The question, I guess, is as old as the supplementary discipline system itself.
If guys keep trying to hurt their opponents — or even if they keep doing it inadvertently — what are you supposed to do?
In the past week and a half or so, we’ve seen a number of instances of recidivism from guys who have histories of playing recklessly at the least or maliciously at worst. You know their names: Raffi Torres, he of three consecutive games of borderline or outright atrocious, deliberate attempts to injure an opponent (the Raffi Torres Hat Trick, as it were). Dan Carcillo, who has now been suspended four times times between March 2010 and right now. Rene Bourque, who somehow had never been suspended until three weeks ago, and is about to get rung up for the second time since Dec. 19.
When Brendan Shanahan came in, I seem to recall him saying that guys who repeatedly break the NHL’s discipline code would be catching holy hell the next time they stepped out of line. That happened, right? So why does Torres get away with trying to take Andrew Ference’s head off, and is merely fined for elbowing Jan Hejda in the chin before an innocuous-ish hit on Nate Prosser at center ice finally gets him called into the principal’s office. Then he only gets two games? This guy got four (two regular season, two playoffs) last year for running the hell out of Jordan Eberle and skated on that whole “hitting zone” thing with Brent Seabrook. And somehow those first two hits warranted a sum total $2,500. That makes a lot of sense, at least if you play by the rules the ref on 24/7 did last week, where he cited Max Talbot for what was essentially two minutes for accumulation of borderline infractions.
Meanwhile, we’re still waiting to hear on Dan Carcillo’s punishment for pushing Dan Gilbert into the boards, but one assumes it should be lengthy, right? He’s already served four games’ worth of suspensions this season, though two were for an incident dating back to last year’s playoffs, arguing with officials outside their dressing room. Gilbert’s already missed a game due to the injury he sustained on the hit and that apparently counts for something to Shanahan. It’s easy to see why Carcillo, who in no way serves any other purpose for the Blackhawks other than to piss opponents off and (apparently) get suspended occasionally, was an easy target for an extended time off, and seven games off seems about right.
And it was interesting to see what happened with Rene Bourque, whose careless shove on Brent Seabrook, mitigated though it was by referee interference (which muddied whether this was criminal intent or an unfortunate accident on Bourque’s part), earned him two games a week before Christmas. Bourque has always been a borderline reckless player in my estimation and under the NHL’s new and enhanced microscope, two games seemed fair enough. But now this elbow on Nicklas Backstrom? That was a harder one to figure. Backstrom didn’t seem to have been hurt (he returned to the game) on the play but Bourque almost tied his elbow to a long poll in order to reach far enough out to clip Backstrom in the chin. He was really feelin’ that ‘bow, no two ways about it. So a pretty deliberate attempt to injure a star player by a guy who just got off the suspension list and clearly hasn’t learned his lesson. Five, too, was fair.
But the problem with all this is that there is still no apparent baseline, and Shanahan has become as wildly inconsistent in doling out punishment as Colin Campbell ever was. He came into town looking to shoot first and ask questions later (see the James Wisniewski eight-gamer that may or may not have torpedoed the Blue Jackets’ season in the womb) but has now settled down into a guy who I can’t quite figure out. Based on the Torres hits, he might just be Barney Fife, so comically inept — and perhaps facing heat from the NHLPA — that he may as well not even load his gun. But he might also be a Fred White-type lawman, popular and good at making easy decisions, but largely ineffective at keeping the peace overall. If so, who plays Wyatt Earp in the scenario?
Of course, this might all be bias. We see more illegal hits because we have now been trained to look for them (though to be fair it was Shanahan himself who vowed to clean up the NHL). But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re there, and need punishing. Lots of guys can make illegal hits completely by accident, and it’s easy to make examples of them. But the repeat offenders are either getting too-small or just-enough punishments, and they’re the ones who should be doing the hanging, the suspension videos standing as a warning to all those who would offend again. To this point, that hasn’t happened.
Clearly even the threat of five games off for elbowing the hell out of Nicklas Backstrom-types isn’t enough to scare guys straight and the time has come for the book to start being thrown at them.