NHL playoffs: Oilers spark debate with 'targeted' hits on Golden Knights' Mark Stone

The Edmonton Oilers appeared to be making an effort to hit Mark Stone in the back in Game 1 after he'd been struggling with back issues for months.

In Game 1 of their series with the Golden Knights, the Edmonton Oilers did what they could to make sure Mark Stone couldn't get comfortable.

Getting physical with your opponent's star and captain is a pretty intuitive strategy, even if it didn't work for Edmonton in this case as Stone produced a goal and an assist in Vegas's 6-4 win.

While trying to rattle the cages of a top player is a common occurrence in playoff hockey, questions have been raised whether the Oilers crossed a line on Wednesday night.

That's because the team appeared to be targeting Stone's back. The veteran winger had back surgery on Jan. 31, returned for the playoffs and was caught on camera leaving Tuesday's practice moving gingerly in a manner consistent with a back issue.

With this context in mind, the extensive montage of Oilers shots to Stone's back the Sportsnet broadcast was able to put together didn't cover Edmonton in glory.

On the surface, this seems like an unambiguous issue. Any effort to injure a player or re-aggravate an existing injury is despicable and has no place in the game.

If anyone on the Oilers coaching staff sat down his players and gave them literal instructions to go after Stone's back that's in the same ballpark as Gregg Williams infamous "affect the head" speech that rocked the NFL in 2012.

The devil's advocate argument is that the hits in the clip above are also generally within the realm of what you tend to see in the NHL playoffs — and it would be a stretch to call any of them dangerous. Edmonton's players may have been aware of Stone's predicament and acted independently. They might have perceived a few extra cross checks as something making the winger's life harder as opposed to conceptualizing any of their actions as an attempt to injure.

Even so, this is a bad look for the Oilers — a team that was on the other side of a similar controversy last season when the Calgary Flames appeared to be targeting Leon Draisaitl's injured ankle.

In an ideal world, the NHL would promptly act in situations like this with punishments that deter this kind of ugliness. Unfortunately, when we're dealing with issues of intent, policing becomes very difficult.

By suiting up for a game in a contact sport players create a permission structure for their opponents to hit them anywhere they normally would. Stone can't play in an NHL game with specific prohibitions on the type of hits he can take. If he's playing, he's giving his opponent a green light to treat him like any other healthy player and get physical with him in any way available to them according to the rules — or at least how the game is being called.

Ironically, that opens the door for the ways he's not healthy to be exploited. No one should do this, but it does happen, and it's going to be hard to crack down on without a smoking gun — like the audio of Williams's speech in the NFL example.

The Oilers were extremely physical with Mark Stone on Wednesday night. (Photo by Zak Krill/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Oilers were extremely physical with Mark Stone on Wednesday night. (Photo by Zak Krill/NHLI via Getty Images)

Another issue with these situations is how the way they're reported affects the outcomes. NHL teams are often mocked for providing extremely vague injury information and using terminology like "upper-body injury" and "lower-body injury." When something like this arises, the decision to remain cryptic looks awfully wise.

Reporters around those teams are tasked with providing the best information about the squad they're covering as possible, so it's understandable they make as many details as they can public. In doing so, they are hurting teams from a competitive standpoint and arguably endangering players, though, as former Oilers and Anaheim Ducks coach Dallas Eakins pointed out on the Sportsnet broadcast.

I would be highly agitated by this. I'm sure [Vegas head coach Bruce Cassidy] was as well. I know they have to put it out there, but they haven't done their home team any kind of service. They put it out there, you can see that his back's hurt and Edmonton's obviously taken note of that and they're going after it. It's a better way for people to understand why teams just say 'upper-body' or 'lower-body' because players will target.

TSN Edmonton reporter Ryan Rishaug found himself in this exact predicament during the first round when he shared a clip of Connor McDavid showing some discomfort with his leg during practice.

While its not the media's job to do the team they cover any kind of service, the point is well taken. It would be nice if the NHL was a league where you could report on a player's specific injury without endangering them, but it's pretty clear that's not where we are right now.