Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

NHL continues to struggle with concussion issue

When it comes to concussions, Lightning center Steven Stamkos said the NHL might be facing a problem without a satisfying solution.

"There is no cure," he said, "unless we all play in a bubble.

"Like any other physical sport, injuries are going to happen. Whether you're colliding with a teammate or an opponent going full speed, concussions are going to happen."

But a spike in the past few months — 25 players currently are sidelined with the injury, including Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, who has missed 82 games since January 2011 — have stoked discussions about how to reduce occurrences.

Everything seems to be on the table: slowing the game by making two-line passes across the center red line illegal; allowing some clutching and grabbing so players can better brace themselves for hits; allowing goaltenders to play the puck anywhere behind the goal line; softening elbow and shoulder pads used as battering rams.

Each suggestion comes with arguments for and against. And Toronto general manager Brian Burke doesn't even buy into the idea of a concussion epidemic.

"We are diagnosing them properly, and the man-game losses (because of concussions) are up because we are treating them properly," he told USA Today.

Agent Allan Walsh, who tracks the injury, told the Tampa Bay Times that 72 players have been concussed this season. At that rate, he said, 110 could be affected by season's end. Assuming 23 players on 30 teams, that would be 16 percent of the league.

"We're all concerned," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. "The GM meetings, the last two, I'd say 80 percent of it is regarding these injuries."

•••

The NHL last season tweaked its rule on head hits, Rule 48, to ban hits in which the head is targeted. And stepped-up enforcement through suspensions from league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has been well documented.

Even so, concussions are up. The league does not release numbers, and they weren't available from the players association, but the NHL acknowledged a slight uptick.

That has led to the discussions about rules changes that would slow the game to reduce some of the collisions that can cause head injuries.

To create more offense, the league, after the 2004-05 lockout, made several rules changes, including allowing two-line passes across the center red line and allowing goalies to play the puck behind the goal line only inside a trapezoid behind the net. Anti-obstruction rules also eliminated much clutching and grabbing.

They worked.

Add bigger, stronger athletes, better skates, lighter equipment, and, as Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier said, "The game is quicker and quicker every year."

And more dangerous, especially for defensemen fielding pucks dumped into their end while dealing with opponents with time and space to gain speed and line them up for hits.

"I feel for the defensemen," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "They've got to go behind the net and just get run. It's the hardest position to play now, without a doubt."

That is why Yzerman wants players to be able to battle each other — in a sense, obstruct each other — as they race after pucks.

"That way they can brace themselves and take a hit and give a hit," Yzerman said. "I don't like to use the word obstruction, but you have to allow guys to engage without being called for interference or holding. You have to allow guys to compete."

Yzerman also likes the idea of outlawing the two-line pass across the red line and of expanding the center-ice neutral zone. That, he said, would "force guys to make (shorter) passes instead of just shooting (the puck) down the ice" and creating a race for the puck that can end in a concussion-causing collision.

Think of it this way, Walsh said: "With no red line, you have a player breaking out of his end with no reason to hit the breaks till they hit the end boards."

That is why some advocate removing the trapezoid so goalies can play the puck anywhere behind the goal line. That would expand opportunities for them to pass to their defensemen and short-circuit some of those dangerous puck chases.

"I don't see it as wanting to slow the game," Yzerman said. "You have to look at what the game is now. We changed the rules to make it a more skilled game. It's not a more skilled game. It's shoot the puck down the ice and go chase it. It's about getting (the puck) in the other team's end and getting there as fast as you can."

•••

Not all concussions are the result of a too-fast game.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman has missed 13 games with a concussion caused by sliding hard into the end boards. And if players would show each other a little more respect, Tampa Bay defenseman Pavel Kubina said, perhaps some concussions caused by reckless hits could be avoided.

"Players got to know, if a player is in a vulnerable position, you avoid him," he said. "If a guy is facing the glass and you're going 100 mph, you can't (hit him)."

Kubina's head was slammed into the end glass by an elbow from onrushing Capitals wing Jason Chimera during Game 1 of last season's Eastern Conference semifinal. The concussion ended his season.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly agreed in an email that the league must continue to be "proactive" about trying to reduce concussions. But he cautioned about suggestions to slow the game: "While we have to remain open to considering anything and everything, we have to be very careful about changes made to slow the game down, as I believe the speed and high tempo of our game is one of the major appeals to our fans."

That is why Maloney, the Coyotes' GM, said he worries about re-establishing the center red line. "I like the stretch pass," he said. "It opens up the ice and creates some excitement."

And he wonders about allowing even limited obstruction. "Does that bring holding back into the game?"

"We have a terrific product," Maloney said. "Speed sells, but we have to make it as safe as possible. I guarantee you in March, three days of (general managers') meetings, 2½ are going to be about this topic."

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