TRAIKOS: Crosby’s injury another sign that the NHL isn’t doing enough to protect its stars

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The Stanley Cup playoffs have so far seen a constant parade to the penalty box like never before. And yet, calling the game by the book hasn’t exactly been a deterrence for the type of goonery on display these days.

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Yes, the first round is supposed to be rough — if not reckless. “Borderline violent” is how Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe had described it. Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper preferred the term, “organized chaos.” You expect more hitting, more after-the-whistle scrums, and more mayhem. But there’s playing hard and finishing checks and then there’s intending to injure. 

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And it’s clear that what Edmonton’s Darnell Nurse and New York’s Jacob Trouba both did this week ended up in the latter category.

The head-butt that Nurse planted on the unsuspecting face of Philip Danault on Tuesday was ugly. A day later, the elbow that Trouba delivered to Sidney Crosby’s face looked even worse — even if the NHL’s department of safety didn’t see it that way.

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Either way, the results were equally devastating.

While Danault wasn’t injured on the play, Nurse was given a one-game suspension for “driving his helmet directly into Danault’s face”, meaning the Oilers were without their best defenceman for Thursday night’s must-win Game 6 against Los Angeles Kings.

The Penguins, who lost Game 5 to the Rangers after Crosby left Wednesday’s 5-3 loss in the second period, didn’t get the same justice. Trouba wasn’t suspended or even fined for his hit on Crosby. But Pittsburgh fans are now holding their breath on whether their captain will be out for the rest of the playoffs with what looked like yet another concussion. 

If that’s the case, it would be a huge blow for the Penguins, who lead the best-of-seven series 3-2 — and an even bigger loss for the NHL, who needs its stars to be shining their brightest at this time of year.

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This is not the kind of physicality that anyone wants in the playoffs. This is not what sells the game. After all, you can’t sell the sport if your best players are not playing.

Whether it’s Joe Pavelski coming up clutch, Jason Spezza delivering inspiring speeches or Alex Ovechkin scoring at a level his younger self would be impressed with, this had been a good start to the playoffs for the greybeards of the league. With a team-leading nine points in five games, Crosby had part of that feel-good story. That is until he became part of the outdated aspect of the game that still needs to change.

The Penguins captain was fumbling with a puck in the offensive zone when he collided with Trouba. At first glance, it might have looked accidental, as though both players were fixated on the puck and didn’t see the other one coming until the last second. Watch it again and it appears that Trouba went for the hit. You might even see him deliver what was either an elbow or a gloved punch to the front of Crosby’s face.

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When asked about it after the game, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan didn’t hide his displeasure.

“Did you see the hit?” Sullivan asked. “You probably have the same opinion I do.”

Yeah, it looked dirty. More than that, it looked unnecessary. A sign of disrespect for one of the greatest players to have played the game.

That matters. Or it should matter.

This wasn’t Trouba taking out a random fourth-liner. Even that would have been bad. But the fact that it was Crosby, who not only has a history of concussions, but who is on a short list with Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Gordie Orr on the Mount Rushmore of the sport, crossed the line.

“It’s the best player in the world,” said Penguins forward Jake Guentzel.

It goes without saying that the league has to do a better job of protecting its best players. You don’t want more cautionary tales of Paul Kariya or Eric Lindros having their careers cut short because of dangerous hits to the head. You don’t want Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid getting targeted. This doesn’t happen in other sports. No one is taking out LeBron James with an elbow or head-butting Tom Brady. If they do, there’s justice.

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In the NHL, there’s shoulder-shrugging and a wheel of justice that no one is sure where it will land. What’s a suspension? What’s a fine? What’s fair game? The players don’t know. Neither do those in charge of handing out the punishments.

The league has cracked down on ticky-tacky infractions like hooking and slashing and tripping. But it still hasn’t gone all-in when it comes to taking out a dangerous player with a dangerous hit. 

Crosby has been dealing with this kind of abuse his entire career. Moments before taking the hit from Trouba, Crosby had been high-sticked in the face by Mika Zibanejad off a face-off. Again, there was no call. There was just an unwritten invitation for others to do the same, until the best player in the game couldn’t take anymore and had to leave the game.

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“You notice his presence is gone when he’s not there,” Rangers defenceman Adam Fox told Sportsnet’s Caroline Cameron.

For the NHL, that’s not a good thing.

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