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Inside the NHL: League was right on Wideman suspension

So Calgary defenseman Dennis Wideman gets back about $280,000 of his money even if he doesn’t get back nine games of his time already served. The Flames get a measure of retribution for a 20-game suspension they thought was far too long and continue to defend their shaky medical practices. The NHL is clearly agitated a neutral third party got involved and has to decide about keeping this ugly incident and appeal going. But when does injured linesman Don Henderson get his career back?

Your head is left spinning trying to ferret out all the parcels of one of the ugliest incidents in recent NHL history, as Wideman’s 20-game suspension was reduced to 10 on Friday. So if being concussed is an excuse for flattening an on-ice official, what else can that be used as a defense for?

This corner is as critical as they come about the NHL most of the time. Gary Bettman’s head-in-the-sand approach to so many areas – remember how our teams have too much integrity to tank? – simply doesn’t serve the game well too much of the time. But the league got this one right.

Wideman deserved to have the book thrown at him. Watch the video. He’s concussed and has no recollection of what he’s doing but he raises his stick in the air to call for a line change, heads to the bench, and plows directly through Henderson? Ignorance is zero defense. Bettman & Co. probably knew the case would go to the arbitrator, who would likely reduce the sentence. So why not go with 20 games and see what sticks?

The Flames’ reaction Friday night was baffling, just as it’s been through most of this process. Wideman read a prepared statement which said in part, “I still maintain that it was completely accidental and I had no intent on hitting Donnie at all.”

He’s an 11-year veteran with no supplemental discipline record. That’s true. But one of my complaints is how players don’t get that first offense quickly enough. You do something this heinous, you don’t deserve a break. And his infamous text that this was all the fault of the “stupid refs and stupid media” showed his lack of remorse in the immediate aftermath, no matter how many finely crafted statements he made to the public or in hearing rooms.

Calgary president of hockey Brian Burke crabbed about how long the arbitration process took, which has some validity, then got agitated when asked why Wideman never came out of the game. Given the ongoing concussion lawsuit against the NHL, that’s a very bad look for the franchise.

“It’s not falling through the cracks at all, I resent that,” Burke said. “A player can exhibit concussion symptoms after the game and our protocol was followed to the letter … after the game, he complained of symptoms and was given a test and registered concussion symptoms but nothing fell through the cracks.”

Terrible. So was the NHLPA’s statement in reaction to the arbitrator’s ruling.

“Given that it was undisputed that Dennis suffered a concussion mere seconds prior to his collision with linesman Don Henderson, we felt strongly that there should have been no discipline,” it read in part. No discipline. Think about that.

Imagine the message that would have sent. Open season on officials. If that had gone down, the league would have deserved to have a walkout like it did in 1988 when Jim Schoenfeld told Don Koharski to “have another donut” after that wild playoff game in New Jersey. The Players Association should know much better. That’s just flat-out embarrassing.

As it is, the feelings of the men in stripes are clearly bubbling. Saturday morning, NHL Officials Association spokesman Dan O’Hallaron issued a statement that said in part, “The message in reducing the suspension that is sent to NHL players, as well as athletes all over the world, including children, is that the code of conduct towards officials has changed.”

Sure does. The league entered the weekend still pondering if it was going to head to an appeals court about the arbitrator’s ruling and may need to if it feels it needs to show the officials that its attempt at discipline is being undercut. There’s been a clear feeling the league never wanted one of its discipline cases to get that far, to someone outside the realm of hockey making decisions about things that happened on the ice. This one got to that point, and nobody was served well by the process.

GMs need expansion rules

NHL GMs will be meeting this week in Boca Raton, Fla., and the mechanics of replay review are sure to be a hot topic. But the underlying storm brewing in many front offices is the need for parameters for any expansion draft. Teams want the rules but the league’s consistent answer is there will be no rules until a determination is made about expansion.

The most likely scenario you hear of late is a one-team expansion, with Las Vegas possibly getting the go-ahead for play in the 2017-18 season during the NHL Awards Show’s stay in Sin City in June. Teams need to know, among other things, if they have to do more to protect prospects from being poached or if individuals’ no-movement clauses apply to potentially being selected.

