Fraser: Analyzing Mikko Koivu's hit on Niklas Kronwall

Kerry Fraser
11/2/2011 1:14:15 PM
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Got a question on rule clarification, comments on rule enforcements or some memorable NHL stories? Kerry Fraser wants to answer your emails at cmonref@tsn.ca!

Do you think the Mikko Koivu hit on Niklas Kronwall (Tuesday) is a suspension-worthy offence per the new league rules regarding head checks?
I've watched the video from different angles, and it appears from each of them that Koivu 1) targeted the head and 2) made it the principle point of contact.  Also, Koivu gave up on the puck, making no effort to pursue the play, but rather to obstruct Kronwall.
I think the call would have been appropriate and crucial, especially since the result of that play was the game winner.
What do you think?
Andrew - Belleville, ON
Hi Kerry,
Was hoping you could clarify something for me about the Minnesota Wild's 2-1 win over Detroit on Tuesday. On the game winning goal, with Minnesota on the power play, Mikko Koivu and Niklas Kronwall both chased the puck into the corner following a rebound by Jimmy Howard. Koivu gets into the corner first and then uses his back to knock down Kronwall to protect his position on the puck, though he doesn't touch the puck until after the hit. With Kronwall then out of the play, this creates a 4-on-2 situation for the Wild, and Koivu skates out of the corner to set up Setoguchi with the GWG on the door step.
I'm curious as to whether or not there should have been a penalty on the play. It appeared fairly clear that Koivu intentionally made the hit, so it wasn't a case of incidental contact like Kronwall simply skating into him and falling down (unless the ref felt otherwise), Kronwall never touched the puck while racing into the corner, and Koivu had to yet to pick up the puck onto his stick. I was hoping you could clarify if this is a case where interference should have been called for Koivu knocking down Kronwall in a race to the puck, or a good play by Koivu to protect his position on the puck.

Andrew and Nick:

This play is absolutely not worthy of a suspension nor violates any new standard relative to illegal checks to the head or dangerous hits. Under the presently accepted "rules of engagement" no penalty was deserved on the play either.

This is deemed to be strength on strength battle; albeit one that certainly seemed to have surprised Niklas Kronwall.  Perhaps if Kronwall had watched fellow Swede Peter Forsberg more closely throughout his 'Hall of Fame career' he might have anticipated this separation technique. No player did it better or more frequently than Forsberg.  It appears Mikko Koivu, from Turku, Finland, studied under Kronwall's fellow countryman.

Let's take a closer look at this and other similar types of battles that are deemed to be both legal and illegal. A legal battle results when two players are physically engaged with one another (or about to be) where both parties should expect contact. The most notable forms of this occur in shoulder to shoulder pursuit of the puck, stationary battles to gain ice position/presence in front of the net or for puck possession down low and usually against the boards.

On this play, Koivu had the lead lane in pursuit of a loose puck. Kronwall was close on his heels and actually initiated contact when he brought his stick down onto the shaft of Koivu's stick to control, contain and eliminate Koivu's ability to play the puck with his stick. At this point we have a legal battle as both players are now engaged through physical contact. 

If Kronwall continued his back pressure pursuit odds are he would attempt to muscle or even body check Koivu to the boards to contain or even eliminate him. The battle stage was set but what Kronwall wasn't counting on is that Koivu would throw on the binders, lurch backwards and initiate contact of his own.  There was no elbow, no hit to the head but a back shoulder check designed to create space or eliminate a willing combatant. Since Kronwall had initiated pursuit and contact with his stick the engagement was completed when Koivu beat him to the punch with a strength maneuver that is presently deemed legal.

I say 'presently' because I want to give you some additional cannon fodder to consider. We (and the Player Protection Committee) want players to make a responsible decision when an opponent is in a vulnerable or defenseless position (facing the boards, etc.). As applied to the boarding rule the onus is on the player applying the check to ensure his opponent is not in a defenseless position and if so, he must avoid or minimize contact. While avoidance would not be a viable option for Kronwall, if he had blasted Koivu from behind or even made sufficient contact that caused Koivu to be thrown violently into the boards bad things could have resulted. At the very least a minor infraction for boarding would likely be whistled or in the worst case a review and suspension might result as was the case with Kris Letang on a puck pursuit play approaching the boards.

Let me share an example of two players pursuing a loose puck where contact to eliminate the other player does not constitute a legal battle and subject to an interference penalty. There is a race for the puck in the corner following a dump in. Both players are going hard, shoulder to shoulder but without physical contact. One player is clearly focused on the puck and has no apparent intent or expectation to physically engage. His opponent changes the footrace by blasting the skater with a shoulder check in advance of getting to the puck which totally eliminates the unsuspecting skater. This in deemed to be interference since the race was not considered a 'battle' between two willing players suspecting contact (I know you should always expect to be hit. Like it not that is the standard).

If however, both players were looking at one another and bumping or positioned their bodies toward one another then may the strongest man be left standing or should I say skating.

To a much less obvious degree a moving pick is another form of interference but none the less similar in result where one player eliminates another without mutually agreed upon contact.

While Niklas Kronwall might have quickly gone from the hunter to the prey there was nothing illegal in the “Koivu-Forsberg” rules of engagement (We miss you Peter Forsberg and thanks for the great memories!).

I welcome your thoughts and comments. 

Niklas Kronwall (Photo: Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)


(Photo: Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)
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