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Brendan Shanahan and the NHL’s inconsistency on repeat offenders (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
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Trending Topics is a column that looks at the week in hockey, occasionally according to Twitter. If you're only going to comment to say how stupid Twitter is, why not just go have a good cry for the slow, sad death of your dear internet instead?

One of the worst things about the NHL today is that its supplementary discipline system is a joke. The maddening inconsistency that generally comes out of it during the regular season absolutely goes through the roof once the playoffs start.

Take, for example, the fact that the infamous Senators/Canadiens brawl game, which was rife with attempts to injure and other dirty plays, resulted in zero suspensions or fines. While there was likely a behind-closed-doors scolding for both teams from the league's Department of Player Safety, the issue was (and is, I suppose) that there is little to no transparency about it.

I remember it wasn't so long ago that Brendan Shanahan vowed to occasionally release videos explaining why certain controversial hits or incidents did not result in any supplementary discipline, and the league has very occasionally followed through on that. Not enough, perhaps, for fans to have some semblance of understanding of what the decision-making process is, but sufficient to placate the angry hordes massing at the castle walls whenever a particularly egregious incident leads to nothing at all.

But that goes away in the postseason.

Perhaps it's because the games carry more weight at this point, and perhaps it's because the league doesn't want to bring added scrutiny to potentially big-time decisions that could affect the outcomes of these rather important games, if not an entire series. But in either case, it doesn't make a lot of sense. The rules remain the rules, right? Even if you listen to that formula that every game of a suspension in the postseason would have counted as two in the regular season, we still don't know, then, what the point at which these decisions are made is, or why it changes so dramatically when the playoffs begin?

Go back to that Sens/Habs game. Can you think of any possible reason that Rene Bourque didn't pick up a suspension for that elbow to Cory Conacher's head? You can ask the same question about Chris Kelly elbowing James van Riemsdyk in the face in Game 7 of that Bruins/Leafs series. These were both, without equivocation, clear attempts to injure an opponent, and you can even get into the whole "principle point of contact" and "targeting the head" issues the league loves so much to boot and still say, "Ah yes, these should have been suspensions, or fines at the very least."

These were plays, intentional as you like, that shouldn't be part of a hockey game, and should have resulted in a call with Shanahan at the very least. Yet the NHL's Department of Player Safety remained mum on the subject as far as the public was concerned. There were certainly no explanation videos, and the reason why is pretty clear: There was no reasonable justification for not suspending Kelly or Bourque.

Kelly, to his credit, has never in his lengthy career been fined or suspended by the NHL, and therefore certainly might have gotten by on that fact; the league is, it must be said, a bit harsher with repeat offenders.

For instance, look at the one-game suspension Andrew Ference for his elbow on Mikhail Grabovski. It wasn't appreciably different, in my estimation, from Bourque's, as both clearly targeted the head. Neither resulted in a call on the ice either.

But here's what I don't get about this: It's not like Bourque isn't also a repeat offender.

Ference's only previous suspension came last January, when he got three games for running Ryan McDonagh through the endboards. Around the same time as that, though, Bourque was suspended two games and then five for separate incidents less than a month apart, which makes his escape from Sheriff Shanahan's justice all the more perplexing. Hell, at least Ference's elbow happened somewhat near the puck; Bourque's was a mile away from it.

Yet the guy with the shorter rap sheet and more defensible play, in a hockey sense, was the one who got rung up, while the double-repeat offender whose play cannot be explained as anything other than what it plainly was walked without so much as a stern public reprimand. Eric Gryba, meanwhile, gets two games for a hit that was legal but looked bad despite having no suspension history. Who knows why?

The reason I bring all this up is that all this stuff happened with very little consequence, while Raffi Torres is getting rung up for a ton of games despite throwing his most innocuous suspendable hit in a decade. That's not to say he shouldn't have been suspended, because that was the right call, but if you're comparing that hit to the elbows thrown — or even repeat offender (suspended Jan. 2012) Alex Ovechkin's obvious charge on a vulnerable Ryan McDonagh — in the first round, it wasn't necessarily that bad, apart from the result.

Obviously Torres has done far more to draw the ire of decision-makers at the head office than those other guys, but it just doesn't seem that each hit is being judged on its own merits, even when you add in the special consideration for who it was that threw the hit in question. And, with Torres, you can't assume he didn't want to hospitalize the guy, because that's just how he plays and always has. Err on the side of caution. Seems reasonable.

But then Shanahan says, "Although we'd agree that Torres might make initial contact with Stoll's shoulder, that is a glancing blow. In fact, the head is the principle point of contact." And none of it makes sense. Not because there was no mention of targeting the head or anything, but because we've heard the opposite as justification for not suspending guys in the past.

I mean, his being suspended for the entire series was perhaps inevitable, especially after Gary Bettman emasculated Shanahan in reducing the size of Torres' whopper suspension last playoffs. But how many times have we heard it explained away that the initial point of contact, however "glancing" it might have been, having been a shoulder or chest, rather than the head, allowed someone to escape without punishment?

You see guys get knocked in the noodle all the damn time in the NHL and never does a suspension come down, because sometimes that's the way hockey goes.

Fine, so why — and I really can't believe I'm half-defending Torres here — was this hit any worse than those?

Because of who it was. Okay ...

So then I guess the question becomes not one of whether a player has been suspended before, but what he's been suspended for, and for how long, and how frequently. It appears there are apparently repeat offenders like Bourque and Ovechkin and Ference, and Repeat Offenders.

I would love to find out what the real distinction is. Because until we have that, these incidents are always going to be a game of 20 questions. Will a guy get a hearing? If so, will it be a fine or suspension? If a suspension, how long will it last? Why that many games? How much of a role did the physics of glancing blows and principle point of contact play into this hit versus other ones that went unsuspended? And, now that Shanahan's dealing in vagaries of vagueness with regard to the actual number of games for which he's suspending people for: Will this player actually know how many games he's going to miss the second the suspension is handed down?

Three games would have seemed just about right for that hit, and that's the minimum for which he was suspended. Six games would have felt egregious, and that's the maximum. And that's why it's nonsense. If you want him gone for six, say it's six. If it's only three, that's fine, but you have to say it. And if it's either four or five, make the decision and put that out there.

There's no room for a middle ground in this job. "This was bad enough that he should miss any number in a small range of games," is ridiculous. It's small-time. Suspend a guy for however long you're going to suspend him. Act like a grownup whose job it is to mete out supplementary discipline to players who run afoul of the National Hockey League's rules. Then tell us why without getting into all the absurdity of a miniature Mr. Wizard episode to explain — quite poorly — the physics of the play.

Shanahan has never made even the slightest effort to keep things even remotely consistent. I've long argued that he has no credibility in his job, which is still slightly more than the amount Colin Campbell had even before he resigned in disgrace after being outed as an overly-meddlesome hockey dad by Tyler Dellow. Hockey fans, its players and teams, and the league itself, frankly deserves better than this carnival guessing game. The Wheel of Justice may be collecting dust in that warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it's just been replaced by something almost equally infuriating.

And what were we told when Shanahan took the job? There'd be more transparency, or something along those lines. I guess they've delivered on that in the only way the NHL can: by doing the bare minimum to fulfill its promises. One grain of rice, they'd argue, is more than no rice at all. But it's little succor to a starving man who doesn't know where his next meal is coming from.

If you’ve got something for Trending Topics, holla at Lambert on Twitter or via e-mail. He’ll even credit you so you get a thousand followers in one day and you’ll become the most popular person on the Internet! You can also visit his blog if you’re so inclined.

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