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NHL discipline is a work in progress

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

FIRST PERIOD

It’s easy to imagine Colin Campbell sitting alone in a dark room, the NHL’s discipline czar watching video and making judgments – goal or no goal, illegal head shot or clean check, suspension or no suspension.

“Yeah, it’s something like that,” Campbell said. “We flip a coin.”

But it’s nothing like that, of course.

As he stood with his back against the wall Tuesday at the NHL general managers meeting in Toronto, Campbell – who’s under fire from players, coaches, executives, media and fans every time he hands down a decision – defended the enforcement of the new rule banning blindside hits to the head.

“I know our consistency is always questioned,” said Campbell, whose official title is NHL executive vice-president of hockey operations. “If they can find a better mousetrap, then let them try. We care about it. We care about doing the right thing.”

First of all, understand the mousetrap. Note that Campbell said “our” and “we.” He doesn’t act alone. He consults other NHL executives of various backgrounds – playing, coaching, managing, scouting – and he said they have “heated debates.” They look at comparable plays, the history of the player in question and other factors, including the circumstances of the game and whether there was an injury.

Sometimes, Campbell reaches outside of the league office for input. “One occasion this year, I called three general managers in the other conference: ‘Did you see this play? What do you think about it? Is the penalty (enough to be) the penalty, or do you think it should need further (discipline)? What are your thoughts on it?’ ” Campbell said. “They were all on the same page.”

Why call GMs? Isn’t that a conflict of interest for them? Well, Campbell said the fact the three GMs he called were in the other conference meant they would have less of an interest in the discipline of the player involved.

And remember: This is a work in progress, and everyone in the NHL is supposed to be in this together to reduce concussions.

These plays aren’t black and white. Rule 48 bans lateral or blindside hits in which the head is targeted or the principle point of contact. Reasonable people with no bias can look at the same play and come to very different conclusions.

“We’re not talking about an illegal cross-check to the face that knocked out six teeth,” Campbell said. “We’re not talking about a stick-swinging incident. We’re talking about what once was a legal play that now is illegal.”

It’s going to take some time to find the line. Campbell compared it to 2005-06, when the NHL cracked down on obstruction after the lockout. He said it was “a pretty rocky road” as players paraded to the penalty box for the first two months, and “people thought our game was in trouble and we were crazy.”

“If it means losing a player for half a game because it might have been the wrong call, the greater good here is that at the end of the day we want players to learn,” Campbell said. “We can’t forget the big picture, and the big picture is to save careers and reduce this type of concussion.”

After all, it was the general managers who gave Campbell the mandate to do just that last season when the rule was instituted in March.

“At the time, I outlined a few things that might happen under what we were thinking of doing, and I asked a question, ‘What will we do in this circumstance?’ ” Campbell said. “And they more or less said, ‘Well, you’ll figure it out.’ That’s what we’re trying to do.”

SECOND PERIOD

Listen to Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson size up the competitive Central Division: “It forces you to be on top of your game, or you’re going to be embarrassed.”

Howson said that Monday night. Little did he know that Wednesday night his Jackets would embarrass the St. Louis Blues 8-1. The Blues had won seven straight games, thanks to suffocating defense and great goaltending. They had allowed only four goals in their past six games. But just like that, they allowed the Jackets to tie their club scoring record.

Such is life in the Central, where the Jackets are off to a strong start, too. After posting a team-record 92 points and making the playoffs for the first time in their history in 2008-09, the Jackets slipped to 79 points and didn’t make it last season. Columbus is 9-5-0 this season.

“I think everybody had a pretty sour taste in their mouths from last year,” Howson said, “and they’ve got a lot to prove.”

Among the standouts: defenseman Marc Methot(notes), who is plus-10 and has elevated himself into the top four, and center Derick Brassard(notes), who leads the team with 12 points. After the first five or six games, Brassard made a conscious decision to shoot more often. That has opened up more opportunities and formed a dangerous line with wingers Rick Nash(notes) and Jakub Voracek(notes).

