Monday, May 7, 2012

No method to Shanahan's suspension madness

The NHL playoffs, regrettably, have already seen ten players suspended for various lengths of time after committing various infractions. The latest to sit, of course, is the Flyers' own Claude Giroux, suspended for one game after his illegal hit against the Devils' Dainius Zubrus on Sunday.

Nearly every single suspension, and several hits that didn't result in suspension, has brought an outcry from some party or another confused about the standards applied by the NHL and Brendan Shanahan, the league's Vice President of Player Safety and Hockey Operations.

Luckily, Shanahan provides explanations for his rulings, complete with video highlights, online at Using those explanations, we can try to construct a framework for how Shanahan arrives at his decisions. The first part of this post is going to be pretty analytic. If you're interested in my methodology, keep reading. If you just want to hear me rant, skip down to the bottom.

I took a look at each explanation Shanahan provided and tried to determine which factors most commonly played a role in his judgment, then created a table showing which hits featured which of those factors, and what punishment was ultimately assessed.

I avoided judging suspensions and punishments for incidents where rules automatically dictate punishment, such as the Craig Adams suspension. I also, unfortunately, couldn't really include such incidents as Shea Weber's hit to the head of Henrik Zetterberg, since the play didn't result in a suspension and therefore didn't merit explanation from Shanahan. Nonetheless, the incidents, suspensions, and league-given reasons listed below ought to give us a good cross-section with which we can determine the basis for determining the severity of a given punishment.

You can view Shanahan's explanations for all of the following suspensions at's player safety channel.

Byron Bitz, suspended two games for boarding Kings forward Kyle Clifford: Bitz was assessed a game misconduct. Shanhan notes that Clifford's position didn't change prior to the hit, placing the onus on Bitz to avoid dangerous contact, and also that Clifford suffered an injury on the play and left the game. Bitz has no disciplinary history with the league, and Shanahan noted that Clifford was still playing the puck.

Matt Carkner, suspended one game for fighting Rangers forward Brian Boyle: Carkner essentially jumped Boyle in retaliation for Carl Hagelin's hit on Carkner's teammate in the previous game. Shanahan noted that Carkner violated an NHL rule preventing players from fighting "an unwilling combatant," and that Carkner has a disciplinary history with the league. He also noted that Boyle was not injured on the play.

Carl Hagelin, suspended three games for elbowing Senators forward Daniel Alfredsson in the head: Shanahan noted that the position of Alfredsson's head did not significantly change prior to the hit, that Alfredsson suffered an injury on the play, and that the hit meets the NHL definition of "elbowing," which is illegal. Shanahan also noted that Alfredsson had already played the puck up the boards.

James Neal, suspended one game for a hit to the head of Flyers forward Claude Giroux: Shanahan notes that Giroux had just made a play with the puck, that Neal's hit fit the league's definition of "charging" and drew a penalty, that Neal launched himself into Giroux's head, that no injury resulted from the play, and that Neal has been suspended once, fined once, and warned twice by the league for similar actions. Though Neal's hit on Sean Couturier earlier in the shift didn't result in any disciplinary action, Shanahan did review the hit with Neal.

Nicklas Backstrom, suspended one game for a crosscheck to the head of Bruins forward Rich Peverley: Shanahan notes that Backstrom is the aggressor on the play, and that Backstrom's reaction is "excessive and reckless," as well as the fact that Peverley suffered no injury and that Backstrom has no prior disciplinary history with the league. Shanahan also notes that Backstrom received a match penalty on the play.

Andrew Shaw, suspended three games for charging Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith: Shanahan notes that Shaw was charged with a game misconduct for charging on the play, and that Shaw made more than incidental contact with Smith and did not make a reasonable effort to avoid the hit, despite the onus being on him to avoid contact. Shanahan also notes that Smith was not injured on the play, and that Shaw has no disciplinary history with the league.

Arron Asham, suspended four games for a crosscheck to the head of Flyers forward Brayden Schenn: Shanahan notes that Asham received a match penalty on the play and intentionally crosschecked Schenn, then punched him in the back of the head. Shanahan also notes that Schenn was not injured on the play, and that Asham has no disciplinary history with the league.

