Reverse blows: protectors or predators?

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Self defense. That’s essentially how Cale Makar put it when he discussed the art of backhand hitting during a media session leading up to the 2022-23 NHL season.

« I know it’s controversial for some people, » Makar told a group of us at the time. « But, in my opinion, if they come to hit you, why not hit them back? »

But what happens when you can’t tell for sure if a player is actually coming to hit you?

Can we really say, for example, that New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier, the proud owner of eight penalty minutes and worthy of consideration for the Lady Byng Trophy this season, planned to strike from behind the New Jersey Devils defenseman Buffalo Sabres, Rasmus Dahlin, Friday night?

We’ll never know, will we? Dahlin hit it too early for us to know. But the circumstantial evidence implied otherwise. Hischier’s skates snowed as he slowed his momentum, seemingly looking to avoid contact as he prepared to retrieve the puck. It was then that Dahlin delivered this devastating reverse blow:

No penalty was called on the play…for Dahlin. Hischier, furious after the hit, started a scrum and ended up receiving a two-minute minor penalty for roughing it.

Was Hischier’s anger justified? The reverse hit, on the face of it, doesn’t violate anything in the rulebook. As Makar assumed before the season, it’s a defender’s way of killing or being killed. Why take a big hit getting the puck back when you can catch your unsuspecting opponent with your own hard shot?

The reverse shot is probably not a new concept either. Peter Forsberg popularized it in the 1990s, surprising anyone who dared hit him with the puck on his stick. Some people in the game give longtime Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall credit for being a notoriously effective reverse hitter, but what he did is unlike what we’ve seen Dahlin do. Kronwall engaged a puck carrier by skating backwards when his momentum was already aimed at a player who saw him coming. It’s not the same as skating one way and suddenly changing momentum, which we see in the modern version of the reverse kick. Kronwall was an oncoming car driving down an entire street. Reverse as I call it today: driving forward, then suddenly shifting into reverse and crashing into a car driving behind you.

Anecdotally, I believe this latest reverse shot concept is becoming a problem in the NHL, threatening to do much of the same damage it supposedly aims to prevent.

Most of the time today it’s a defender who delivers a reverse shot, and that tends to happen when his numbers face a forecheck. The implication is that a defender protects himself from being hit from behind. But is the blow from behind the same threat as ten years ago? Or are NHL players already showing signs of cleaning up their game?

The Icy Data site tracks penalties of all types called by season in the NHL, and here’s a look at the boarding (in red, major and minor) and checking from behind of majors (in blue) called in completed seasons. between 2010 and last season:

The data trend shows that players are cleaning up their acts in a major way. Boarding calls have dropped significantly. We’ve only seen three boarding majors awarded this season and no penalties for control from behind based on 2022-23 data.

So if the predatory moves of forechecks are about to disappear: what threat, exactly, does the reverse move protect a player from again?

Is the reverse strike so deterrent that it plays a role in the decline of boarding and kicking from behind? We can’t say for sure. But what I will say is that the reverse kicks now fix a problem that seems to have gone away, and the reverse kicks themselves are starting to graze the predator. Dahlin’s hit on Hischier is a prime example. It was basically a blindside for a player who didn’t expect to be hit.

Here’s another example of the kind of hit I’m referring to: Michael Matheson of the Montreal Canadiens against Eric Staal of the Florida Panthers earlier this season. Matheson was fined $5,000 for interfering with it:

The more I see the reverse shot, the more I think it’s considered interference almost every time. Let’s review some relevant elements of the long definition of interference, Rule 56.1 of the NHL Rulebook:

Body Position: A player can « block » an opponent’s path provided they are in front of their opponent and moving in the same direction.

So the reverse hitter in this case is actually ahead of his opponent. But the moment the momentum kicks back? The reverse hitter doesn’t move in the same direction anymore, does it?

Pick: A “pick” is the action of a player checking an opponent who is not in possession of the puck and who is unaware of the impending check/hit.

The « pick » interference element is particularly incriminating for reverse shots. In Dahlin’s example, he is effectively checking an opponent who is not in possession of the puck and is unaware of the impending check or strike.

It’s right there in the rulebook: a reverse shot is often a form of blindside. Particularly taking into account that players no longer hit from behind as per trends, we can infer that many forecheckers don’t suspect a hit when chasing a defender recovering the puck. So I’ll say it: reverse shots are dirty, period. They have the ability to cause serious injury to their victims.

Is there a wave of opinion around the NHL suggesting a sentiment similar to mine? It’s not a roar, but it’s at least a whisper. It was included as a talking point in a breakout room agenda at the NHL GM’s meetings a few weeks ago, but didn’t generate a ton of momentum, got me they say.

So, for now, the reverse hit endures unless it’s blatantly visible as a form of interference. If I had my way, however: it would be banned for its predatory nature.


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