It seemed NHL officials had a point to make, and they’d made it.
Two incidents late last season made it clear that NHL officials were waging a campaign of retribution against Nazem Kadri of the Maple Leafs.
Retribution for what? We’ll get to that.
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It was the final week of March, and in a Monday night game at the Air Canada Centre, Kadri hammered Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames with a hard, but clean check. Shoulder to chest. Hard but fair.
Both Gaudreau and teammate Josh Jooris, however, were incensed by the play, and both went after Kadri from behind with their sticks, chopping him to the ice. Jooris jumped on Kadri and started throwing punches. Gaudreau and Jooris were both penalized. And Kadri was sent off for diving.
Later that week in a game against Boston, David Krejci sent Kadri headfirst into the boards. Krejci actually stopped playing, clearly convinced he was going to be assessed a potentially crucial minor late in the game.
But nothing happened. No whistle. Play on, waved the officials, reinforcing the sense that for unofficial reasons, the league was using a different rule book for Kadri than most other NHLers.
“This started four games ago. The memo must be out they’re not allowed to call a penalty (on Kadri),” said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock afterwards. “But it’s gotta be over with now.”
Well, apparently not.
On Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers, Kadri had the puck in the Oilers zone along the boards. Zack Kassian rammed his stick between the Leaf centre’s legs in can-opener style and pulled him to the ice. Kadri moved the puck back to the point as he was falling. The whistle blew. Kassian went off for hooking, and Kadri to the astonishment of Babcock and the Leaf bench, was also sent to the box for embellishment.
Apparently, according to the officials, he’d somehow managed to dive and pass the puck at the same time.
Now, here’s the problem.
At the beginning of last season right through until March, Kadri again found himself among the leaders in the NHL for drawing penalties, something he’d done effectively for several seasons. Players like John Tavares, Darren Helm, Jeff Skinner and Mikkel Boedker were similarly skilled at getting other teams to foul them, thus putting their club on the power play.
Essentially, the NHL, through it’s officials, is telling you as a player that you’re playing the game the right way. Keep your feet moving, protect the puck and officials will take care of the rest, calling penalties when warranted. Players who have the puck a lot tend to be leaders in this category.
As mentioned, this wasn’t just one season for Kadri. Since the 2013-14 season, the way in which he was playing the game had been rewarded by the NHL. Then it all changed. Like the flick of a switch.
Suddenly, opponents were permitted to do whatever they wanted. At worst, if they were penalized, Kadri was going with them. The message was clear: NHL officials believed, or had been told by their superiors, that Kadri was diving, and they were not only not going to give him the benefit of the doubt anymore, they were going to give his opponents the advantage.
The league’s bureaucracy piled on, fining Kadri for two alleged diving incidents, including the one involving Jooris. Not an official word, of course, was spoken.
This, of course, is the offence-hating NHL in a nutshell. No other sport forces its skilled players to walk a nightly gauntlet of slashes, hacks, holds and intimidation like the good, old NHL. Every night, defence is given the edge in this and a variety of other ways, which is one reason scoring is at a historic low.
Now let’s be clear here. Kadri is no saint. He yaps. He’s been in trouble for giving the throat slashing gesture. He has strong opinions about his own ability. But he isn’t a suck. He takes on all comers. He fought the much bigger David Backes to start this season. He doesn’t look to teammates for protection.
But the NHL, in the way its officials are dealing with the Leaf forward, are not only sending mixed messages, they’re reinforcing the generally held belief that the rule book is whatever referees want it to be. They can not only apply it differently in the third period to the first, and on Monday in St. Louis versus Thursday in Ottawa, but that they also can, in essence, wage campaigns against certain players if they so choose.
We know that’s human nature. Fool me once and all that. Alex Burrows knows that story. But as Babcock said last March, fine, but enough’s enough.
Nope. Not for NHL officials. As Garrett Rank and Francois St. Laurent demonstrated on Tuesday, the internal understanding that Kadri is to be given special attention is still very much on.
Kadri didn’t complain. He was the first star of the game, outplaying Connor McDavid in a head-to-head matchup. But this is embarrassing and outrageous. These officials and their supervisors may think they’re protecting the integrity of the game.
But doing it this way actually hurts the integrity of the game.