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NHL suspends James Neal 5 games for kneeing Brad Marchand; did he get off lightly?

Greg Wyshynski
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The NHL has suspended James Neal five games for an intentional knee to the head of Brad Marchand, skating through his skull while the Boston Bruins forward was attempting to get back to his skates in Saturday's game.

It’s one of those suspensions that makes you wonder if the NHL is ever going to be able to follow its own principles for player safety or criteria for repeat offenders.

From the League:

Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal has been suspended for five games, without pay, for kneeing Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand during NHL Game No. 438 in Boston on Saturday, Dec. 7, the National Hockey League's Department of Player Safety announced today.

The incident occurred at 11:06 of the first period. Neal received a minor penalty for kneeing.

Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and, based on his average annual salary, Neal will forfeit $128,205.15. The money goes to the Players' Emergency Assistance Fund.

And here’s the Brendan Shanahan video:

First off: Why wasn’t this an in-person hearing, which carries much more weight than a phoner? There’s no guarantee a player won’t get less than six games at an in-person hearing; it’s just a way to formally give a player his day in court, while forcing him and his reps to travel to the NHL for that hearing, which is annoying.

(Remember earlier this year, when the NHL was accused of opting for suspensions under six games to avoid NHLPA appeal? This doesn’t help.)

But the real issue here: Shanahan and the NHL determined that James Neal delivered an intentional blow to the head of an opponent. It’s not the first time he has, or has attempted to do so. They’ve warned him, multiple times.

Yet … five games.

Five games for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fourth most important offensive player behind Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz. You hate, hate, HATE to believe there’s a double-standard in this league, but we’ll go ahead and ask: What does a player with less ice time, a smaller salary and less cache as a scoring winger get here?

You know, for intentionally kneeing an opponent in the head, and with a history of reckless play?

The other aspect to this is, as usual, the “suspend to the injury” aspect of NHL supplemental discipline.

Marchand wasn’t injured on the play. He came back and finished the game for the Bruins. Brooks Oprik left on a stretcher after Shawn Thornton’s delightful slew-foot-gloved-punch combo attack, so Thornton gets an in-person hearing and a larger suspension.

It’s completely farcical that a knee to an opponent’s head from a player with a history of disregard for player safety doesn’t get something larger than five games, just because his victim had the audacity not to get concussed.

To that end, Neal’s been lucky: When he skated around like a petulant child against the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2012 playoffs, attempting to head-hunt formerly concussed players Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier, he failed in his mission. It’s the reason he was given just one game – the lack of an injury.

Maybe five games satisfies some of you, but not me. Not in this case. Shanahan has preached one sermon time and again as Department of Player Safety chief: a player’s head is sacred ground, and the players that repeatedly desecrate it need to be punished severely until they get that drummed into their own skulls.

Neal clearly falls into the “doesn’t get it” category, previously home to players like Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres. At least those guys admitted to playing on the edge; Neal delivers COSTCO-sized bundles of bull excrement when he gets caught thugging it up, claiming he doesn’t see players or doesn’t expect them to be there when he hits them.

(We’re starting a collection to get him either Lasik surgery or a GPS.)

Plus, he hit a guy in the head. Which, as we’ve learned, the NHL generally frowns upon.

What would I have given Neal? An in-person hearing and 8 games. As utterly deplorable (and incredibly hypocritical) as Shawn Thornton’s attack on Brooks Oprik was, his motivations were clear and the end result probably wasn’t what he was hoping for.

Neal? There’s really no other motivation for kneeing another player in the head than “hurt him in the brain.” If the NHL ruled this as intentional, and it did, then five games isn’t sufficient.

UPDATE: From @TheConfluence, here's perhaps what sparked Neal's ire. Because the measured response to a push from behind in June is a knee to the head in December.

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