Howson is playing it cool, though. He said it is too early to tout Brassard as Nash’s long-awaited centerman. “That’s always been moving pieces with Rick, so hopefully that can keep going,” Howson said. “He’s just got himself playing well now, so the challenge will be to do that consistently.”

As for the Jackets, who have struggled to draw at Nationwide Arena, Howson said: “We’re happy with our start. We know we have a long way to go to win back the respect and trust of our fans.”

THIRD PERIOD

The NHL All-Star Game will have an underdog. That is one of the most intriguing parts of new format unveiled Wednesday. Someone will have to be picked last when the captains draft the rosters.

It sounds like there won’t be an NFL-draft-style, Brady Quinn-Aaron Rodgers moment, where the camera lingers on some poor soul who is still on the board. Brendan Shanahan(notes), the NHL’s vice-president of hockey and business development, said the league and NHL Players’ Association are “working on some scenarios where we can soften that a little bit and draw less attention to maybe one last guy standing.”

But that one last guy standing could end up being the star of the All-Star Game. In the past, all eyes were on the biggest names, guys like Sidney Crosby(notes) and Alex Ovechkin(notes). The other guys – the ones hockey ops picked to make sure every team was represented – were, frankly, filler. Now? Unless you’re a Pittsburgh Penguins or Washington Capitals fan, for whom would you rather root? Sid or Ovi? Or the underdog?

“I had a funny conversation with (1984 ninth-round pick and Hall of Famer) Luc Robitaille, who said depending on where he got drafted, he’d probably go home and try to get more sleep and try to win the car the next day,” Shanahan said, laughing.

A lot of fans would be along for the ride.

OVERTIME

They obviously aren’t as good as their 4-0-0 start looked. They probably aren’t as bad as their current 1-7-3 slide suggests. Take their 15 games as a whole, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are what we thought they were – good in goal, decent on defense and lacking up front, especially at center. They’re on the fringe of the playoff picture, 11th in the East, three points out of eighth.

For all the talk about coach Ron Wilson’s job security and general manager Brian Burke’s salary-cap room, there is no quick fix. Replacing Wilson likely wouldn’t get Tyler Bozak(notes), Phil Kessel(notes) and Kris Versteeg(notes) to score much more, even though Wilson has played his cards, splitting them up for a while, putting second-line jerseys on them in practice. Making a trade might help, but it would have to be a real blockbuster to make the difference. Burke pulled off two last year, bringing in Dion Phaneuf(notes) and Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes), and the Leafs still have a ways to go.

SHOOTOUT

Drew Doughty(notes) and Jonathan Quick(notes) have played well, of course. But who has been the unsung hero for the Los Angeles Kings, the top team in the West? “The one guy that no one is seeing this year that’s playing really, really well is Jack Johnson(notes),” said Robitaille, the Kings’ president of business operations. “We had Drew Doughty miss some games (with a concussion), and he took over our defensive corps.”

Why did the NHL need to spice up the All-Star Game format for the players? Even the coaches have been a little apathetic about the event amid the grind of the regular season. “Sometimes you wonder if you should miss that game by one point so you can go somewhere and recharge with your family,” said Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock.

Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk(notes), a Russian, joking about whom he would pick if were named a captain for the All-Star Game: “I’d pick half the team from KHL.”

After racking up 15 points in October, the most in the East, the Tampa Bay Lightning managed only one point in a three-game journey through Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose. “We had a tough road trip out West, and I think it was eye-opening for all of our players, for our coaching staff and even myself,” said Bolts general manager Steve Yzerman. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” The Bolts came home and beat the Leafs 4-0. But now they have a new challenge: back-to-back road games against Washington and Pittsburgh.

Quote of the week: Mike Ilitch, responding to Red Wings senior vice-president Jimmy Devellano, who credited ownership support upon his Hall of Fame induction: “Well, you know, he liked the way I spend. Yeah, I hate the cap. I’m kind of useless with the cap. I like to go out and get players.”

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