Oh Ryan Garbutt, you did a very unfortunate thing.
The Dallas Stars fourth liner was having, by most accounts, a pretty solid game against the Anaheim Ducks for the first 25 minutes or so on Sunday night. Sure, he'd been in the box twice for two safety calls - a kneeing and a slash - but he'd scored his first goal of the season as the Stars took an early lead in Anaheim.
Then, well, this happened.
There was no call on the ice, but Garbutt was immediately summoned for an in-person hearing with the league's disciplinary czar's after the game for the hit on Dustin Penner. That gives them the option of a six-game or more suspension.
Rest assured, Garbutt is getting suspended for this hit. They have one definite serious safety rule to castigate him for and another very strong possibility.
This was a charge. A big charge. About as textbook of a "distance traveled" charge as you can get with just enough of a jumping motion to make the disciplinary people sit up and take notice. Some people in the Twitterverse seem to have a hard time understanding why this is a charge, so let's break it down for a moment.
For reference, here is the most applicable part of the charging rule:
42.1 Charging - A minor or major penalty shall be imposed on a player who skates or jumps into, or charges an opponent in any manner.
Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner. A "charge" may be the result of a check into the boards, into the goal frame or in open ice.
Bolding mine. There are a lot of people out there trying to say this hit is not charging because a.) Garbutt's skates may have technically been on the ice at the time of the hit and b.) he did not stride just before the point of contact. The first is arguable, mostly because the NHL has been extremely inconsistent about what exactly it means to jump into a hit. The second point, though, is not.
Garbutt had this hit lined up from about the moment he left the penalty box. He makes a beeline for Penner and gets his legs (and probably brain) on train tracks. Given that a hockey rink is 80 feet wide and he goes from the box to the far faceoff circle, he travels well more than the allowed three strides of distance to ramp up for this hit. This is a textbook charge.
I hear people out there protesting that Garbutt didn't actually take a stride directly before the hit. But the three strides notion that gets bounced around is not a measure of actual strides taken. It's a measure of distance traveled, which is the whole point of the charging rule. Stride count or striding into a hit is mentioned nowhere in the actual wording of the rule (I believe the three stride standard comes from the NHL referee's casebook and previous public interpretations). The league, for understandable reasons, does not want players building up speed by traveling half a rink to hit a player, period. Garbutt clearly did that.
The jumping into the hit bit is, in my opinion, a bit more nebulous because the NHL is extremely, extremely inconsistent about what it considers jumping into a hit. Garbutt definitely leaves his feet during the process of the hit, but so does a guy like Niklas Kronwall. There are all sorts of Zapruder film experts out there trying to get screenshots that show the moment of contact and whether or not Garbutt's feet are still on the ice.
I find that to be a bit irrelevant because Garbutt is clearly launching himself into this hit, skates still on the ice or not. I've been an advocate of taking the "hit a guy with enough upward force to leave your feet after contact" hit out of the game for years now, and this is either that or an outright jump. I find it to be a charge in this context too, although I'm not sure it matters that much because it's still a charge via distance traveled.
Another thing that has been mentioned is the timing of the hit. It is just this side of being late in my opinion, but not quite enough for it to be interference. Penner has just released the puck when he gets smoked and is, understandably, looking where he shot it. This is not a case of "he should have had his head on a swivel" (another phrase that drives me batty). And while it might not be interference, the nature of the hit occurring after the puck was released may very well play into the league's interpretation of it.
What the league is definitely considering is a possible rule 48, or illegal check to the head, violation. Garbutt puts his shoulder into Penner's chin while his torso kind of sideswipes Penner's torso in the hit, resulting in Garbutt's spinning motion mid-air.
I've struggled to come to grips with the league's interpretation of Rule 48 before, and the league did change the rule this offseason. Here is the new wording they're applying this season:
48.1 Illegal Check to the Head – A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.
This is not going to fall under the caveats of opponent putting himself in a vulnerable position or simultaneous contact with the rest of this body, no matter what Penner did or should have done, because this is not an otherwise legal body check.
People have been talking about how Penner moved just before the hit or should have had his head up or was in a vulnerable position. If this was only a rule 48 violation, we could argue that until we turn blue, but this is not a rule 48 violation on an otherwise legal hit. It's a charge with an additional rule 48 violation, and because the initial hit is illegal, there is no available caveat defense available for Garbutt.
The real question will be whether or not the league believes Garbutt's main point of contact was the head. He may try to argue that his main point of contact was the chest and shoulder. That's definitely debatable, but I'm not sure the league will be inclined to give him any benefit of the doubt after he crossed half the rink to get to Penner.
Elliotte Friedman broke down the three possible things the league will be looking for under rule 48 violations this year, and I think Garbutt pretty clearly violated the first one.
First, whether the player attempted to hit squarely through the opponent's body and the head was not "picked" as a result of poor timing, poor angle of approach or unnecessary extension of the body upward or outward.
Garbutt's hit is a bit of poor timing, but it is also "unnecessary extension of the body upward and outward" because it is charging. Again, since the hit is illegal in and of itself via the distance traveled clause, any extension upward or outward is going to be too much.
This very well may not have been a rule 48 violation last season, when the language of the rule still talked about targeting the head, but the rule has substantially changed this season. Garbutt may be, deservingly so, among its first victims.
So if I had to guess at a suspension length, I'd go with three or five games, with a heavy lean towards the five. The three is almost a certainty, even for a guy not considered a repeat offender, because of the pretty viscous nature of the charge combined with the head injury to Penner (think of it as one for the charge itself and two for the illegal hit causing a head injury). If the league slaps him for a rule 48 violation as well, and I think they will, then I believe it'll be another two games on top of that for five total.
Five is also the magic number that is as high as the league can go without risking an appeal to an independent arbitrator.
I like Ryan Garbutt as a player. I like his speed, his energy, his dogged determination to work his way up the ranks and many other parts of his game. But this was a stupid, stupid hit, and it deserves a suspension.
The NHL loves making an example out of lower-tier players who throw dumb, illegal hits, and Garbutt played right into their hands. He really has no one to blame but himself.