Brendan Shanahan’s decision to pin a five-game suspension on Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand bears more favorability than fallibility. The same holds true for the overall scope of his first three-plus months as the NHL’s topmost disciplinarian.
Was the length of Marchand’s sentence a bit much? That could be the basis for a respectable argument. Something more along the lines of one, two, or three, but certainly not zero games was on most rational radars anyway.
Then again, Shanahan has doled out a handful of other suspensions of head-scratching lengths to members of other teams. The otherwise clean Ian Cole serving three games for what was ruled a “reckless,” rather than malicious, hit to the head Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader, who was not injured on the play, comes to mind.
More often than not, though, Shanahan has been indisputably reasonable in his decisions and the circulated video explanations that accompany each of them. That is infinitely more than can be said about his predecessors, Colin Campbell and Mike Murphy.
Concerning Marchand’s clipping infraction against Vancouver Canucks defenseman Sami Salo, as well as other ugly occurrences in last Saturday’s grudge match, emotional investors from both sides have vehemently objected to the NHL’s disciplinary decisions.
Between Milan Lucic having his game misconduct and possible 10-game suspension rescinded and Marchand now facing his five-game ban, Vancouver and Boston loyalists have one grievance apiece from Saturday’s aftermath.
But that alone is a microcosm of support for the trite but true notion that disputed rulings even out for everybody by the time the last ice chips have settled.
The simple fact is Shanahan has finally instilled some sensibility to the NHL’s disciplinary approach. Even when his decision to suspend or not suspend or to suspend for a longer or shorter period is difficult to accept, the concomitant explanation is credible and respectably argumentative.
And even when a player gets off one time, he is hardly off the hook for subsequent infractions. Consider Lucic and his unsuspended collision with Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller, followed by his one-game hiatus as penance for nailing Philadelphia’s Zac Rinaldo from behind.
Shanahan patently understands that every reviewable incident on the ice is a snowflake. He understands that there is no sense in choosing between intent or result as the constant, solo means of judging an incident before any incidents occur.
Instead, Shanahan reviews the offending player’s intent and disciplinary history as well as the afflicted player’s injury. That dense concoction of factors lends more credibility to the recent five-game suspensions of Marchand and Calgary’s Rene Bourque, the seven-game suspension still being served by Chicago’s Daniel Carcillo and the two-game ban to Phoenix’s Raffi Torres last week.
Contrast that with Campbell’s and Murphy’s respective decisions to inexplicably let Matt Cooke and Zdeno Chara carry on without delay, even after concussing an opponent in a manner that was nothing short of frightful.
Or contrast that with the fact that the NHL once thought a dirty mouth in the locker room was worthy of a suspension at least three times the average length of one for hitting an opponent’s head on the ice.
Shanahan is the new off-ice ref, and like any ref, nobody wants him making disagreeable calls and assessing disagreeable penalties to their team. But surely all NHL fans, pundits and interested observers can agree that they especially do not want a ref coming off as timid or apathetic.
Shanahan’s approach is exactly why players such as Marchand, Carcillo, Cooke, Bourque and Torres will logically eschew dangerous plays with exponential effectiveness going forward. All of those players are valuable to their team when they play within the bounds of the rules, therefore multi-game suspensions for stepping out of those bounds is enough punishment to deter cheap, injurious actions.
Shanahan’s approach is also why the likes of Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault will sound more widely objectionable every time they say of an opponent “he’s going to get it.” And it is why the likes of Brian Burke are losing credibility in their claim that the only way to curb malicious and injurious hits is by having 19 hockey players and a designated fighter on one’s bench as opposed to 20 well-rounded hockey players.
Contesting teams and players do not need to police themselves or each other. That is the job of Shanahan and the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and the job they do is bound to get better with time.
Everyone else’s end of the bargain is to maintain a reasonable sense of respect and a simple desire to outscore the opposition in a tough, competitive, yet clean fashion. That’s hockey.