The San Jose Sharks received a bit of bad news Tuesday in the midst of roster moves made to deepen their forwards—claiming Kyle Wellwood and trading for Ben Eager.
One of them will have to take the place of high-energy penalty killer Scott Nichol, whose high hit on Phoenix Coyote defenceman David Schlemko has brought down a four-game suspension from the NHL. The most obvious choice is Eager, who Sharks general manager Doug Wilson referred to as "a big Scott Nichol" after trading a fifth-round pick for him.
While no penalty was called on the play, Sharks colour commentator Drew Remenda saw it right away and exclaimed they "got away with one there." It was obviously a suspension-worthy hit because it was right at the opponent's head.
However, it looked reckless, not dirty, and four games seems high for a player for whom dirty play is not the norm; Nichol is a pest who pushes the envelope at most.
This raises more questions about the league's discipline standard, and in particular it's favouritism toward stars. Chris Pronger got a one-game suspension for a high hit to the head that was also from behind and against the boards in 2007, and he had already been suspended seven times by the league.
A standard needs to be set in writing, and it does not have to be that complicated.
In legal forums, there is negligence, recklessness and intent in a sliding scale of seriousness. Adjustments are often made for use of a weapon and number of offenses. The league can do the same thing.
A negligent hit to the head can be one game (like the one Thornton put on David Perron earlier this season), and it can be doubled for recklessness (Nichol's hit would classify as such) and again for intent (such as Tie Domi's hit on Scott Niedermayer that ended the enforcer's career). Each hit can also be doubled if a weapon is involved (say a stick or the boards), if it is on a defenceless player (such as from behind), and again for each time beyond the first offence.
This would severely punish repeat offenders like Pronger (who would essentially be out of the league on his next offence because it would be his 10th), Domi or Chris Simon, but allow a player who was simply not careful enough once like Thornton or Nichol to get back on the ice after a game or two. And no one could say they do not understand the system or claim a bias.
If the league is truly interested in safety, they will not tolerate dangerous actions from stars any more than role-players. It is time to put your money where your mouth is, Commissioner Bettman.