Prudence over pride: Blackhawks know concussion protocol critical

Prudence over pride: Blackhawks know concussion protocol critical

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Marcus Kruger understands it, even if he didn’t like how it affected him at the time.

When officials told Kruger he had to undergo concussion protocol late in the second period on Saturday night, he wasn’t happy. He thought he was fine. The Blackhawks were trailing 2-1 and facing some critical penalty kills, one of Kruger’s specialties. He wanted to be out there, wanted to be helping the team, wanted to have the say on whether or not he had to get checked out by doctors.

"I’d rather have it in my hands so I can choose whether I can leave the game or not. But the league doesn’t think that’s the best,” said Kruger at Thursday’s practice. “I can see why they do that, too, but obviously [Wednesday] I wasn’t happy about it.”

The NHL made some changes to their concussion protocol this season; “central spotters” that can order a player off the ice if they feel that player needs to be checked. Kruger had already left the ice once prior to the officials telling him to leave again.

“I got out twice, so… but I know the league does that to protect the players, which is a good thing,” Kruger said. “Maybe I wasn’t happy with how it was. We were down, killing penalties and stuff like that. But the guys did a great job and I got back as quick as I could.”

It’s not a surprise to hear Kruger put the team first. We’ve seen athletes, especially hockey players, do it on a nightly basis. We’ll watch them go down in heaps after hits or blocking shots and we laud them when they return almost immediately after either one. How often have all of us – yes, I include myself – talk about how much of a warrior Niklas Hjalmarsson is for all the pain he goes through blocking a shot, only to be right back out there the next shift?

We’re not talking, however, about body bumps and bruises, cuts and welts, or even broken bones. Granted, those could certainly have their residual effects. But head injuries are a different matter. We’ve seen what’s happened to former players who suffered through them during their careers. We’ve seen careers cut short. We’ve seen lives cut short. There’s a time when prudence has to usurp pride, and this is absolutely one of those instances.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Vinnie Hinostroza understands it. The rookie forward spent two consecutive days in bed after suffering a concussion against the Winnipeg Jets at the start of this trip.

“I think it’s important to obviously keep the players safe,” said Hinostroza, who returned vs. Vancouver. “Your brain is such a serious thing. You don’t want to mess around with that. It stinks at the time when you have to leave the ice, but in the long run it’s definitely beneficial to make sure he’s OK.”

Former Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp appears to have changed his thoughts on the protocol, too. Sharp suffered a concussion earlier this season and missed 14 games. Sharp told the Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika that, “when I took the hit, I assumed I was coming back in the game. Now that I look back on it and what happened, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t.”

Exactly. And Sharp’s comments remind us something else about concussions: maybe the effects are immediate, maybe they’re not. Maybe Sharp felt just fine right after that hit – Los Angeles’ Brayden McNabb checked Sharp, who then went head-first into the boards. Sharp did get up and play, taking a shot on goal before he was pulled.

Hockey players endure so much, play through so many things. It’s just in their makeup. But nobody’s questioning a player’s toughness when it comes to head injuries. At least nobody should.

Kruger didn’t like getting pulled at a critical time but he understands his health comes first. There’s a lot at stake, be it a longer, healthier career or a longer, healthier life. Another check just cost Kruger a few shifts. It could ultimately save him and others a lot more in the end.

2019 NHL free agent focus: Five potential targets for Blackhawks

2019 NHL free agent focus: Five potential targets for Blackhawks

Stan Bowman has had a busy last couple weeks. He pulled off a pair of trades, landing defensemen Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan from the Eastern Conference. He drafted center Kirby Dach with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft that could turn into a franchise-changing player. And now he’s in the middle of negotiations with pending restricted and unrestricted free agents.

With the defensemen group starting to take shape, it appears free agency will be used to fill out the forward group. That could come via trades, also, but it really depends on the market.

So let’s identify five potential UFA targets for the Blackhawks ahead of Monday, when players are officially able to sign contracts:

1. Ryan Dzingel, LW

When Dzingel was with the Ottawa Senators, he was playing top-six minutes and earning power-play time because the Senators weren’t very deep. After getting traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the deadline, he struggled to be a fit there, didn't play much on the power play and was healthy scratched for one game in the playoffs.

