Making Sense of the James Neal Knee to Brad Marchand

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If you haven’t seen what happened during the Penguins-Bruins game Saturday Night here’s the brief rundown:

Before jumping into the breakdown of the events, I want to mention that I can’t pretend to not be influenced by my local color. But if you follow me to the end, you should find this to be a fair and balanced assessment of the situation.

So, from the video we can see that hostilities got started from what looks like a violent, but undeniably clean hit. Brooks Orpik is a smart NHL player who has made his living on such plays, he’s never been suspended, he doesn’t fight, and the consideration that he ever tries to hurt players is pretty well above reproach. Very few national commentators have voiced any discontent with Orpik’s hit. The fact of the matter is that when two big, tall NHL players collide (both are over 6’2” and weigh over 200 lbs) then the hit will look violent, especially in open ice, and especially with Eriksson following the puck and only catching Orpik at the very last second. That doesn’t make a hit dirty or malicious.

Further, Shawn Thornton’s actions against Orpik are indefensible, they are everything that is wrong with the NHL, and anything short of a suspension of at least double digit games would be a failure of the league to adequately police the situation. Even in a league characterized by the brutality of the NHL, it is rare to see a player get sucker punched from behind, driven to the ice, and then punched as he continues to lie defenseless on the ice. Many have pointed to Todd Bertuzzi’s jumping of Steve Moore for comparison, and although it’s true that Bertuzzi’s hit ended Moore’s career, Bertuzzi stopped at throwing Moore to the ice, not something that Thornton seemed to consider here. For an interesting take on Thornton’s action check out this column from Dejan Kovacevic, he’s not exactly wrong.

The much more nuanced argument, however, is what to do with James Neal, and his knee to the head of the prone Brad Marchand. The NHL has already announced a phone hearing for Neal on Monday, which means that he should prepare to stay at home, at least for Monday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. But the question remains, how many games for Neal?

Intent v. Stupidity

Don’t mistake me with the title of this subheading, I don’t think that Brendan Shanahan will care whether James Neal is simply too stupid to know better than to skate past a player with his knee raised up to possibly make contact with Marchand’s head. The more difficult thing for Shanahan to determine though, is whether or not this was a “premeditated” attack against a defenseless player.

And to that extent, it would be hard for Neal to even justify that he was caught in the heat of the moment for this game. There is a clear history between Neal and Marchand dating back to last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

On this blatant board, Marchand was issued a 2-minute penalty, after Matt Cooke was given a 5-minute major and game misconduct on a very similar play earlier in the game. Further, given the way that Claude Julien prefers to matchup his lines against the Penguins, this would have been the first significant even strength exposure the two had against each other since those playoffs (with no Evgeni Malkin in the lineup for the Penguins, Neal spent more time skating with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz against Marchand-Bergeron-Eriksson in this game). So this probably isn’t a stupid “heat of the moment” type play, this carries with it 6 months of bad blood and vitriol, that’s a strike against Neal.

The Players Police Themselves

The biggest fallacy and problem in the NHL is the notion of players policing themselves. If they did that they would collect fines and issue suspensions themselves. Of course they don’t. And when they do they find a way to distort and embarrass the already disturbed notion of what constitutes “frontier justice.”

I’m not even talking about Shawn Thornton’s criminal assault on Brooks Orpik. I’m talking about James Neal’s personal and petty decision to attack Brad Marchand at his most vulnerable. While Thornton’s actions are barbaric, and to reiterate, criminal, the justification is plain: he believed he was avenging a similarly heinous act against a teammate of his, but Neal’s motivations are much more personal–he wanted to punish Marchand for what should have been a bygone event. An event that has been paid back multiple times from each side.

A common critique against James Neal is that he has a bit of a mean streak and he occasionally crosses the line. He was suspended in the 2012 postseason for a hit on Claude Giroux, and this event seems to replicate Neal’s occasional crossing of the line. He’s no different than many a star player in the NHL, no different than the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Corey Perry, both of whom have been suspended for losing their cool in the past.

And that’s really where the failure of the “players police themselves” policy falls flat: more so than in any other sport, the NHL allows it’s star players to fake reformation in the interest of selling an interesting product. Right now, the NHL has the opportunity to punish a star player in a way that is far more reformative than ever before.

Will the league show the backbone to affect the change that is needed? Now that’s an interesting question.

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