In the salary cap era, young players are more valuable than ever with the way teams develop their draft picks – and have them for three years on entry-level contracts. Most teams are going to want to see if they can have a bad contract plucked away (see: Moulson, Matt). The NHL, however, will want a Las Vegas franchise to have a chance to be competitive quickly and not be a scrap-heap collection like first-year disasters in Washington, Ottawa or San Jose.

Former NHL tough guy Georges Laraque, now a French radio host in Quebec City, prompted a firestorm there last week when he said the league has already decided to bypass the home of the old Nordiques for now because of the flop of the Canadian dollar. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly quickly issued a denial, noting again that no decisions have been reached. But Laraque is probably on to something. It seems inconceivable a Quebec team could build from the ground up in the current financial environment.

Something else to keep in mind: The league could still use a fallback option if things don’t get figured out soon in Carolina, where attendance is dreadful and owner Peter Karmanos has been looking to sell. Bettman said in November the team isn’t going anywhere; ask people in places like Quebec, Atlanta or Winnipeg how much that statement holds up.

Speaking Friday at an analytics conference in Cambridge, Mass., Bettman reiterated that Columbus and Detroit would not be asked to move back to the Western Conference to facilitate any expansion. The Jackets and Wings pushed the league to get them back east for many years but the current East-West imbalance has no easy solution if expansion goes into Quebec.

Matthews’ season ends

In relatively stunning fashion, the season in Switzerland has ended for Auston Matthews. The 18-year-old, who is the presumptive No. 1 pick in the June draft at First Niagara Center, couldn’t help top-seeded Zurich avoid a first-round upset in the Swiss League playoffs. Zurich was swept by SC Bern, whose roster features former Sabres Derek Roy and Cory Conacher.

Matthews finished the regular season with 24 goals and 22 assists in 36 games. But he did not score and had only three assists in the four playoff losses. Matthews missed a pair of shootout chances in a Game One loss (shootouts are played after an overtime does not yield a goal), and his team had just nine goals in the four games. Zurich was shut out, 3-0, in the finale.

While the lack of playoff games could impact the decision to include Matthews on Team USA for the World Championships in May in Russia, it certainly could leave him less likely to get one of the final seven slots for Team North America in the World Cup. There seems to be plenty of competition for those spots among current NHL players, more than enough to lock out someone yet to play in the league.

One guy making that run is Canadiens center Alex Galchenyuk, whose two-goal game against the Sabres Thursday gave him five multigoal games in an eight-game span – something no Montreal player has done since Jean Beliveau put together a stretch in 1959.

Weber gets his Cali trip

Mike Weber got his California road trip after all, and the timing was excellent as the former Sabres defenseman was able to bond with new teammates out west after his first run to Anaheim was cut short as the Sabres traded him on Feb. 23.

Said Weber to Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post, “You get out to dinner with the guys. On some of the off days, you maybe have an adult beverage or two with the boys and guys get to open up and you open up a little bit more about guys on a personal basis and not just at the rink. Those things are huge in coming together as a team. This team is already extremely close, and it makes it easier on myself to kind of fit into the group here when you’re on these road trips.”

Weber has no points and an even rating in his first five games with the Caps, and his ice time has ranged from 12:24 in his debut to a high of 15:11.

Around the boards

• One other point on Matthews. There was no celebration in the Air Canada Centre on Monday night when the Leafs blew their third-period lead to the Sabres and lost in a shootout. And no groans – only huge cheers – when the Leafs scored with 1:13 left in regulation to tie the Islanders and won a shootout. Guess Buffalo has a monopoly on fans cheering against their own team for the benefit of a draft pick. Hmmmmm.

• New Minnesota coach John Torchetti, to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on Jack Eichel: “It’s difficult to play in the National Hockey League at 18, 19 years old. But what they’re doing, you see Eichel, the separation in his skating is incredible for his size and speed. It’s fun to watch. I watched him a couple of shifts against us, and I was holding onto my breath, I can tell you that.”

• While in Los Angeles, Caps star Alex Ovechkin attended Tuesday’s Lakers game and took a postgame picture with Kobe Bryant and tennis great Novak Djokovic. Bryant gave Ovechkin a pair of signed shoes and a signed jersey with the inscription, “To Alex, one of the all time greats!” Ovechkin put a photo of his gifts on Instagram which said simply, “No comment!!! It’s unbelievable to have this!!!”


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