Injuries are an inevitability in the NHL. Even the healthiest players pick up all sorts of bumps and bruises throughout an NHL season.
Take Bo Horvat, for example. He owns the current Canucks iron man streak for consecutive games played at 224, which goes up to 241 when you include his 17 playoff games from last year. He hasn’t missed a game since January 20, 2018.
The only reason he was able to keep that streak alive, however, is that he was very, very lucky. Well, he was lucky after being very unlucky. He was hit by an Alex Edler shot in the ankle last Tuesday that could have easily caused a fracture. Instead, it was, in Horvat’s words, “just a bone bruise,” and he went on to play over 22 minutes in Thursday’s game.
Some players are less fortunate than Horvat.
Justin Bailey was only in his third game this season when he got hit from behind by Milan Lucic into the boards, injuring his shoulder. Lucic did not receive a penalty on the hit, which was directly in the numbers, nor did he receive any sort of suspension or fine.
Bailey hasn’t played since that game on February 11 and was moved to long-term injured reserve (LTIR) on March 17. Now it seems clear that he won’t be playing again this season.
On his Twitter, Bailey shared a picture of himself from his hospital bed. The location of that hospital bed? It’s somewhere in New York City, as he went to see a specialist about his shoulder.
Bailey done for the season
There are a couple of reasons why Bailey is unlikely to return to the Canucks this season. One is the injury itself. He’s already been out of action for a month-and-a-half and is now seeing a specialist, which suggests a more complicated injury than initially suspected. With only a little over a month left in the season, it’s unlikely he’d be able to recover in time from whatever procedure might be necessary for his shoulder.
The other reason is that there’s a global pandemic right now and Bailey would need to quarantine for 14 days if and when he came back to Vancouver. Up until he flew to New York, Bailey was still in the Canucks’ bubble and could have returned to play without having to self-isolate.
It’s a disappointing end to the season for Bailey, who seemed to be catching the eye of head coach Travis Green with his size, speed, and work rate in the few games he played. Out of training camp, he won a spot on the Canucks’ taxi squad ahead of Sven Baertschi and Kole Lind.
At 25, Bailey needs to prove soon that he belongs in the NHL. At times, he’s dominated the AHL — at one point last season he had three hattricks in the space of four games — but he’s struggled when it comes to finding his place in the NHL.
This season, albeit in a small sample size, it looked like he was finding his role. When Bailey was on the ice at 5-on-5, shot attempts were 26-to-12 and scoring chances were 13-to-4 for the Canucks according to Natural Stat Trick. It would have been nice to see him get a chance to build off that strong start.
Bailey is trying to take his injury in stride.
“Every setback is a setup for a comeback,” reads an inspirational quote that Bailey shared on his Instagram story. “God wants to bring you out better than you were before.”
If Bailey can bounce back — and the Canucks re-sign him this offseason — that would be beneficial to a Canucks team that needs low-cost depth in the bottom-six. Bailey is currently on a one-year, two-way contract worth $750,000, according to CapFriendly. A similar deal for next year would give him a chance to make the Canucks’ fourth line a little bit cheaper with Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Thatcher Demko taking up more cap space on their new contracts.
A troubling trend of hits from behind
Bailey’s injury seems to be part of a trend in the NHL this season — hits in the numbers into the boards that not only don’t result in suspensions but don’t even get penalties. When Lucic ran Bailey into the boards from behind, the referee was standing ten feet away, looking directly at the hit and only blew the whistle to stop play when Bailey was clearly hurt.
Here’s an ugly hit from behind by Radim Šimek of the San Jose Sharks on Ryan Reaves of the Vegas Golden Knights from earlier this month. It didn’t get a penalty.
Here’s another that went uncalled, as Brian Dumoulin crosschecked Janne Kuokkanen in the numbers and sends him face-first into the boards.
Then there’s Logan Stanley hitting Jake Evans, again in the numbers, again with no penalty.
While the Canucks have been on the receiving end of a couple of these types of hits, they’re not innocent of them either. There’s this hit by Travis Hamonic on Brendan Gallagher that went uncalled.
This hit by Jalen Chatfield on Alex Kerfoot was pretty egregious but somehow didn’t get called with the official looking right at it.
Then there’s this completely unnecessary hit by Antoine Roussel directly in Mark Scheifele’s numbers with the puck long gone.
These are just a handful of examples, but there have been many more this season. It feels like officials are turning a blind eye to these types of dangerous hits from behind all around the league. That would suggest a directive from the NHL to let these types of hits go.
Department of Player Safety apparently doesn't care about player safety
Perhaps Ray Whitney, currently the Director of Player Safety with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, could provide some insight.
“A lot of times, and more often than not, I put the onus on the guys getting contact and getting hit,” said Whitney in a February article from The Hockey News. “When I played the game, I played half my career in the trenches, in the hook and hold ’90s with the fighting and the meanness. If you went to the net with Chris Pronger, you were going to get hit. You went to the net with Dave Manson, holy, you were going to feel something.
“So I grew up in an era that was pretty tough. I received a lot. I wasn’t giving a lot. So I really take pride in putting the onus on skill players to be able to take contact and be prepared for contact, to expect to be hit.”
Suddenly several non-suspensions in the past make more sense — if the decision-making on suspensions felt like it came from a more violent era of hockey, it’s because it does. Instead of putting the onus on the player delivering the check to hit in a legal way, they put the onus on the player receiving the hit not to put themselves in a vulnerable position.
It’s classic victim-blaming. Instead of Lucic shouldering the blame for seeing Bailey’s numbers the whole way and still finishing his check, the blame falls on Bailey for daring to play the puck.
It also flies in the face of the NHL rule book, which puts the onus on the hitter. The rule for boarding, 41.1, specifically says, “The onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a defenceless position and if so, he must avoid or minimize contact.”
NHL players will go right to the edge of what is allowed in order to gain a competitive advantage. If it’s clear that hits from behind are not being called, they will hit from behind.
“One thing I’ve noticed in today’s game is that I’m not sure guys are always prepared for contact or always thinking they’re going to get hit,” continued Whitney. “Taking hits, absorbing contact along the boards, is also an art. In 23 years I had one shoulder injury, and that’s pretty rare for a guy my size.
“A lot of times you hear guys say, ‘Get him in the numbers, hit him in the numbers.’ The best thing I could do from my experience is say, ‘Guys, when someone’s coming to hit me, I turn my numbers so I get hit flat against the boards.’ If I turned sideways, it’s a broken collarbone. That’s gonna hurt me in getting hit. I’d always turn at the last second and just absorb it, knowing that wasn’t a ‘hit from behind.’ I wasn’t ever expecting it to be a ‘hit from behind.’ That’s just how I liked to receive hits because it didn’t hurt that way.”
Is it any wonder the NHL isn’t taking hits from behind seriously when someone with this perspective is the Director of Player Safety?
It’s great that Whitney only suffered one shoulder injury in his career but that doesn’t help a guy like Justin Bailey and the shoulder injury that ended his season. The NHL needs to take hits from behind more seriously or there will be more injuries to come.