But he still has value, although it may not be in an area that the Blackhawks need (penalty kill).

Dzingel, a Wheaton native, set a career high in goals (26), assists (30) and points (56) in 78 games this past season with the Senators and Blue Jackets. He can play in the top-six but might be more effective as a middle-six winger on a good team.

According to Evolving Wild, Dzingel is projected to earn a contract of four years with a $4.25 million cap hit. 

2. Anders Lee, LW

It’s a little surprising that the New York Islanders and their captain haven’t made any progress on a long-term extension. At the same time, it’s pretty clear that Lou Lamoriello is looking to make a big splash this summer in his pursuit of Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin, and needs financial flexibility to negotiate.

Lee is a perfect complementary top-six left winger who would look great next to Jonathan Toews or opposite Patrick Kane. He’s got size at 6-foot-3, 231 pounds, is reliable, scored 40 goals in 2017-18 and has a strong work ethic. Those qualities check a lot of boxes the Blackhawks are looking for.

Where it gets tricky is what his contract may look like. He's projected to receive in the range of a seven-year deal that carries a $6.5 million cap hit. The dollar amount is doable, but the term could scare the Blackhawks away as they prepare to sign Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome to long-term extensions next summer.

3. Gustav Nyquist, LW

The Blackhawks have been interested in Nyquist's services in the past, so they'll certainly look into him as a possibility now that he hits the open market.

Nyquist has scored at least 20 goals in four of his past six seasons, with 28 being his career high. But he's not known to be a goal scorer. He's a pass-first, playmaking-type winger and makes players around him better because of it. Nyquist is a consistent 45-55-point player.

His next contract is projected to be in the six-year, $5.6 million range, which — like Lee — is a fair dollar amount but the term may not be something the Blackhawks are crazy about. Bowman appears to be focused on free-agent forwards who can be signed on shorter-term deals.

4. Joe Pavelski, C/RW

Perhaps the most intriguing player on the free-agent market for the Blackhawks is Pavelski, who’s served as the San Jose Sharks captain but may not fit into their plans going forward because of their cap crunch.

Yes, he will turn 35 in July. And yes, he has a ton of mileage on his body. But he’s showing no signs of slowing down. 

Pavelski is a five-time 30-goal scorer who’s coming off a 38-goal season, can play both center and wing, and is an absolute gamer, a leader on and off the ice who shows up when the lights are shining brightest. He’s also not afraid to go to the dirty areas and is widely considered to be one of the best at deflecting pucks, which comes in handy on the power play.

What makes him an attractive piece is that Pavelski could be a player that makes an immediate impact but wouldn't require a long-term deal. He's projected to earn a three-year contract with a cap hit of $7.4 million. If the Blackhawks can get him at two years, that would be ideal. But like Patrick Marleau a few years ago in Toronto, his camp is probably looking for that third year.

5. Corey Perry, LW

Days after he was bought out by the Ducks, Perry’s name surfaced as a possibility for the Blackhawks. And it makes sense because the Blackhawks aren't looking to hand out long-term contracts.

Perry is 34 years old, a former Hart Trophy winner and 50-goal scorer, and is still a productive player when healthy. But that's the biggest concern. He missed 51 games this season with a knee injury, returned ahead of schedule and never looked the same on the ice.

Per the CBA, Perry can sign a one-year, bonus-laden deal and it appears that's what he'll do. A one-year contract in the $2-3 million with bonuses would be a low risk, high reward move for the Blackhawks.

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Sports Talk Live Podcast: What will be Stan Bowman's next move?


Sports Talk Live Podcast: What will be Stan Bowman's next move?

Gabe Ramirez, Vinnie Duber, and Jay Cohen join Kap on the panel to discuss game two of Cubs vs. Braves and the battle of the Soxes.

Plus with the start of free agency coming up, what will be Stan Bowman's next move?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

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