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What’s the difference between the hit by Backes and the hit on McAvoy?

Lots of Bruins fans are comparing the two. That might not be the best idea.

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Boston Bruins v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

With the news coming down this evening that David Backes has been suspended three games for his hit on Frans Nielsen of the Detroit Red Wings, plenty of Boston Bruins fans are complaining about inconsistency from the league.

The Department of Player Safety, they say, isn’t being fair. Suspending Backes but giving Patric Hornqvist nothing for his hit on Charlie McAvoy isn’t right.

So what’s the story? Let’s take a look.

Here’s the hit by Backes:

And here’s the hit on McAvoy, via dafoomie on YouTube:

It’s hard to blame Bruins fans for being mad about the hit on McAvoy. Any hit to the head is a cause for concern, but one delivered to a key player like McAvoy is going to cause even more consternation.

One was delivered by a Bruin, who was suspended. One was delivered to a Bruin, with not even a penalty called.

Bias, bad officiating, inconsistency, the right call? Really, it’s a mix of all four.

To me, there are three key differences between the two.

The hit by Backes was significantly later than the hit by Hornqvist.

One of the biggest differences is the tiny time frame in which each hit occurred.

Here’s the moment Nielsen was no longer playing the puck, as he simply redirected it out into the slot:


And here’s the moment where Backes made contact with Nielsen:


As you can see by the clock, 0.8 seconds has passed.

I know what you’re thinking, and I agree: we’re talking tenths of a second in a fast-paced game like hockey?!?!

But that’s how the league looks at it. This column by James Mirtle from a few years back gives good information on how the league looks at late hits:

A hit that comes 0.6 seconds after a player has the puck, they’re told, is okay.

At 0.7 seconds and beyond, they’re in trouble – especially if the hit causes an injury.

That’s strike one against Backes. So what about Hornqvist?

It’s a bit trickier because there’s no tenths of a second showing, but you can infer a little from what the time shows.

As you can see, McAvoy has the puck with 5:58 showing:


He plays the puck with 5:58 still showing:


And he’s hit with 5:58 STILL showing:


With those things considered, it’s hard to believe McAvoy got rid of that puck more than a half-second before Hornqvist hit him.

The verdict: Backes’ hit was clearly (the NHL does use slow-mo in reviews) late; the one on McAvoy wasn’t. This becomes a mark against Backes from the start, while it gives Hornqvist a little room.

Nielsen didn’t put himself in a vulnerable position

This is one of the more controversial aspects of the NHL’s hit-to-the-head rule. From the rule book:

A hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable is not permitted. In determining whether contact with an opponent’s head was avoidable, the circumstances of the hit including the following shall be considered:

(i) Whether the player attempted to hit squarely through the opponent’s body and the head was not “picked” as a result of poor timing, poor angle of approach, or unnecessary extension of the body upward or outward.

(ii) Whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position by assuming a posture that made head contact on an otherwise full body check unavoidable.

(iii) Whether the opponent materially changed the position of his body or head immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit in a way that significantly contributed to the head contact.

Point #2 is the tricky one. It almost seem like the NHL is blaming the guy who got hit for nearly getting his head taken off.

Again, to avoid some anger in the comments: this rule is dumb. I agree with you that the rule is dumb. The fact that Charlie McAvoy was crouching doesn’t mean it should be open season on his head.

Unfortunately, a hit can be dirty or predatory while also not technically being a penalty.

In fact, the Bruins were on the other end of play like this last year, when Colin Miller laid out Alexander Burmistrov (thanks to Chris/@crzycanucklehed for pointing this out):

Miller lined up Burmistrov. He hit through his body. Burmistrov was reaching/crouching a bit. Miller made that hit to hurt. It was deemed legal, and no suspension was given.

Getting back to these recent ones, the “position” thing once again dings Backes and gives Hornqvist a little more rope.

Here’s what Backes saw as he lined Nielsen up:


And here’s how he finished the hit:


My guess (and it’s just a guess) is that the league thinks Backes could have easily avoided hitting Nielsen’s head. He could have gone shoulder-to-shoulder, he could have gone with a shove to the chest, something else.

Easy to say after the fact, of course, but it’s something they look at.

With McAvoy, things were a little less clear. His head was down, and he was crouched:


Hornqvist continued on his path, and that took him into McAvoy’s head:


My guess here is that the league saw this as Hornqvist continuing on his path and hitting straight through McAvoy. They also threw some blame on McAvoy, taking (ii) above and saying he was “assuming a posture that made head contact on an otherwise full body check unavoidable.”

I’m not entirely sure I agree with that, as it seems like Hornqvist could have gone into McAvoy’s shoulder instead. The hit was predatory. Hornqvist wanted to hurt McAvoy. Unfortunately, the league doesn’t really care about that distinction.

The verdict: McAvoy was crouched down, and the NHL blames him for that. Nielsen wasn’t, so the NHL blames Backes.

Nielsen was injured, McAvoy wasn’t

This is kind of dumb, but you can tell from the league’s explanation video that they take it into consideration.

If I have a knife and try to stab you, I should still get in trouble if you manage to avoid it, right?

That’s exaggerating to make a point, obviously, but if Hornqvist’s intent was to lay a “hit to hurt” on McAvoy (and you don’t really have to be a mind reader to make that assumption), should he be absolved by the fact that McAvoy just shook it off?

I don’t think so, no. But clearly the league does.

Nielsen, on the other hand, was flat on the ice for a few moments before being helped off and missing the rest of the game. It looks like he’ll be out for a bit, so the league obviously considers that an injury.

The verdict: Backes’ hit caused an injury, while the hit on McAvoy didn’t.

The problem with the way the NHL handles stuff like this is that they make posts like this necessary with their inconsistency.

If you’re serious about cutting down on headshots, give a major and an automatic game suspension for any hit where the head is the principal point of contact. Don’t add nuance and “UNLESS...” sections that leave things open to interpretation.

The subsections that absolve Hornqvist and punish McAvoy for playing the puck are ridiculous. A player isn’t going to purposely stick his head out to draw a penalty and earn a concussion in the process. That’s absurd.

The league needs to simplify the rule: a hit to the head is a hit to the head is a hit to the head. Leave a tiny amount of room for ref interpretation, like if it truly is an accidental collision, and let it be. Put dumb stuff like this to rest.

The current rule leaves us with this crazy situation:

  • The hit by Hornqvist on McAvoy was predatory and dirty, yet was legal
  • The hit by Backes on Nielsen was late but had less intent, yet was illegal

My head hurts.