Commentary

Power Play: NHL once again falls short

Updated: October 26, 2009, 3:34 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

1. Again, NHL fails to answer discipline call

Every season, the NHL makes noise about cracking down on blows to the head and hits from behind. Memos go out.

Then, within a 48-hour period, the Canes' Tuomo Ruutu, a player never known to shy away from giving a shot in the back, rams Darcy Tucker into the boards from behind, sending Tucker to the hospital, and Mike Richards nearly takes off David Booth's head with a shoulder-to-the-head hit that results in Booth being taken off the ice on a stretcher.

Ruutu was given a light tap on the wrist with a three-game suspension, while Tucker, who was off to a decent start for the Avs with four goals and two assists, is out indefinitely. Booth, the Panthers' most important forward, suffered a concussion. Florida GM Randy Sexton told ESPN.com on Monday that this was Booth's first concussion, but the team still doesn't know when he might return to action. Richards? He was back in the lineup Sunday night in the Flyers' loss to the San Jose Sharks.

Although he wouldn't comment specifically on the league's decision not to suspend Richards, Sexton said he thinks hits like the one that knocked out Booth have no place in the game.

At some point, the end result of these dangerous plays has to be factored into how or whether the NHL will curtail the mayhem on the ice. Yes, it's a physical game, but the NHL Players' Association was on to something last season when it asked for a special penalty to be assessed when a player is hit in the head while in a vulnerable position, regardless of whether the hit is technically legal.

GMs insisted there was a mechanism in place to police such hits. Explain, then, why Richards was not suspended even though he was tossed from the game for the blindside hit. There is no explanation. There rarely is when it comes to what passes for discipline from the NHL high tower. If you're looking for a deterrent, you're looking in the wrong place.

Until the NHL is prepared to truly start to hand out significant punishment, something with teeth that takes into account the severity of the victim's injuries, it will just whistle on by hoping the day doesn't come when a David Booth or Darcy Tucker is permanently injured. Of course, by then, it will be far too late.

2. NHLPA: What goes around comes around

Speaking of the NHLPA, the irony is just too rich. Former executive director Paul Kelly was dismissed in August by the NHLPA's 30 player reps in large part because of a fishy staff review spearheaded by general counsel Ian Penny, who assumed Kelly's role on an interim basis.

Now, those player reps have decided they need to get straight how all this nastiness unfolded, so they formed a four-person committee of Chris Chelios, Rob Blake, Nicklas Lidstrom and Mark Recchi. Now, it's Penny complaining about the "poisonous" atmosphere around the NHLPA offices.

In a memo to the league's 30 player reps, Penny accused Chelios, a supporter of Kelly who tried to stop the middle-of-the-night vote to oust him, of using union staffers to spy on other union officials.

Penny wrote, "This completely inappropriate conduct has created a hostile, fractured and distrustful work environment. It is the type of environment that exists in repressive, totalitarian regimes -- not work places."

The lawyer went on to accuse Chelios of trying to undermine Penny's position with the NHLPA. Penny was given a five-year contract extension in a closed session at a players meeting in Las Vegas in June, a session Kelly was blocked from attending and many players are now questioning.

"In a conversation several weeks ago, Chelios urged me to tear up my contract extension and then threatened me by claiming that I would not survive a review," Penny complained in his letter. "This indicates that he has prejudged the matter and will not approach a review with the necessary balance and objectivity."

Sounds a little bit like "what goes around comes around" with the NHLPA.

3. Toronto's monstrous start

When you start the season 0-7-1, give up 35 goals in eight games and kill off a measly 62.9 percent of your penalties, there are a lot of problems beyond just goaltending. But for the Toronto Maple Leafs, it is the one area that can stop the bleeding if solidified. That's what the Leafs hope much-heralded netminder Jonas Gustavsson will bring to the proceedings. Look for Gustavsson, sidelined by a groin injury for most of this young season, to start Monday night against Anaheim. If he can deliver some consistent starts, look for the Leafs to finally get in the win column and change the tenor around the dressing room as they complete a five-game road trip this week.

4. What now for Thrashers?

Although we've seen a slew of injuries to top players during the past few days, no injury has greater potential to derail a team for the long term than the loss of Atlanta Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk, who was off to a roaring start with nine goals in eight games. The Thrashers captain left Saturday's game against San Jose with a foot injury and was expected to have a CT scan Monday.

There is also the specter of Kovalchuk's contract status, as he can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, and the Thrashers are eager to resolve the issue one way or another by locking him up (the preferred plan) or beginning to look at alternatives sooner rather than later (the less favorable option). If Kovalchuk's foot injury is serious, that could disrupt those plans.

5. Pat Quinn in the house

Not many folks picked the Edmonton Oilers to be a playoff team this season; they missed the playoffs for the third straight season this past spring and have a new coaching staff. But the Oilers are off to a solid 6-4-1 start, although they did drop two on the road to division foes Calgary and Vancouver this past weekend.

But don't look for coach Pat Quinn to betray any sense of satisfaction in his return to the NHL game after Toronto fired him following the 2005-06 season. Quinn told ESPN.com he still is trying to get to know his team and coaching staff, one that includes former New York Rangers coach Tom Renney and longtime assistant and international coach Wayne Fleming. In looking at the youthful Oilers of last season, Quinn said "they weren't ready to play the man's game." Now, he's hoping they'll grow up together.

One area that concerns Quinn is his reliance on youngsters Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Gilbert Brule down the middle. Still, he said some of the games they've lost can't be laid at the feet of the kids but rather the veterans who haven't quite got on track yet.

"I still don't really know this team yet ... if we do have an identity, what it will be," Quinn said.

One major difference between this edition and last season's disappointing squad has been the play of forward Dustin Penner. The big winger who came from Anaheim via a controversial offer-sheet signing two years ago was dubbed Dustin "Penne" by Canadian scribe Mark Spector of SportsNet, as Penner appeared slow and out of shape since arriving in Edmonton. But Penner has responded to the new coaching staff with 15 points to lead the Oilers.

"He was the whipping dog," Quinn noted. "But he's been just fine, as far as I can see."

As for Quinn, 66, he dispelled the notion he cannot coach kids, guiding Canada's under-18 and under-20 teams to championships before landing the Edmonton gig.

"Sure, I might have listened to some different music," Quinn joked. "But we actually hit it off quite well."

Whatever trepidation he might have had was dispelled immediately, he said. "You find out you speak the same language -- hockey."


Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.