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What We Learned: It’s time for NHL to get serious on suspensions

Ryan Lambert
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The NHL's Department of Player Safety was recently profiled in a lengthy and fascinating feature in the Boston Globe, and in it we learned that when a dangerous hit happens, the process goes thusly: Someone sends out an email briefly explaining to almost 20 people what happened, if there was an injury, the player's history of supplemental discipline, and the offending player's next game.

After that, Brendan Shanahan tends to reply-all with the simplest of responses: “Thoughts?”

It's an interesting process, in that some 800 plays are reviewed every year for fines or suspensions, and obviously of that number a relatively small percentage actually results in one. Maybe, though, it's time to up the conversion rate.

Shanahan told the Globe that he thinks players are “getting it” and that there is indeed a culture change under way. All evidence, however, stands to the contrary.

Last season there were just 21 regular- and postseason suspensions levied for a total of 55 games (2.62 games per suspension), and that in a shortened campaign. This season, we're already up to 26 suspensions, for 114 games (4.38 per, but that is brought up heavily by the lengthy bans for Shawn Thornton, Patrick Kaleta, and David Clarkson; excluding those, the average is 3.43 per). In 2011-12, under some slightly more restrictive circumstances, there were 55 for 204 (3.71 per).

And as of this writing, that doesn't include the pending suspension Deryk Engelland, a repeat offender who laid a dirty and dangerous hit on Justin Abdelkader over the weekend. This is an in-person hearing too, meaning that it is also going to be lengthy at six games or more.

Jared Cowen, though, recently dodged any kind of action from DPS for a blatant elbow which concussed Pavel Datsyuk, and which the league somehow ruled “accidental” and “inadvertent,” which is stretching credulity thinner than the Leafs' current forward depth. Two and a half weeks later, Cowen picked Zemgus Girgensons' head as he came across the blue line, and was subsequently suspended for just two games. So it would appear as though Cowen is developing a bit of a reputation for hitting opponents right on the chin, and yet only one of two recent incidents has risen to the level of league discipline.

It should be said that Shanahan, as the head of the DPS, has faced a lot criticism as anyone in his position would. Some of it has been warranted, some not, and most of it comes from the fans of teams who either had a player hurt or suspended because of one play or another.

The complaint, though, is always the same: “This is justice?”

Over the weekend, the league dropped its longest regular-season suspension since Shanahan took office in giving Thornton 15 nights off for his gutless attack on Brooks Orpik, and there was a decent amount of talk that it should have been longer (from rational people) or shorter (from Bruins fanboys who bring up his first-time offender status, but shockingly didn't feel the same way when first-timer John Scott got seven for taking Loui Eriksson's head off with what could be more reasonably be called a “hockey play that went bad bad”).

There's nothing in the league rules which state “Here's how much a player gets in such-and-such a situation,” each incident is unique and thus its commensurate punishment is subjective. But what is not objective is that suspensions and extremely injurious plays are taking place with greater frequency now.

So how do you make the argument that players are getting anything?

The problem is that there's no real deterrent. Even fighting's staunchest advocates now concede that a player looking to make an illegal check does not live in fear of being beaten up by the knuckle-dragging Scotts and Thorntons still lumbering around the league with dubious intent. Nor does the idea of a hearing from DPS. You serve your three-ish games, you return to the lineup, it's not that big of a deal. Everyone's doing it.

Players should live in fear of suspensions more so than anything else, and they are, for the most part, getting slaps on the wrist. Again, the three long suspensions handed out this year were automatic (a 10-game ban for leaving the bench), an easy call against one of the league's biggest recidivists (a seven-game slam dunk), and a clear violation of The Code that happened well after the whistle (a should-have-been-more 15-gamer to a thug). The system is perhaps always going to be broken, but applying some duct tape to it shouldn't be this hard.

There needs to be a statement of intent. If Shanahan is serious about keeping players safe — and he should be — guys who offend, even for the first time, need to start getting more severe punishment. It's that simple.

You have to remember that when Shanahan first took the job, he came in guns f'n blazing. The first eight suspensions he handed out were all in the preseason, and amounted to 57 games total (7.13 per). That's 28 percent of all the games for which he banned anyone during his first season, on just 14 percent of the suspensions. The message was clear: If you hurt another player, you're eating press box popcorn for a long-ass time.

However, the league and teams promptly freaked out at this kind of thing, and clearly told Shanahan to dial it way, way, way back. The number of suspensions of seven games or more doled out in an eight-day span during that first preseason was five. The number in the two full seasons' worth of games since then? Eight.

Shanahan is walking around talking about how the kinds of thing his department does are helping. They're not. The idea of Sheriff Shanny with the big iron on his hip and an itchy trigger finger has long since vanished, and more people are getting hurt on his watch as a result. Now he's Barney Fife, despite the fact that the Mayberry he sees more closely resembles Tombstone.

He needs to go back to being Wyatt Earp.


What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Dustin Penner and Andrew Cogliano spent $1,500 of their own money to take some disadvantaged kids on a Toys R Us shopping spree last week. Great stuff, but next year make sure Perry and Getzlaf get a call about this; they've got deep pockets.

