Michael Russo's Sunday Insider: NHL players on better behavior -- so far

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2011 - 11:29 AM

NHL players seem to be more aware of staying away from delivering head shots, but it's still early in the season.

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Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke was suspended for the final 10 games and the first round of the playoffs last season after an elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Cooke vowed to alter his game this season. So far, some signs show he has.

Photo: Keith Srakocic, Associated Press - Ap

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It's a small sample size, no doubt.

It's impossible to say "Lesson Learned" this early, but more than two weeks into the regular season, no NHL player has forced Brendan Shanahan to throw on a sports coat, collared shirt and rush down to NHL headquarters from his Upper West Side apartment to make a video announcing a suspension due to an illegal check to the head.

Sure, there have been plenty of videos and suspensions, including to the Wild's Pierre-Marc Bouchard for a high stick and Brad Staubitz for a board. But through Thursday's games, there had been no discipline rendered for the classic "head shot" that seemed to plague the NHL in recent years and only two penalties for illegal checks to the head.

Again, it's early. In such a fast, physical sport, somebody's bound to be reckless or have a lapse in judgment at some point.

But some Wild players have seen evidence that just like players have adjusted to the crackdown on hits from behind, players are being more cautious on open-ice hits.

They're curbing their behaviors, showing more respect to their opponents.

"Playing against Pittsburgh the other day, you could see how [Matt] Cooke has changed his game," Wild defenseman Nick Schultz said.

Cooke is one of the NHL's cheapest cheap-shot artists. If you want a catalog of his dirty plays, type his name on YouTube.

But Cooke vowed coming into this season to alter his game, and Schultz thinks he spotted evidence Tuesday. With the Wild on the penalty kill, Schultz went back for a puck. Cooke came in on the forecheck. In Schultz's mind, Cooke let up, and particularly, "didn't hit me late like he would in the past."

For Schultz to admit this says something because Schultz has seen the worst of Matt Cooke. Back in his Vancouver days, Cooke, on more than one occasion, aimed for Schultz's knees.

"But these repeat offenders, maybe it's finally sunk," Schultz said. "In general now when they go in to hit somebody, I see them being more cautious and thinking about it more. Hopefully those guys that took the brunt of the crackdown in the preseason have made guys learn their lesson."

Schultz is referring to Toronto's Clarke MacArthur, Detroit's Brendan Smith, Buffalo's Brad Boyes and Columbus' James Wisniewski. With the league setting the tone, the four combined to be suspended for 15 regular-season games for illegal checks to the head.

Wisniewski especially got clobbered for his leaping elbow to Cal Clutterbuck's head. The defenseman got nailed for four preseason games, eight regular-season games and $536,000 because he's a repeat offender (multiple suspensions).

"Guys see how much they're hit, not just in games but in money, and they want to make sure, 'I'm not one of those guys,' " Schultz said. "If that's the motivating factor in why guys are being more cautious, I'm fine with that. It's changing the game for the better."

Schultz was plagued much of last season because of a concussion and finally had his season end prematurely. Bouchard, who missed 14 months because of postconcussion syndrome before returning to the Wild lineup Dec. 1, is especially sensitive to the subject of head shots.

"Concussions are not fun," he said. "You live in the unknown. It's not easy, and I think the league had to do something."

In recent years, the league had started to address head shots more and more, but maybe an NHL without Sidney Crosby since early January is what really caused league officials to target head hunters.

"When you lose a star player like that, a guy that drives the league, sometimes it takes something like that to cause change," Schultz said. "It's sad it took that, but hopefully if something good comes out of Crosby being out, it's that the league started to address this problem and guys are now thinking twice and keeping their elbows down and making clean checks."

Hockey can still be a physical sport. But it can be that way minus the dirty plays.

It's early, but there have been some positive signs that change is underway.

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