Niklas Kronwall is known around the league for being an unassuming-yet-dangerous open ice hitter. The veteran Detroit blueliner patrols the entire surface, but he's most well-known for crushing checks on unsuspecting forwards who are turning from the half-boards to exit their own zone on transition.
Tuesday, at the IIHF World Hockey Championship, Latvian forward Kaspars Saulietis learned all about Kronwall.
Saulietis had to be helped off the ice and did not return to the game. Kronwall was not penalized on the hit, another in a line of big hits laid by the Swedish defender which toes the line with the rules of both NHL and international play, but is ruled allowable. The question becomes how much longer will this remain legal?Let's get straight to it: the idea is that Kronwall is leaping into his checks and that this constitutes charging. For the sake of clarity, we're going to be talking about NHL rules and policies, despite the fact that the hit that led to this discussion happened during an IIHF event. Just know that there are some subtle differences in the way each organization handles their penalties and their supplemental discipline processes.
The NHL rule on charging:
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.
It's hard to ignore the begs-the-question logic of the "charges an opponent in any manner" portion of this rule which uses the penalty to describe the penalty (is charging like pornography? I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it). As Mark Spector wrote for Sportsnet back in December, many players don't know how exactly to define what is and isn't a charge.
A portion of the rule that is supposed to be the most clear is the "jumps into" portion, but even that's not made very clear by the hazy nature of when exactly to define when a player has actually "jumped."
Here's a bit of clarity from the league on what on the topic (but just a little bit): the video of Alex Ovechkin's three-game suspension received:
The key piece (other than the actual replay of Ovechkin blatantly launching himself at Michalek) is what Shanahan says around the :55 mark.
Often on big hits or collisions, a player's feet will come off of the ice slightly as a result of the impact.
Now let's take a look at three Kronwall hits. The first is a bonecrushing knock on Jakub Voracek on March 6th of this year:
Kronwall's feet stay planted on the ice through the collision, but there is a bit of coming up through impact. Head contact here is incidental to Voracek's positioning. This is ultimately a clean, but devastating hit.
Up next, Kronwall on Voracek's teammate Danny Briere from earlier in the season:
This one is the most-similar to the Saulietis hit which knocked the young Latvian out of the game. Kronwall turns his back on his opponent and is very clearly in the process of taking the load of his body off his feet when he makes contact. Kronwall's skates are still in contact with the ice at the moment of impact, but by the time the hit is complete, they are in the air.
This one involves many of the same features of the Briere/Saulietis hits, but Kronwall's timing is off and his feet are not on the ice when he makes contact with Kesler. This one is the most-clear case of Kronwall leaving his feet to make a check. All three of these hits are basically the same hit which has been timed slightly differently.
None of those hits earned Kronwall a penalty or any supplemental discipline from the league. Some people believe that all three of them should be illegal and for a variety of reasons. We'll try to touch on some of them, but the entire argument is so multi-faceted that to cover every angle would just take too long. For this, we're looking solely at charging. The question about whether ANY contact to the head should warrant a penalty and what kind of changes need to happen with the league's supplemental discipline process can be hashed out in the comments or can wait for another day.
The thing is that, under current league rules and the way those rules are interpreted, only the Kesler hit is one which pretty much unquestionably should have drawn a penalty, as it's the only one where there is absolutely no question about whether his feet left the ice surface as a result of contact (they did not).
When comparing what Kronwall does to more easily-defined charging hits like the one above by Ovechkin or the Raffi Torres hit, There is a distinct and undeniable difference between what the players are doing. Torres specifically leaps at Marian Hossa's head (comparatively) long before contact and, in the process, turns his shoulder into a weapon. When Kronwall "lightens up on his feet" (and sometimes outright leaps), he's not focusing the force of the oncoming collision into a part of the opponent, but rather positioning his body to absorb the shock.
Naturally, he's not doing this for the benefit of the other guy. While Kronwall positions himself to absorb as much of the shock as he's receiving (and in the process eliminates some of the follow-on force brought on by his skates resisting a certain amount of the shock being passed through them), he's not exactly turning wood into Nerf when he does it. Kronwall lays these checks in the manner he knows is the absolute safest... for himself.
In a move fitting for his name, what Kronner does is to become a wall that the other player skates into. Think of it as the grownup version of "I'm going to swing my arms like this and if you get hit, it's your own fault." The lightening/leaping is a bit of a red herring to the entire argument. Kronwall has his back turned and is aiming at the lead shoulder. Whether his center of mass is three inches higher or lower isn't going to drastically change where the hit ends up landing, especially as contact does not begin with Kronwall's shoulder pads making contact.
That doesn't mean that cases where he very certainly does mis-time his hits and ends up leaping prior to contact shouldn't warrant punishment, simply that it's part of what the league seems to consider the distinction between jumping into a player and having your feet come off the ice at impact. The dangerous nature of Kronwall's hits means that any mistakes made in timing which add an extra amount of danger or recklessness should fall on him and he should be held responsible for that act.
Now, it's a slippery slope to use the league's supplemental discipline process and refereeing standard to make a conclusion (especially in light of the fact that I think the Kesler hit should have at least gotten him a call from the league), but the fact that Kronwall has not received a major penalty for a big hit since he knocked Martin Havlat out of the 2009 Western Conference finals with the hit that made him famous speaks just as much to the problems of the process as it does to the problem a growing number of fans have with the definition of charging.
While the league has sometimes been slow to react to growing fan outrage, they may be soon forced to make a very tough call about hockey hits which involve contact to the head and whether it's possible to eliminate them without forever altering the nature of the sport. Just know that as they work towards the perfect balance between safety and physicality, that the league's interpretation of what constitutes a jump is likely going to be the first change and that is going to mean another change in the way Kronwall does business.