Boston Bruins: Guess the thing Claude Julien is upset about: “[W]hat happened, that’s definitely not something we will accept in our organization.” Did you guess having an enforcer slewfoot and knock an unsuspecting player unconscious? Sorry, that's incorrect; when asked about that incident, Julien said, “The only thing I’m going to say is let’s not just look one way here. There’s a lot of blame to go all around.” The answer we were looking for is “Brad Marchand kissed a pretend Stanley Cup ring.” So remember, all you kids out there, you can concuss anyone you want with a cowardly sneak attack, but if you taunt an opponent you're going to get called to the principal's office. What a wonderful and not at all embarrassing organization.

Buffalo Sabres: Would you rather be the GM for the Flames or Sabres? I suppose C (“None of the above because I've thrown myself screaming from a tall building”) is also an option.

Calgary Flames: Speaking of those two teams, can you imagine anything worse than paying money to watch a Sabres/Flames afternoon game? How about a 2-1 overtime finish in Calgary's favor? How about Buffalo was wearing its thirds? Yeah, that bad.

Carolina Hurricanes: Are the Hurricanes thinking about trading Justin Peters to Edmonton? Maybe they've had conversations, but didn't the Oilers just sign a goalie? Don't they also already have one? Why does this happen?

Chicago Blackhawks: Fascinating conversation between Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane moderated by Craig Custance. Must-read stuff.

Colorado Avalanche: Jan Hejda played his first game back for Colorado after a knee injury on Dec. 5, and got close to 26 minutes, behind only Ryan Suter (32:51!!!!) and Erik Johnson (27:52) in the game. Nice way to return.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets blew a 3-1 first-period lead and lost in overtime to the Blues, which is probably not something you want to do on home ice.

Dallas Stars: Ho hum another four-point game for Tyler Seguin. That's four games this season in which he's gotten four or more. What talent.

Detroit Red Wings: The Wings have lost four in a row and five of six. And with Justin Abdelkader down, things could get worse before they get better.

Edmonton Oilers: You know who Sam Gagner thinks has been awful lately? Sam Gagner. Dallas Eakins agrees.

Florida Panthers: Dylan Olsen is off to a heck of a fast start since he was traded to Florida. Three goals and four assists in his first nine games, after going 0-1-1 in 28 two seasons ago with Chicago.

Los Angeles Kings: Entering last night's tilt at Chicago, the Kings had one regulation loss in their previous 18 games. That's not many at all.

Minnesota Wild: Josh Harding has to logically stop doing this at some point, right? Dude's got a 1.49 goals-against and .939 save percentage in 26 appearances this season.

Montreal Canadiens: This was the only goal in Saturday's Habs/Isles game and boy does it feature some Islanders-level defending.

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: These wonderful Preds have won three straight. Oh who have they beaten, you ask? Just the Rangers, Stars, and Sharks. Not a big deal.

New Jersey Devils: Marty Brodeur played like a guy who's not a thousand years old in picking up his 124th career shutout against the Bolts Saturday. It was a 33-save performance, giving him only his 22nd clean sheet of 30 saves or more.

New York Islanders: The above-mentioned Canadiens/Islanders contest featured just one goal, and this thunderous hit on John Tavares by Lars Eller, who got two minutes for contact to the head. Wonder if Shanahan calls him about that. Just kidding, no I don't, because Tavares is a star player:

New York Rangers: Ryan McDonagh is a nice American boy who likes America. What a guy.

Ottawa Senators: The Sens are just awful. They've given up four or more in nine of their last 14 games.

Philadelphia Flyers: Michael Raffl has played very well alongside Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek, so don't feel like you need to work that hard to get back up there, Scott Hartnell.

Phoenix Coyotes: Whatever illness is keeping Shane Doan out of the lineup, it sounds really awful.

Pittsburgh Penguins: That injury to Evgeni Malkin looked bad and that whole “trying to put weight on it then collapsing” thing doesn't help matters. Pretty serious for the Penguins if he misses any great amount of time (though whether he will is still not clear). Maybe the Russian Federation also thinks this is a North American conspiracy.

San Jose Sharks: Earlier this week Mike Yeo flipped out and said the Sharks dive all the time, but then he called Todd McLellan to apologize. McLellan says the Sharks have been whistled for one dive or embellishment since 2010, which seems crazy.

St. Louis Blues: Two of St. Louis's four goals on Saturday were scored by Vladimir Tarasenko, who now has 11 for the year, but only three since December started. Gotta pick it up here.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts have now been shut out in six of their 32 games. Not surprisingly, five of them have taken place since Steven Stamkos broke his leg.

Toronto Maple Leafs: How does this happen?

Vancouver Canucks: Nice save Tuukka just kidding.

Washington Capitals: Michal Neuvirth is close to coming back, having won a rehab start in Hershey. He did, however, concede four on 37 shots.

Winnipeg Jets: Finally some honesty out of Winnipeg courtesy of Blake Wheeler (1, 2): “We’ve been blowing smoke for three years, everyone, myself, everyone that’s stood in front of a microphone in the last three years, we’ve said the same [poop]. What do you want me to say? That’s about it. I don’t know what else to say.” This is all Atlanta's fault!


Play of the Weekend

This is a hell of a goal from David Backes. To score like that with a guy hooking you that hard is mighty impressive.


Gold Star Award

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Big ups to David Clarkson for getting suspended again. The Leafs are 8-3-0 in games for which he's been banned this season. Big-time leadership.


Minus of the Weekend

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Gutted to see 24/7 off to an awful, boring start.


Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “Price4Prez” is tryin' to juice the offense.

To Montreal:
Malkin

To Pittsburgh:
Subban
Galchenyuk

Great!


Signoff

Here's a bunch of numbers. They may look random but they're my phone number.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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