October 22, 2011
Early Friday evening, the NHL's Department of Player Safety issued a $2,500 fine to the Nashville Predators defenseman for his boarding penalty against Jannik Hansen(notes) of the Vancouver Canucks. The hit was textbook boarding (watch it here): Hansen's back was turned and Weber plowed him into the boards, earning a minor penalty. The short distance between Hansen and the glass probably prevented injury.
The hit was a classic example from the NHL's what-not-to-do list: Instead of skating up and eliminating Hansen from the play with body positing, Weber pasted him on the wall.
Suspension worthy? Actually, Canucks coach Vingeault said no, and turned into an unlikely witness for the Weber defense:
"Obviously, it's the type of hit they're looking to take away from the game," Vancouver Coach Alain Vigneault said. "But when the player turns and the defense is engaged, I think it's tough to pull back from the hit."
Brendan Shanahan(notes), the czar of NHL player safety, doesn't get in front of the cameras to explain fines. (And, in fact, has only produced one video about a decision not to suspend, which was for Ryan Malone's(notes) injurious hit on Chris Campoli(notes).)
While it would have been enlightening to hear Shanahan's take on the Weber hit, the message here doesn't need spiffy graphics or a teleprompter: This is Weber's first offense. He didn't really matter to the supplemental disciplinarians before. Now he does.
The plays weren't similar, but it was impossible to ignore the fact that Kris Letang(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins was given a 2-game suspension for boarding three days before Shanahan only fined Weber. The most prominent mitigating factor here: Letang had been previously fined for a boarding penalty in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was a repeat offender.
Weber is now in the same spot: In the system, his next offense surely resulting in the Shanahammer swinging his way for a game or two in the press box.
The other player fined for boarding under Shanahan is in the same situation: New York Rangers hobbit wizard Mats Zuccarello(notes), who carelessly shoved Kyle Clifford(notes) into the end boards during a game against the Los Angeles Kings in Stockholm.
In total, 13 players have received supplemental discipline from the NHL since Shanahan took over the captain's chair. These were the only two fines; the suspensions have ranged from one regular-season game to eight in the case of James Wisniewski(notes) of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The average regular-season games lost for a first-time offender under Shanahan: 2.25.
The average regular-season games lost for a repeat offender under Shanahan: 3.80.
There's no question that Weber fits into a "One Strike" policy that we've seen develop since the preseason. Whether or not it was a "hockey play" in the eyes of the Nashville Predators or the opposing coach is immaterial: It was a penalty, and then it was reinforced by a fine. The real debate is when the punishment: How do some boarding calls result in suspensions while others were just fines?
A theory: That players like Shea Weber, who are physical but play within the rules despite being built like mountain grizzlies, are not the problem. Suspending him does nothing but create an unnecessary benchmark by which other plays can be judged, which is a slippery slope to Colin Campbell Political Cobweb-ville. Fining a player like Weber, or keeping suspensions down to one or two games, is also the politically shrewd thing to do for the NHL, considering how Shanahan came out of the gate with the subtlety of The A-Team attacking an enemy prison camp.
Shanahan's mandate, instead, is to go after the players who choose to play outside the rules with frequency: Repeat offenders and players who, logically, probably have that defective hockey gene.
He will also consider the incident itself, the extent of the injury and the game situation.
"But the main marching order I got from people in hockey I bumped into was, 'It's the guys that do this all the time that we need to come down on the hardest,'" Shanahan said.
… In the end, not all suspensions will be longer ones. Shanahan will deal with each incident on a case-by-case basis.
"I still believe in the effectiveness of one-, two- or three-game suspensions if warranted. I've never said that those are gone," said Shanahan. "What I'm trying to do here is make the game safer, change player behavior, that's my focus. My focus isn't on punishing people. It's about making the game safer."
Does leniency for first-time offenders make the game safer? Does a fine for a player like Weber prevent a similar play down the line better than a suspension would?
Shanahan and the NHL believe so.
We'll say this: The videos of players taking hits to the head or getting crushed along the boards are less prevalent today than they were three weeks ago — and certainly last season.
Shanahan's "give the new guys a mulligan, swing the Shanahammer at the repeat offenders" policy appears to be working. The Predators are probably thankful for it, too.