The NHL’s decision to suspend Coyotes forward Raffi Torres for 25 games once again shows that the league is totally inconsistent when it comes to suspensions and supplemental discipline.
There is no problem with the league deciding to get tough with players who deliver head shots like Torres did to Marian Hossa in Game 3 of the Coyotes-Blackhawks series earlier this week. The problem is that this suspension is so out of whack with anything and everything the league has done so far in the Stanley Cup playoffs that it just makes no sense.
The NHL can be tough or lenient when it comes to suspensions and fines, but it has to be consistent. Right now, Brendan Shanahan, the league’s discipline czar, has been all over the place since this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs got underway.
Shanahan started out his tenure as league disciplinarian this preseason by handing out tough suspensions to several players. This was designed to raise awareness of head shots and make it clear to the players that they would not be tolerated.
As the season went along, the players did adjust to the new standards and the number of suspensions gradually trailed off. The league laid down the law, enforced it early and often and the players quickly learned what they could and could not get away with.
During this year’s playoffs, however, Shanahan did the opposite. He did not lay down the law early and apparently it was not clear to the players what they could and could not get away with.
The key play came on the first night of the playoffs in a game between the Predators and Red Wings. After the final seconds ticked off the clock, Nashville’s Shea Weber grabbed Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg by the neck and slammed his head into the boards in a move that resembled something straight out of professional wrestling (of course, the head slam by Weber was not choreographed).
Despite the fact that Weber deliberately banged Zetterberg’s head into the wall after the whistle blew and the game was over, he received no suspension, just a $2,500 fine.
What Weber did was not a hockey play. It took place a few seconds after the game ended. While Zetterberg did hit Weber a few seconds earlier, what the Preds defenseman did was not a hockey play or anything that could be considered a hockey play. It was a clear and deliberate attempt to injure an opposing player.
Shanahan cited the fact that Zetterberg was not seriously injured on the play as a reason for not suspending Weber. While it is understandable that the league can and should take whether a player was injured into consideration, the intent of the player committing the foul should be even more important than the injury.
In Weber’s case, it was clearly an attempt to injure. The fact that no injury occurred was fortunate, but should not have mitigated Weber’s punishment if the league was truly worrying about controlling and containing the violent behavior of players on the ice.
The league had to make it clear at the onset of the playoffs that such violence would not be tolerated, especially violence that involved shots to the head.
Chicago’s Jonathan Toews summed up the problem from a player’s perspective very well a few days ago. “In a situation like that with Weber, more than anything you should make an example of it, regardless of whether he's a star player,” Toews told the Globe and Mail. “They have been trying to make an example of things like that so they don't happen again and all of a sudden you let one slide like that. Everyone must feel like they're back to square one. So it is frustrating.”
After Weber was not suspended, the violence quickly spread through other playoff series and the league continued to apply fines and suspensions in an inconsistent and illogical way.
In Game 2 of the Rangers-Senators series, Ottawa’s Matt Carkner received only a one-game suspension for deliberately punching the Rangers' Brian Boyle who had refused to drop the gloves and engage the Ottawa enforcer in a fight. Carkner got on top of Boyle and continued to punch him in the head despite Boyle being down on the ice and not throwing any punches.
Again, here was a non-hockey play (not to mention of violation of “The Code”) with a deliberate attempt to injure an opposing player. The suspension was excessively light.
Meanwhile, Carl Hagelin received a three-game suspension in the same game for an elbow to the head of Daniel Alfredsson. Hagelin’s hit was a hockey play and was not a deliberate attempt to injure.
It was a head shot, and he deserved a suspension, but it seems that the deliberate attempt to hurt an opposing player completely outside the rules and ethos of the game should receive the harsher penalty. A hockey play gone bad which involved an unintentional head shot,should receive a lesser penalty.
After giving out mostly light suspensions early in the playoffs, Shanahan realized he was losing control of the players. Anybody watching the series between the Penguins and Flyers, for example, could see this. Again, there is nothing wrong with intense, physical hockey. But much of what went on in that series and many others went well beyond that.
