GUEST POST: Fixing the Holes in the NHL's Suspension Policy

The following is a guest post from Peter Flynn written exclusively for Point Blank on the NHL’s suspension policy. It was originally written last week, at the end of the NHL regular season. A brief update on the recent events in the playoffs follows the original article at the bottom of the post.

On March 7, 2010 Marc Savard skated into the Penguins zone and wristed a shot on goal. Matt Cooke skated in from Savard’s blind side and elbowed the Bruin in the head, causing Savard to miss the rest of the regular season. Savard returned for the post-season, then was concussed again by Matt Hunwick on January 23, 2011. Savard has not played since.

While Cooke’s hit on Savard went unpenalized and Cooke was not suspended by the league, the incident caused the NHL to examine the impact of hits to the head and effective ways to keep players from being needlessly injured. This season, Brendan Shanahan has implemented a more open system of suspending players for irresponsible actions, mainly focusing on deliberate hits to the head. In the 2011-12 regular season, 42 suspensions were handed with a total of 134 regular season games.

With the regular season over, enough time has passed to evaluate the NHL’s effort to reduce targeted hits to the head. For the purposes of this article, I am focusing specifically on plays that are clearly intentional. Occasionally, accidents happen and a player turns at the last second, changing a previously clean attempt into a seemingly dirty one.

On the one hand, Shanahan should be commended for making a clear and transparent effort to address a serious problem in the game. The video explanations that accompany each suspension indicate a desire to educate players and help them to make better decisions in the future. But the number of suspensions can also be viewed as evidence of a deficiency in the league’s response to these types of hits.

Suspensions are supposed to have a two-fold effect. The suspension should act as both a punishment to the offending player and a deterrent to the other players in the league: If you do what he did, you will find yourself in the press box.

Reading through the 2011-2012 suspension list, one finds few repeat offenders, indicating that perhaps the suspensions are having the first of the above desired effects. The same data, however, raises serious questions about the second effect of a suspension. If these punishments are supposed to prevent other players from making similar hits, why are so many players continuing to make suspension-worthy decisions?

If the NHL is truly serious about eradicating these types of hits from the game, they must make changes to their current suspension policy. Here are two suggestions.

1. Suspensions for intentional hits to the head must be longer. Much longer.

Matt Cooke knew what he was doing when he targeted Savard’s head. Duncan Keith knew what he was doing when he targeted Daniel Sedin’s head on March 21. Sedin knew what he was doing when he targeted Keith’s head earlier in the game. Clearly the threat of a sitting out the 3-5 games that has become the standard this season was not enough to keep either of these players from making a dangerous hit.

In the current system, repeat offenders are given longer suspensions. How has that worked out? This season, Andy Sutton, who was a repeat offender before the season even began, was handed a five-game suspension for his hit on Gabriel Landeskog. Just over a month later, Sutton was suspended again, this time for eight games. If the original suspension got his attention, he picked a strange way of showing it.

The current 3-5 game suspension for a first-time offender is inadequate. Increasing the first time suspension to ten games for clearly intentional hits to the head would have a much greater deterrent effect. If that doesn’t work, keep going. Repeat offenders should face a minimum of ¼ of a season.

While these guidelines would be harsh, isn’t that the point? These players are purposely making a play that can easily lead to their target missing at least ten games, if not more. This leads to my second point.

2. A main factor for suspension should be potential injury, not actual injury.

In some of Shanahan’s suspension videos, he has mentioned that the player targeted did not miss much playing time. While situations like this are certainly preferable to the target missing a month or more, should good luck be a mitigating factor in suspensions?

If the league is serious about eliminating these types of hits, it must do away with assigning lesser punishment to hits where the player hit had the good fortune of not sustaining serious damage. A player making the decision to drive his elbow into another player’s head cannot possibly be unaware of the potential damage of his action.

NHL players knowingly put themselves at risk every time they step out on the ice. The risk of taking a slap shot to the face, however, is a fundamentally different risk than having an opponent stick out his elbow as a player skates by.

Chris Simon’s indefensible baseball swing several years ago was punished severely, and rightfully so. The NHL’s punishment sent a clear message that reckless plays of that nature would not be tolerated. The message that the NHL is currently sending with their suspensions is unfortunately clear as well: Target your opponent’s head and you might have to sit out a few games.

One only needs to look at Matt Cooke’s play this season to see that the league does have the ability to change the behavior of its players. After finally being given a lengthy suspension for an elbow to New York Ranger Ryan McDonagh’s head (Cooke’s fifth suspension), he realized that his career could come to a sudden end if he continued targeting his opponents’ heads and changed his play to such a degree that he only had 44 penalty minutes this year.

#91 in Boston likely wishes the league had gotten Cooke’s attention sooner.

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Unfortunately, players’ actions during the playoffs have only strengthened my argument above. While some fans say that the hits being made in the playoffs are “good old-fashioned hockey,” the campaign to eliminate hits to the head came from the league. Even though some of these hits would have been legal several years ago, the league has changed the rules and is now responsible for their consistent enforcement. If the goal of the NHL’s suspension policy is to get serious about hits to the head, the campaign has clearly failed.

Tuesday night, Raffi Torres launched into Marian Hossa, targeting his head. Earlier that evening, James Neal was suspended one game for targeting the heads of two Flyer players on consecutive shifts. This is after many other incidents, including Shea Weber grabbing Henrik Zetterberg’s head and slamming it into the glass, earning him a $2500 fine.

When Brendan Shanahan took over for Colin Campbell, many fans hoped that the days of inconsistent supplementary discipline were over. Shanahan had the chance to set a strict standard, which he seemed to do at the beginning. As the playoffs have showed, however, the same problems that occurred under Campbell’s tenure persist.

The fans of 29 teams each year will have their season end on a disappointing note. They know that most years will not be their year. All fans can hope for is that their team’s elimination is not caused by something that could have been prevented. Vancouver playing without Daniel Sedin. Ottawa without their captain. Chicago not being able to dress Marian Hossa.

Tuesday night proved that Raffi Torres did not get the message that hits to the head are forbidden. I wonder why.