Barkov Head Shot an Indictment of NHL Officiating

Florida Panthers phenom Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov left Monday night’s game in Detroit in the second period following a hit from Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader. The young center had just passed the puck and was in a vulnerable position, arms outstretched and head down, when Abdelkader plowed shoulder-first into him. Because of the position Barkov was in at the moment of impact, his head was the principal point of contact.

Though the Panther was able to stand up and skate off under his own steam, he went straight to the dressing room and did not return. Abdelkader was not penalized on the play, but Florida defenseman Alex Petrovic received a minor penalty for a retaliatory cross-check which knocked the Detroit forward to the ice.

While they’re not yet calling it a concussion, the Panthers announced their number one center would miss Tuesday night’s game in Buffalo:

Panthers Furious

After the game, as Miami Herald writer George Richards reported, the Panthers were incensed at Abdelkader for the hit, but also at on-ice officials Brad Meier and Graham Skilliter. Said Nick Bjugstad:

It was a cheap hit, I don’t know how the ref didn’t call it…We’re not happy with it…We’ll see how the league handles it and I think they will. I just don’t know how it wasn’t handled on the ice.

An angry future Hall-of-Famer also voiced his opinion:

There’s the rub. Watch the replay below. Watch it a couple of times. First, note the hit itself; next, watch the referee in the corner (you can’t see his head, but it’s Skilliter):

From the center ice camera angle, it appears in real-time to be a hard-but-clean hit to Barkov’s chest. When the first slow-motion replay is shown, it’s clear that some head contact occurred. The third camera, which was located very near Skilliter and showed roughly what the hit would’ve looked like from the referee’s vantage point, is the most damning angle of all.

It’s clear that Barkov’s head was the principal point of contact. It’s clear that Abdelkader made no attempt to play the puck; his sole focus was to hit Barkov. Though the Florida pivot was in a vulnerable position and had just released the puck, the Detroit winger made no attempt to let up. Skilliter saw all of this, and judged it good…up until Petrovic’s cross-check to Abdelkader’s back, that is. That’s when the referee’s arm went up.

From the Panthers’ standpoint, giving Detroit a power play after the hit on Barkov was akin to putting out a fire with gasoline. Late in the game, Florida center Derek MacKenzie dropped the gloves with Abdelkader. MacKenzie is a solid fourth line center and penalty killer. He brings character and leadership to the team. He is not a fighter, however, and the bout ended as one might expect. As I tweeted at the time, hockey fans who want fighting to disappear from the game should note that this one would not have occurred, had the on-ice officials penalized Abdelkader for his hit.

 Repeat Offenders

Abdelkader has been suspended twice. The first came in May 2013, for a head shot on Anaheim Ducks defenseman Toni Lydman, earning the Red Wing two games. A year later, the IIHF suspended him for three games of the 2015 world championships after a head shot on Czech forward Vladimir Sobotka during the 2014 tournament.

There’s a very good chance he’ll get a call from the Department of Player Safety this week. If the Detroit forward is suspended, it will mark the second suspension in less than a month for a player who injured a Florida Panther and was not penalized on the play (Edmonton’s Matt Hendricks was the first). Perhaps this is an unfortunate coincidence; perhaps it’s something else.

NHL referees and linesmen are human beings. Just like the rest of us, their judgement is influenced by bias. Players, coaches and television broadcast crews alike readily accept that on-ice officials don’t give rookies the same benefit of the doubt that veteran players often get. In January, Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella explained to the Columbus Dispatch that the bias extends beyond individual players, impacting entire teams:

When you’re bottom-feeding like we are…That’s the way the league works. When you’re not in the higher echelon, you don’t get calls. That’s been part of the NHL for a long time.

The Florida Panthers have been considered “bottom-feeders” for many years. General Manager Dale Tallon has done much to remedy that, building a talented, young team which currently sits atop the Atlantic Division. The Panthers are good enough, in fact, that winning a playoff round (or two) is now a realistic expectation…provided their best players can stay healthy. Referees calling penalties on questionable hits might not help in that regard, but it sure wouldn’t hurt.