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Bad News Bears

January 26, 2022, 5:51 PM ET [1214 Comments]
Hank Balling
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Last night’s game against the Ottawa Senators was unremarkable relative to most games this season in many regards – the team from Buffalo was outplayed, outshot, out-hit and outscored, which resulted in a loss. The only thing memorable from the contest was Aaron Dell’s hit on Drake Batherson in the first period which sparked outrage from the Senators and the hockey world at large.

Before continuing, here’s the hit:

There are a few things that immediately stand out when watching the hit. At :02 into the video, Dell sees Batherson coming toward him and he lowers his shoulder into Batherson’s lane to deliver a check into the Senators forward. That’s an important distinction. Dell didn’t merely brace for contact; he leaned into the path of Batherson to deliver a blow to the streaking Senator. The Sabres’ netminder made eye contact with Batherson the entire way and then purposefully stepped into the skating lane to slow Batherson down. Dell said as much in his post-game remarks.

"I was just trying to buy some time for my defenseman and step into his lane," Dell said. "I hope he's all right. I wasn't trying to hurt anybody."

By admitting that he stepped into Batherson’s lane – which he unequivocally did – he is admitting to interference at the very least. As for not trying to hurt the young Senator, anyone with a passing knowledge of rudimentary physics knew what would happen next. Dell was firmly planted on the ice and by delivering a glancing blow so close to the end boards, there’s no way that Dell had any expectation other than Batherson flying into the boards at Mach 2.

It was a dirty play, and it isn’t Dell’s first.

Dell had previously drawn some attention this season when he hit Eeli Tolvanen of the Nashville Predators two weeks ago while both players were tracking down the puck. He was assessed a two-minute minor for interference on the play and the game moved on. There was nothing especially malicious there, and it’s fair to argue that Dell was counterchecking against the impending impact of the Nashville forward. That play was borderline, although it looks like an ominous sign in retrospect.

Further back in his playing days, there are some more comparable situations to what transpired against the Senators. Here’s a flying elbow from Dell back in his San Jose days:

Very similar to last night.

It's important to draw a distinction between being tough and being dirty. Being tough is finishing a check in a legal fashion or exchanging punches with a willing combatant, while this display from Dell is purely dirty. The Sabres need more tough players who can play hockey at a high level. They do not need mediocre goalies who take cheap shots at All-Stars.

Dell seems to be aware of what he was doing last night, and he got away mostly scot-free, as consequences of his actions were relatively minor compared to what they could have been. He knew he was losing 3-0 to the Senators and it’s fair to assume that he let some of that frustration go by unleashing that shoulder check. His hit set the stage for some stupidity to follow in the second period as Tim Stützle laid out Dylan Cozens when the puck was nowhere near the Sabres forward and he wasn’t expecting the impact. That hit – like Dell’s – was not called a penalty and the game almost had the makings of getting completely out of control.

But enough about Dell. Let’s talk about Drake Batherson for a minute. Batherson is positively having a break-out season in Canada’s capital with 34 points in 31 games, and he was named to the All-Star Game as a result of his stellar play. The fact that his terrific season was cut down at the knees because of the senseless, needless play of Aaron Dell is inexcusable.

Batherson has a twisted ankle now, and there’s no way of knowing how long he will be out for. We do know that he will definitely miss the All-Star game as a result of last night’s stupidity, and that’s an absolute shame.

Meanwhile, Aaron Dell, the Sabres’ 5th string goalie, was set to have a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety this afternoon. As of this writing, there is no word on what his punishment will entail. The Sabres will shortly have the option to divest themselves of the player though, as goalie Craig Anderson is nearing return.

GM Kevyn Adams and Coach Don Granato can make an easy call and send Dell back to the minors while playing feel-good story Michael Houser as a backup to Anderson rather than Dell. Houser has a .948 SV% in his two contests this year and does not display a propensity for unnecessary interference. The Sabres should understand that there is learning to be had in losing, but that actions like last’s nights only seek to further tarnish the reputation of a team whose respect level is already at an all-time low. There’s absolutely no reason to go out there and ruin the season of promising young players because the team is losing 3-0.

That’s just bad hockey, and it’s unacceptable.

(Update: Aaron Dell has been suspended for three games.)
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