the Winnipeg Jets in Game 1 of their series and McDavid takes a boarding hit that knocks him out of the series? What happens if a scrum ensues near the net in the Montreal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs series and someone whacks Matthews on the wrist? By then it’s too late and a key component of the entertainment value of the NHL’s game is gone.
Physicality Gears Up in the NHL Postseason
I’m certainly not suggesting the NHL remove the physical nature of the playoffs. That’s what a lot of fans love about this time of year. It’s why they call it “playoff hockey”. At the same time, ensuring the officials call a penalty a penalty is paramount to protecting the skilled players who will be an obvious target. Not letting games get out of hand — as has often happened this season — needs to be a priority.
The Wilson play, the playoff atmosphere and the tradition of referees putting their whistles away is not actually going to help the game over the course of the next few weeks. Simply call what needs calling when the rules are being broken. If it isn’t a penalty, don’t call it.
That may be difficult seeing as how the NHL had it’s own controversy this season when an official was caught on a hot mic admitting to calling a penalty to even things out. Set the tone early, allow for physicality, but within the confines of the rules. And, for fans who argue that’s only going to open the game up for star players to have four or five-point nights… all I can say to you is, ‘What’s you’re point?”
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