Raffi Torres suspended 25 games for a hit to the head of Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa: Shanahan notes that Hossa no longer had possession of the puck, and that Torres launched himself into the air to deliver what he knew to be a late hit. While Shanahan notes that the hit violates three NHL rules, Torres did not receive a penalty on the play. Shanahan also notes that the position of Hossa's head does not change immediately prior to the hit, that Hossa was severely injured on the play, and that Torres has an extensive history of discipline for similar hits.

Rostislav Klesla suspended one game for boarding Predators forward Matt Halischuk: Shanahan notes that Klesla received a minor penalty for boarding on the play, that Halischuk doesn't make himself vulnerable, and that Klesla renders Halischuk defenseless by grabbing his jersey and tugging him backwards. Shanahan also notes that Halischuk was not injured on the play, and that Klesla's only prior suspension was for a different type of infraction and occurred five years ago.

Claude Giroux suspended one game for a hit to the head of Devils forward Dainius Zubrus: Shanahan notes that Zubrus had already chipped the puck away into the corner, and that Giroux received a minor penalty on the play. He also notes that Giroux had previously expressed frustration with the referee on the same shift, that Zubrus' head does not change position immediately before the hit, that Zubrus did not suffer an injury on the play, and that Giroux has no disciplinary history with the league.

Using these rulings as a basis, it's clear that a couple of factors repeatedly pop up. The two major ones are whether the play resulted in an injury, and whether the offending player has any disciplinary history. Other common factors are whether the victimized player still has the puck, whether the victimized player's head changed positions immediately prior to the hit (if not, the onus is on the offending player to avoid the head), and whether the incident violated an NHL rule and/or resulted in a penalty on the play.

You can see how each play fits the framework here. Column headers are injury (I), disciplinary history (DH), whether the victim has already given up possession of the puck (PP), lack of prior head movement by the victim (HM), rule violation (RV), and whether the hit drew a penalty (P). The last column lists the length of the imposed suspension.

The inconsistency is clear. Of the four players with disciplinary histories, three were suspended for just one game. Of incidents that earner in multi-game suspensions, three resulted in injury while two did not. The only hit not to merit a penalty during the game received the longest suspension.

Shanahan gave extremely similar reasons to penalize the hits from Giroux and Shaw, yet Giroux received only one game while Shaw earned three. Ditto the hits from Backstrom and Asham, which were basically identical in nature except for Asham's post-hit punch to the back of Schenn's head, and yet Backstrom was suspended for only one game while Asham was suspended for a whopping four contests.

If there's a pattern here, or even any particular method to the madness, it's impossible to see. On the one hand, it's pretty clear that if a player's hit fits in several of the categories listed above, he's likely going to be facing a suspension. What's unfortunately very unclear is exactly what combination of factors results in a suspension, and how Shanahan determines the length of each suspension.

It would be even more valuable, and presumably even more confusing, if we could examine Shanahan's reasons for not doling out suspensions for certain other questionable hits. Why, for example, did Evgeni Malkin's elbow to the head of Nicklas Grossmann, which did not draw a penalty but violated a rule and caused an injury to Grossmann, not result in a disciplinary hearing? After all, Grossmann's head didn't move right before the hit. That's three X's on that chart up there. How about Shea Weber's assault on Henrik Zetterberg, which drew a penalty and was perpetrated on a player without puck possession and who didn't move his head? That's another three X's. That hit drew a fine, but no suspension. Why?

It's a shame that in the NHL's first huge national showcase since before the lockout, the inconsistency with which Shanahan has doled out punishments has become not only a leading story, but a running joke.

Shanahan and the NHL have done themselves and the players a great disservice in the way that they've handled these suspensions so far. I understand and support the NHL's effort to eliminate head shots from the game. But not only have they failed to provide any kind of deterrence at all, they've significantly muddied the waters in terms of defining what hits, exactly, are suspension-worthy, and how much of a role intent plays in determining the severity of the punishment.

Instead, long-time hockey fans are mostly outraged at the way suspensions have been handed out. Would-be new fans have tuned into NBC's networks only to find that hockey is as violent and uncontrolled as they feared all along. Judging by the number of suspensions in the playoffs so far, the number head shots in the game is hardly falling, and the NHL has squandered its opportunity to create a solid precedent that would act as a real deterrent for players in the future.

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