ESPN The Magazine: Hard Knocks

10/25/2007 - NHL

Over the past several seasons, the NHL has been slammed for its less-than-aggressive reaction to the growing number of intentional blows to the head. Maybe that criticism has knocked some sense into the league.

In the offseason, NHL VP and director of hockey ops Colin Campbell, with an assist from owners, GMs and players, compiled a checklist to put some teeth into the fines and/or suspensions that follow head shots. His plan centers on the answers to five questions: Did the player target an opponent's head? Did he leave his feet to deliver the hit? Was it a blind hit? Was it a late hit? Does the player have a history of dangerous behavior?

The new criteria were tested in the preseason when Flyers right winger Steve Downie delivered a vicious upper-body check to Sens forward Dean McAmmond, who suffered a concussion. Campbell quickly suspended Downie for 20 games. On Oct. 12, Campbell tagged another Flyer, winger Jesse Boulerice, with a 25-game ban for cross-checking Canucks center Ryan Kesler across his jaw. Kesler hasn't missed a game, but McAmmond is out indefinitely.

The swift and severe response by the league's top cop (the suspensions are among the longest in NHL history) was a hit with players.

"Hopefully, it's going to send a message," says Pens captain Sidney Crosby.

But some NHL execs still aren't so sure the one-size-fits-all plan is the best solution.

"I was shocked by the length," says one GM, who's concerned about preserving the physical nature of the game. "We might have put ourselves in a corner by making such a dramatic leap in the punishment."

More shocks may come. After all, losing Downie and Boulerice -- a rookie and a journeyman -- won't cripple a team. But would Campbell issue a lengthy suspension against a Chris Pronger or Derian Hatcher? Would he suspend a coach or fine a team for a player's behavior?

"It's all case-by-case," Campbell says, "but we'll use the same criteria for everyone."

We'll see, but after years of sticking its head in the sand, the NHL has finally taken a stand on this issue. For the athletes who play this game with exceptional skill, it's a smart one.

On The Hrink

" Although the league hasn't made a formal announcement about expanding from 30 to 32 teams -- Las Vegas and Kansas City being the leaders in the clubhouse -- one team exec says clubs already have begun counting on their expected piece of the entrance cost, likely $200M per franchise.

" Kings GM Dean Lombardi made a good call sending Jonathan Bernier back to his Quebec League junior team in Lewiston, Maine. After posting a win in his first start, the 19-year-old struggled behind a shaky Kings D. Risking damage to a promising young asset would have been foolish.

" Fantasy alert! Grab Panthers rookie defenseman Cory Murphy, a slick power-play specialist who's totaled six points in his first six games. Murphy, 29, was a four-year standout at Colgate, then spent six seasons in Europe. Florida was willing to overlook his size -- generously listed at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds -- and the oldish newbie is logging nearly 20 mpg.

" The Blues' under-the-radar deal for Brad Boyes (from the Bruins in exchange for depth defenseman Dennis Wideman) may be a key to their season. The shifty, 25-year-old pivot jumped out to a fast start, tallying four goals in his first five games.

" Bruins rookie Milan Lucic has been quick to impress. In his fourth pro game, the 19-year-old winger recorded a Gordie Howe hat trick (goal, assist, fight). The 6-foot-4, 220-pound bruiser, who led the WHL's Vancouver Giants to a Memorial Cup last May, looks like a draft steal for the B's, who picked him 50th overall in 2006.

Price is right

After Montreal goalie Carey Price beat the Penguins 3-2 on Oct. 10 at the Mellon Arena, who could blame the Habs faithful for feeling their 20-year-old rookie minder was a keeper. Two Canadiens goaltending legends -- Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy -- also won their first NHL starts at the Igloo, the league's oldest rink.

Dryden earned the first of his 258 wins on March 14, 1971, while Roy, who had picked up a win in relief the previous spring, earned his first starting victory on Oct. 10, 1985, 22 years to the day before the new kid came up big.

The Number

The key to Minny's fast (601) start: hog-wild team D. Through seven games, every skater is even or better in the plus/minus category, with vet center Eric Belanger a plus-9. The guys in the crease are no slouches either. Goalies Niklas Backstrom, whose GAA (1.97) last season was tops in the league, and Josh Harding have allowed only eight goals in 190 shots, for a .958 save percentage. That kind of efficiency can turn a fast start into a long Cup run.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.