Suddenly, Shanahan realized he had to act. He increased suspensions. Arron Asham of Pittsburgh, for example, received a four-game ban for a cross-check to the chest of the Flyers' Brayden Shenn. Asham’s act was not a hockey play—it was beyond the pale of the game. It was a blow to the chest, followed by a punch to the back of the head. Asham was not a repeat offender and he got a four-game suspension.
But giving Torres a 25-game suspension is taking things to a completely different level. Lengthy suspensions like that are usually reserved for only very serious incidents that are completely outside the bounds of the game of hockey.
A prime example is the two incidents involving former Islanders forward Chris Simon back in March and December of 2007. In the first incident, Simon cross-checked Ryan Hollweg of the Rangers in the face a few seconds after a clean check by Hollweg sent Simon into the boards. Simon was forced to sit out 25 games.
The second incident took place the following December when Simon deliberately stepped on the back of Pittsburgh’s Jarkko Ruutu’s leg with his skate while Ruutu was down on the ice. Simon missed 30 games for that incident.
In both cases, what Simon did was not a hockey play and was far outside anything that was considered part of the game. He was also deliberately trying to injure an opposing player.
Back in the 1993 playoffs, Capitals center Dale Hunter (yes, the same Dale Hunter who is now coaching the Caps) took a baseball-type swing at the Islanders' Pierre Turgeon nearly five seconds after Turgeon scored a big goal in the deciding game of the series. Hunter was banned for the first 21 games of the following season.
In 2004, Todd Bertuzzi of Vancouver was suspended “indefinitely” for his punch to the head of Colorado forward Steve Moore. In this instance, the incident was so outside the bounds of hockey that criminal assault charges were brought against Bertuzzi. The league suspended Bertuzzi for the rest of the 2003-04 season and he was not reinstated until after the lockout in August of 2005.
In all four of the above incidents, the infractions were far outside the bounds of the game and were non-hockey plays that featured a deliberate intent to injure.
The Torres incident was more of a hockey play gone bad. It was a dirty play, but not so far outside the bounds of the game that we are entering Simon or Bertuzzi territory. Torres was trying to check Marian Hossa.
Did he hit him too late and too high? Yes. Was a penalty and suspension deserved? Yes. Torres left his feet, he hit Hossa in the head and as Shanahan said, he is a multiple repeat offender who has made similar dangerous plays in the past.
But was his hit on Hossa so far outside the bounds of the game that it was in the same league as the two Simon incidents and the muggings by Bertuzzi and Hunter? No, not even close. It is tough to imagine Torres getting more than 10 playoff games for his hit when Weber got a mere fine, Carkner got just one game and Asham just four.
Pittsburgh’s Chris Neal made a play similar to Torres’ when he left his feet and delivered a blow to the head of Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux. Neal was considered a prior offender, although his rap sheet was not as long as Torres’. Neal only received a one-game suspension.
The only major difference between the two plays was the injury that resulted from them. Neal was fortunate Giroux was not seriously injured on the play while Hossa left the ice on a stretcher and is out indefinitely with a concussion.
But can the outcome really be the difference between a one-game suspension and a 25-game ban?
I fully applaud the league’s attempt to crack down on head shots, especially the way it was done during the regular season. A standard was clearly announced, introduced and followed. The players adjusted accordingly.
In the playoffs, however, Shanahan seems to be making up the standards as he goes along. He didn’t start off being strict and making things clear, and when things started to get out of hand, he suddenly reversed course and overcompensated. The law is inconsistently applied and followed.
The incident involving Torres was a bad one and yes, Torres has to learn not to leave his skates and launch himself at or near the head of opposing players. But his suspension makes very little sense in relation to other decisions the league has made in the playoffs regarding suspensions and fines.
The NHL needs to address head shots and find any reasonable way to reduce them to ensure that players are as safe as possible when playing this tough and exciting sport. But changing the way things are done midway through the first round of the playoffs makes very little sense.
The league needs to apply fines and suspensions consistently and fairly, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Right now, it’s doing neither.