Niklas Kronwall: Sinner or Saint?

Let me preface this entire article by saying part of what I love about being a Red Wings fan is that I'm not often forced to rectify my own soap box dialogues with my blatant Red Wings homerism.  Seems every day there is talk about certain hits and whether the newest one should result in a suspension.  Fortunately, the Wings are rarely involved as the the defendants when it comes to this discussion.  Unfortunately, whenever they are, it seems to be Niklas Kronwall's name on the docket.

This time, Kronwall's being called a dirty cheater for his hit on Teemu Selanne during the first period of Saturday's Red Wings/Ducks game.  I'll post video under the jump, but here's what appears to have happened from the television angle: Selanne received the puck on a hard-around in the zone after a Ducks faceoff win.  Kronwall steps up on Selanne at the half board; Teemu sees him coming, but tries to play the puck back and gets leveled when Kronwall plants a shoulder into his face.  Selanne is left woozy by the hit, but eventually gets up and skates to the bench; he comes back to finish the game later, scoring the Ducks' fourth goal on the night after catching Kronwall flat-footed on a turnover by Dan Cleary.

Selanne responded after the game by vaguely threatening Kronwall, saying "That guy is dangerous out there. One of these days somebody's going to get him, for sure." and talking about how he's positive it was an elbow that hit him.  Ducks coach Randy Carlyle chimed in with "Kronwall clearly jumped and shouldered him in the jaw, went for his head."  The rest of the linked article has both Carlyle's and Selanne's comments devolving into a bitch-fest about how the refs are biased against the most-penalized team in hockey being run by a goon coach who makes excuses for his players.

Anyway, I digress.  The question at hand is whether this hit was illegal, dirty, supendable, and another in a long line.  Join me after the jump for the discussion.

First, the video.  This replay shows three different angles over 26 seconds:

 

First off, the replay clearly shows that Kronwall's shoulder is what makes contact.  He finishes by extending his arms, but his elbow does not make contact.  Historically, punishment has been levied in cases where a player leads with his elbow.  There is a litany of big hockey hits videos out there that show extending one's arms through contact is legal. 

The second argument against Kronwall is that it's a hit targeting the head.  I can't disagree with this statement, as Kronwall did aim high and I wish he hadn't.  However, we got to have this discussion last season with the Matt Cooke blindside hit on Marc Savard; by itself, a check to the head is not illegal.  The new rule implemented late last season which makes hits to the head punishable clearly states it has to be blind-side or back pressure.  Selanne saw Kronwall coming from the front the entire time.  There is nothing illegal about where contact was made between Selanne's square face and Kronwall's even-squarer shoulder.

The most damning argument against Kronwall is that he is guilty of charging, by virtue of appearing to jump at Selanne.  The replay above shows the best angle for this starting at the 20-second mark.  Here's where it gets a little fuzzy.  Kronwall's left skate is on the ice when his shoulder makes contact, but he definitely explodes upwards through the contact, powering through the hit with his legs.  The charging rule is written as such:

42.1 Charging – A minor or major penalty shall be imposed on a player who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner.
Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner. A "charge" may be the result of a check into the boards, into the goal frame or in open ice.

The semantics of the argument here is that the second sentence says "as a result of distance traveled" as being important to the definition of charging; The rule is written like this to keep players from getting a "running start" at the people they're checking.  Kronwall does not take a running start at Selanne; they are both engaged at going after the puck.  The part about jumping into is even more pedantic than the distance traveled argument.  The spirit here is that players are not supposed to jump at other players to make contact.  Kronwall's shoulder and Selanne's face have already become one by the time Kronwall uses his legs to finish the check.  He isn't jumping into Selanne, he's jumping through him. 

The jumping through contact thing has often been misconstrued as charging by Kronwall's detractors.  The issue here is a systemic misunderstanding of what the charging rule means when it talks about jumping into players.  Penalties and suspensions have historically come as a result of leaping before contact and not through it.  Kronwall at 6-foot, 193 is average-sized for a hockey player and one of the smaller big hitters in the league (Jordin Tootoo is the smallest at 5'9", I think).  Hitters like Kronwall have to use their legs to get as much power out of their hits as possible. 

The interesting part is that I believe the thing that earns Kronwall the most scorn might be the best thing he can be doing for his prey when these high hits get made (aside from not hitting them in the first place).  Diffusing the contact through an upward angle allows the skull to do its best job at moving the force of the contact away from the brain.  Hitting lower in this situation and from a forward angle causes just as much force to enter the head, but also causes whiplash effects, which can shake the brain in its casing, especially badly if the victim is knocked back by the force of the hit so as to land on his shoulders, his head whipping downward into contact with the ice.  The human body is built to withstand significantly more force along the vertical axis in alignment with the spine than the horizontal axis running through the chest.  Kronwall's hit is not perfectly vertically aligned, but I believe the angle of deflection helps minimize the trauma. 

As far as the rulebook is concerned, Kronwall did nothing wrong.  His actions do not warrant a suspension here.  However, I need to throw one huge freakin' caveat onto this entire article.  I do not like that Kronwall targeted Selanne's head.  I don't think the hit was illegal, suspendable, or more evidence that Kronwall always leaps into his checks, as the hyperbolic nitwits out there would have you believe, but I do think this hit was borderline dirty.  I don't think Kronwall had to hit Selanne in the head and if the players want to get serious about getting dangerous head shots out of hockey, this is an example they should use.  While I stand by the previous paragraph that Kronwall's level of deflection is beneficial when he hits to the head, I don't want that to be misconstrued as a tacit approval of hitting players in the chin in the first place.  I would rather he not have targeted Selanne high, but  I like him most when he's making people back off through the neutral zone with his threat of big hits and I don't want to see that disappear from his game.  If what he's doing is a problem, then the league needs to amend or clarify their rules because, under what stands now, he's doing everything right.

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