NHL Suspensions: Why Don't They Act As a Deterrent? Why Is the System Broken?

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NHL Suspensions: Why Don't They Act As a Deterrent? Why Is the System Broken?
Rich Lam/Getty Images
Rick Rypien, the most recent NHL player to be suspended

So far this season, the NHL has suspended seven different players, for terms varying between one and six games. Offenses ranged from hits from behind to physical interaction with fans. 

September 24 2010: Nick Boyton (Chicago Blackhawks) One game

October 4 2010: Mike Cammalleri (Montreal Canadiens) One game

October 10 2010: Pierre-Luc Leblond (New Jersey Devils) One game

October 12 2010: James Wisniewski (New York Islanders) Two games

October 12 2010: Nicklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago Blackhawks) Two games

October 18 2010: Shane Doan (Phoenix Coyotes) Three Games

October 22 2010: Rick Rypien (Vancouver Canucks) Six Games

The problem with these suspensions? They don't matter.

If a player is suspended, he takes up a spot on the 23-man active roster, and his salary still counts against the salary cap. However, his salary is actually forfeited for the number of games missed. 

So the suspension primarily hurts the player, and to a minor degree, it hurts the team through the cap hit. But the team usually just plugs in a guy who was in the press box as a healthy scratch (and therefore was already on the salary cap) to fill the void for a few games, and it is business as usual.

The players who get suspended tend to be guys on the bubble, who need to play on the edge, and often cross it, in order to stay in the NHL for as long as possible during their short careers. Missing a few games isn't going to deter them from making dangerous or stupid plays, because if they don't play on the edge, they'll miss a lot more NHL games as a healthy scratch and soon will be collecting an AHL paycheck instead. 

And it will be only a few games lost to suspension, since even the most heinous violations of the rules rarely incur more than a handful of games lost to suspension, even hits with clear intent to injure that inflicted a crippling injury to an opponent.

The NHL needs to start imposing penalties which hurt the team, and therefore would have more of an impact in curbing dangerous plays that lead to injured players.

If you do something stupid during a game and are penalized, your whole team suffers the ensuing shorthanded situation, and could be down a goal, thereby missing out on points in the standings. This hurts the team as a whole for the actions of one player.

But if that same player does something behind the pale and gets suspended, as I noted above, it doesn't really matter to the team beyond the initial game unless it is a star player who got suspended. (And that rarely happens.)

Bottom line, the slap on the wrist of a short suspension is not a deterrent.

The longest suspension this year so far is the six games to Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks, and I guarantee the Canucks aren't really going to miss him during those six games. Sure, they'd like to have him available, but his presence (or lack thereof) isn't going to change their likelihood of winning games. (So far they are 1-0-1 two games into his suspension)

I'd like to see the NHL make the following changes to the suspension system.

First, make the suspensions count by making them hurt the team, not just the individual missing a paycheck, for the entire length of the suspension. Have the suspended player take up not just a spot on the 23-man active roster, but also on the 20-man starting roster for each game they are suspended. 

Essentially, if you have a suspended player, you are playing with a short bench. And if you want to really make the suspended player feel shame, you could make them gear up and then sit in the penalty box for the entire game. (OK, that'd be funny, but not too likely.)

Playing with a short bench can impact your ability to win by tiring your players, especially if it happens several games in a row, or during back-to-back games. Just ask the New Jersey Devils players if they miss having a full bench so far this season.

Second, I'd like to see someone making the suspension decisions who isn't an old timer, someone who played in the modern era. Perhaps someone like Brendan Shanahan, since he is employed by the NHL now. Someone who has a better feel for how much faster the game is now, how the equipment is, and how much bigger and stronger the players are. Colin Campbell was a good NHL player in his days, but he last stepped on the ice as a player 25 years ago.

Ideally, I'd actually like to see suspension length decided by committee. Assemble a pool of retired NHL players, and when a suspension needs to be ruled one, pick out five who don't have a conflict of interest through past association with either team or the players involved. Using a committee helps to eliminate the political bias that seems to pervade NHL discipline. (i.e. If it causes a bad story about the NHL on ESPN, then throw the book at the bum.)

Have each judge separately review the video of the hit, providing multiple angles, and then make a recommendation what would be an appropriate suspension to both punish the offender, as well as be a deterrent to similar actions. Give some guidelines (i.e. intent to injure is a minimum 10 games), but let the former players determine what is an appropriate length.

Take all five suspension lengths, throw out the highest and lowest, and average the remaining three. This then minimizes the possibility of one judge skewing the suspension high or low by picking an outlandish number.

You could also expand the pool of potential judges to include not only retired players, but also retired coaches and referees, although the majority should be former players.

Since they are making their judgement individually, they don't even have to meet. Send out the videos by email the morning after the hit, and then have the judges call NHL head office to give their recommendation later on that day. Voila, quick justice.

Alternatively, you could also give the judges the ability to NOT give out a suspension. If three of the five judges rule that it was not suspension worthy, then no suspension is given. Presumably the head of NHL discipline and officiating (currently Colin Campbell) would have already decided the hit was suspension worthy, but this would give another set of checks and balances to the system.

Of the two suggestions, I feel the first would have the most impact by making the suspension actually meaningful, where as the second would hopefully lead to suspension lengths that actually make sense and act as a deterrent. Either one could be implemented individually, or they could be launched together.

Well, that is my take on the (broken) system of NHL suspensions, and my recommendations on how to fix it. Sadly enough, I wrote the majority of this back in 2004 in the wake of the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident, and nothing much has changed with NHL suspensions in the six years since. Hopefully changes of some sort are implemented sooner rather than later, because it clearly isn't working as intended now.

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