Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza was suspended six games by the NHL Department of Player Safety Tuesday for kneeing Winnipeg Jets defenseman Neal Pionk.
In determining the length of the suspension, according to the explanation video, the Department does take into account the play leading up to this that resulted in a two-game suspension for Pionk.
As outlined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it is important to note the prior events in this game which occurred that led to this play. A little over a minute before this incident occurred, Pionk injured Maple Leafs defenseman Rasmus Sandin with a knee-to-knee check, a hit for which Pionk has been suspended. Spezza acknowledges that he was aware that the player he was checking was Pionk.
Additionally, the explanation video from the Department outlines a series of arguments made by the Leafs and Spezza in Tuesday’s hearing in defense of the player.
First, the Maple Leafs argued that this is not kneeing. We disagree, as this is clearly a case in which Spezza’s leading knee makes direct and forceful contact with his opponent. We also note that there is past precedent of our Department penalizing knees to an opponent’s head under the kneeing rule. Second, both the Maple Leafs and Spezza argued that Pionk is eligible to be checked on this play, and we agree. While every play is different, there is no league rule against hitting a player who is low to the ice, provided the hit is delivered in an otherwise legal fashion. However, it is important to note that it is often extremely difficult to deliver a legal check to a player in a vulnerable position, and the onus remains on the player throwing the check to adjust himself to ensure the hit is delivered legally… Finally, Spezza argued that he would have been able to deliver this check legally had Pionk not fallen further toward the ice, materially changing the position of his head after Spezza had already committed to the hit. We do not agree.
The Department goes on to acknowledge the fact that Spezza has no suspension history in his 19-year NHL career, but believes that the retaliatory nature of the play warrants the suspension.
Ultimately, while we believe that Spezza’s long history of clean play supports his argument that he does not intentionally drive his knee into the head of Pionk, this is a play in which he is attempting to enact forceful retribution on a player who was in a vulnerable position.
Pionk did indeed suffer an injury on the play as alluded to in the video. He was placed in concussion protocol today as a direct cause of the Spezza knee.
However, it may not be the end of the road for this story. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that Spezza plans on appealing the suspension, which will go directly to Commissioner Gary Bettman. Spezza then has the option to elect for an independent arbitrator.