The NHL's comical supplementary discipline system is just as guilty for Derek Stepan's broken jaw as Brandon Prust, the man who probably feels as though his predatory, injurious hit on the New York Rangers' first-line center on Thursday night was well worth it for his Montreal Canadiens.
Montreal forward Brandon Prust will have a hearing today for interference for his hit on New York forward Derek Stepan.— NHL Player Safety (@NHLPlayerSafety) May 23, 2014
Prust had nothing to lose and everything to gain from his late, vicious, head-hunting check on a defenseless Stepan, and he was probably well aware of that fact.
Here's how his thought process likely went:
"We're down 2-0 in this series. Our No. 1 goaltender is out for the series. If I take out their top center for the rest of the series, what's the worst that can happen? I get suspended for the rest of the series? I'm expendable. I play less than 10 minutes most nights and have been healthy scratched twice in the playoffs. This could even the playing field. Chances are, the incompetent officiating crew will miss the hit and if Stepan isn't seriously hurt, maybe I'll escape a suspension altogether and I'll try it again on someone else.
"Either way, I'll have the respect of my teammates and that's worth more than missing a few games and giving away a few dollars in suspension money."
The NHL's Department of Player Safety has fostered that attitude for years with lax punishments for dirty hits largely because so much weight is placed on the result of the hit, not the intent. There's nothing wrong with increasing the length of a suspension because of an injury, but the nonsensical idea that since Stepan returned about 20 minutes after the hit meant that Prust would avoid a suspension is a major reason why the hit happened in the first place.
Consider the case of Vancouver's Zack Kassian this season. During the preseason, Kassian wielded his stick like a young Jaime Lannister and broke the jaw of Edmonton's Sam Gagner. The NHL handed Kassian a five-game suspension in response to Gagner being out for six to eight weeks with the injury.
In March, Kassian was again facing supplemental discipline for boarding Brenden Dillon of the Dallas Stars. Despite his repeat offender status and clear indifference toward anything resembling the safety of his fellow players, the NHL only gave Kassian a three-game ban, and that was mostly because Dillon didn't suffer an injury on the play.
Prust very likely didn't care one way or the other if he was suspended one, five or 10 games for his hit on Stepan. As deplorable as the act was, it was a very smart trade-off.
The players understand how supplementary discipline works. They are aware that suspensions are very likely to be shorter in the postseason, if they are even handed down at all.
Here's the twisted logic presented by Brendan Shanahan when he was still the dean of discipline in 2012 to ESPN.com's Craig Custance (subscription required):
I can attest to this as a player, if you ask me if I'd rather have a four-game suspension in November than a one-game suspension in the playoffs, I'd take the four-game suspension in November. If you think about it, that one game in the finals is the equivalent of a 12-game suspension.
If you think about it, one game in the finals is one game in the finals. That's how every player sees it, especially when they know that seriously injuring a key player on the opposing team is going to get a softer punishment because of some math equation only DOPS understands.
When you combine the lack of fear of anything resembling a harsh punishment with what's at stake in the postseason and then add the fact that your organization will quietly pat you on the back if you're a fourth-liner trading yourself for a first-liner, it's a minor miracle that hits like the ones leveled upon Stepan don't happen more often.
Do you think it's coincidence that after Boston's Milan Lucic received only a fine for attempting to neuter Alexei Emelin, an all-out assault on the most delicate of man areas ensued during the playoffs?
Some players do not fear supplemental discipline and know their roles. For instance, as a Ranger, Prust elbowed New Jersey Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov in the head during the 2012 Eastern Conference Final, and coach John Tortorella defended Prust by referring to him as an "honest player." Well, Prust honestly doesn't give a damn if he gets suspended as long as he takes a more useful player from the other team off the ice in the process.
Prust received a one-game suspension for that hit, as Volchenkov did not miss any time.
The hit on Volchenkov appeared to occur more in the heat of the moment than the hit on Stepan, which looked more premeditated than the murder in Presumed Innocent.
Prust broke the rules, and he will pay for it. But in a way, he also played within the rules DOPS has established over the years. If Stepan and Prust are both out for the remainder of this series, it's an advantage for the Canadiens. Should the Canadiens win this series, Prust will very likely be available for the Stanley Cup Final, as it's doubtful he'll receive more than the seven games Matt Cooke got for kneeing Tyson Barrie in the first round.
Here's how you know there's something seriously wrong with how the NHL handles supplemental discipline: After a team announces that an injured player needs surgery because of an illegal hit, some observers' first instinct is to question the timing of the announcement. How convenient they let everyone know Stepan needs surgery and is out indefinitely an hour after it's announced Prust will have a hearing.
@jtbourne Awful good timing to announce it before Prust's hearing, too.— Barry Petchesky (@barryap1) May 23, 2014
That cynical thought has some merit, though, as the NHL's penchant for punishing the outcome more than the intent has created an environment where the victim is somehow at fault for the team announcing that the injured player will be out long term.
How many games should Brandon Prust be suspended?
It's also a failure of the highest order that Prust's hit is being treated as "interference" and not "an illegal check to the head" because Prust made mild contact with Stepan's torso a millisecond before making flush contact with his head.
It's one thing when a shoulder makes contact with the head in the course of a legal hit in which the player receiving the hit has the puck on his stick; it's another when the hit was so late that it's worried that it may be pregnant.
Prust delivered a blow to Stepan's head, plain and simple.
Although, in a way, Prust has interfered with Stepan's ability to eat solid food for an extended period of time. That's probably worth four games.
It doesn't matter what silly punishment the NHL hands down on Prust. The damage has been done, and it may have been preventable if DOPS dished out anything resembling consistently serious punishment in recent years that could have served as a deterrent.
All statistics courtesy of NHL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo