Martin Pospisil and the balancing act of being physical while protecting himself

CALGARY — It did not take long for Calgary Flames forward Martin Pospisil to impose himself physically against the Seattle Kraken on Monday night. To the point that when Pospisil collided with Kraken defender Adam Larsson in the first period, the Swedish rearguard’s body was practically parallel to the ground as his head made contact with the boards before landing on the ice.

It is natural then that the Kraken would want retribution. No wonder Kraken forward Tye Kartye was quick to fight the Slovakian winger to stand up for Larsson. Pospisil, however, wasn’t interested. The forward ducked and lowered his head, covering it with his gloves, as Kartye attempted one uppercut after another until the linesmen stepped in. Referee Chris Schlenker was immediately displeased, shaking his head and pointing Kartye to the penalty box. Pospisil earned a two-minute minor for roughing while Kartye’s punishment was double.

“Karts stepped up there for (Larsson),” Seattle Kraken forward Jared McCann said. “It just shows we’re a tight-knit group here and we’re going to stick up for each other.”

Two periods later, Pospisil was at it again. The winger dished a hit on Kraken defender Vince Dunn, his head rammed along the boards before crumpling to the ice surface. Dunn left the game soon after and a scrum ensued. Pospisil was given a 5-minute major penalty and a game misconduct, ending his night.

“Garbage,” Kraken head coach Dave Hakstol said. “But not really a whole lot different than the first hit six or seven seconds into the game. You run around like that you probably need to answer when somebody comes to you man to man and that didn’t happen either, so from there, I’ll leave it to the league. I thought both hits were just about as bad as you get.”

“Unnecessary,” Larsson said of the hit on Dunn. “I don’t know. It’s dirty and unnecessary.”

Pospisil’s physical nature has boosted him up to the top of the Flames leaderboard when it comes to penalty minutes and has endeared him to Flames fans. But the nature of those hits, while also not being able to respond consistently through fights put him at risk of developing a negative reputation around the league. It could solidify itself with a suspension from the Department of Player Safety if they so choose.

The onus is on Pospisil to adjust his game while still providing the edge that has him in the Flames lineup to begin with.

“He has impact every time he plays the game,” Flames head coach Ryan Huska said. “He’s learning his way right now, I guess, is what you can say. For the majority part of the year, he’s been walking the line on the right side of it for sure. He’s done a really good job with that. He brings a lot to our team in regards to physicality and making sure he’s prepared to play.

“He’s at his best when he agitates, when he’s playing that style of game.”

When asked if he felt Pospisil’s hit on Dunn “crossed the line,” Huska told the media he hadn’t reviewed the hit.

Pospisil has escaped further punishment before. Just last month, Pospisil was ejected from a game against the Boston Bruins after a late hit on Brad Marchand. The next day, coincidentally, the Flames announced a two-year contract extension for the Slovakian winger worth $1 million U.S. annually beginning in the 2024-25 campaign.

“It means a lot,” Pospisil said after it was announced. “It wasn’t an easy way to get here. I’m really excited to play for the Flames for another two years.”

There is some reasoning for why Pospisil didn’t fight back with Kartye. It has a lot to do with the concussions he’s suffered throughout his career, coupled with other injuries.

Pospisil has fought before at the NHL level — in the preseason — and at the AHL level, including a fight with former Oilers prospect Colby Cave that resulted in Pospisil being knocked out on the ice. That fight was the first of many concussions, which as he revealed on a podcast, put him in a dark place while dealing with concussion symptoms. In a November interview with Sportsnet, Pospisil admitted he was trying to play “smarter,” being more selective about when he should drop the gloves.

But it hasn’t stopped Pospisil from playing that physical brand of hockey that has carved a place for him in the Flames lineup, nor has it stopped him from hovering over the borderline.

This past September in a preseason game, Pospisil caught Winnipeg Jets forward Cole Perfetti with a hit to the head before engaging in a dust-up with Jets defenceman Logan Stanley. Similar to Monday’s events with Kartye, Pospisil didn’t put up much of a fight while trying to stave off the much larger Stanley. He was eventually ejected and drew the ire of Jets head coach Rick Bowness.

“It’s a cheap shot hit and the referees got it right,” Bowness said after the game. “Good for the referees to take a look at it. It’s a complete head shot. It’s a cheap shot. Simple as that. So, I’m glad the referees did what they did.

“It’s our rink. And for somebody to take a cheap shot at one of our key guys, you have to respond.”

But if Pospisil can’t fight back, the Flames aren’t necessarily littered with everyday fighters. It’s more of a sign of the times considering the nature of fighting in the sport. The Flames’ most noted pugilist, A.J. Greer, is still weeks away from returning after being sidelined with a foot injury. Blake Coleman has recently gotten himself into scraps, but he’s not a dedicated puncher compared to others like Matt Martin and Ryan Reaves. Dennis Gilbert can fight, but he’s a seventh defenceman who doesn’t play every game.

Should Pospisil be disciplined, he’ll be the third Flames player to be suspended this season. Andrew Mangiapane was suspended one game for cross-checking McCann in a game against the Kraken earlier this season. Defenceman Rasmus Andersson received a four-game suspension for charging Columbus Blue Jackets forward Patrik Laine.

It could serve as a teaching moment for Pospisil, forcing him to learn how to play on the line without inciting more trouble. It could also prove to be a significant marker, resulting with him not earning the benefit of the doubt with the rest of the league.

(Top photo of Martin Pospisil: Brett Holmes / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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