Speed and Skill Trumped by Aggression and Intimidation in Today’s NHL?

Little has been released by the Vancouver Canucks regarding the health of Daniel Sedin. The vicious elbow Sedin suffered last week during Wednesday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks has knocked the forward out indefinitely, leaving little for the Canucks to do in anticipation of what was supposed to be another epic playoff run.

Meanwhile, Duncan Keith will sit out five regular season games as punishment for his hit on Sedin, setting back the Blackhawks during the last few games of a furious playoff push. The loss of a former Norris Trophy winner will undoubtedly set back the Blackhawks over their final few regular season contests, but will five games honestly deter other players from taking a similar course of action in the future?

As in every controversial case, the answer comes down to perception. So let’s take a step back from the hockey hotbed of Vancouver where tempers flare, and focus on the league-wide precedent set with the hit and subsequent suspension.

Due to Brendan Shanahan’s suspension Duncan Keith will miss five games against the Predators (loss), Devils, Blues, Predators and Wild. As of Sunday night’s loss to the Predators, the Blackhawks currently sit six points ahead of a three-way log jam at eighth in the Western Conference. From a Chicago perspective the suspension probably did enough to deter the team from further acts of thuggery, but what about the rest of the league?

Is a five game suspension going to deter the next potential heavy hitter from crushing the cranium of some poor bastard that didn’t see it coming? Don’t bet on it. Despite the potential playoff relevance, a five game suspension to Duncan Keith is the equivalent to a week-long school suspension assessed to the class clown. Due to his most recent transgression, Keith may as well have received an award for knocking out an opposing star player, drastically improving his team’s playoff chances in the process.

 

I’m guessing positive re-enforcement wasn’t exactly what Sheriff Shanahan was going for. Thanks to an embarrassingly weak decision from the league, players across the NHL have been given the green light to take matters into their own hands this late in the season as long as they have enough regular season games banked for the Shanaban.

In fact the last player to embrace this brash philosophy of physical play was Vancouver’s own Raffi Torres, who targeted the head of Jordan Eberle with a vicious shoulder last April with only two games remaining in the regular season. As you can see below, Torres clearly approached Eberle with the intent to hit a player carrying the puck, but does so with blatant disregard for Eberle’s safety or the legality of the check.

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While Torres didn’t lift his feet on the hit, it was clearly a predatory attempt on another player. The fact Torres kept his arms tucked in and feet on the ice while throwing a devastating headshot is likely what kept his suspension to only four games.

Hard to blame the hitter when the victim is caught reaching for a puck with his head down, too.Canucks fans should know exactly what I’m talking about.

Had the Edmonton Oilers been in contention for a playoff spot last season, I’d bet Raffi Torres’ suspension would have doubled in order to counter-balance the loss of a star player.

Yet one year later, another late-season headshot has claimed a superstar in the NHL, all at the cost of five regular season games. This comes several days after Sidney Crosby made his second comeback of the season recovering from a concussion carried over from last year.

As Greg Wyshynski pointed out in a review of the political powers at work in the case of Duncan Keith and Daniel Sedin, NHL referees continue to miss crucial calls on the ice. Sedin’s early high hit on Keith went unnoticed by officials, leaving Keith to take matters into his own hands only minutes later.  When on-ice officials had an obvious call to make, they embarrassed themselves again, giving Keith only two minutes for an elbowing minor when even the maddest men on Madison would have had the guts to give out a major.

This follows a disturbing trend taking over the NHL, in which on-ice officials miss a call leaving league discipline to attempt to smooth over the situation. From former NHL on-ice official Kerry Fraser, via TSN:

“In too many situations witnessed this season, the officials have either missed the mark altogether or came up short by at least three minutes plus a game misconduct.  The judgment of the referees needs to be collectively and immediately retooled by NHL V.P. of Officiating, Terry Gregson, to conform to a higher standard that is currently being maintained by the Player Safety Committee.”

Colour me confused as to what Colin Campbell’s replacement was tasked to do in his first year on the job besides collectively and immediately retooling the league disciplinary system.

As Kerry Fraser alluded to, the NHL must begin to embrace a much higher standard towards head shots and other dangerous plays in today’s game. If the league is to limit the amount of concussions and other head trauma in hockey the first step is to establish penalties that truly deter further inappropriate action. Given the precedent set with four games given to Raffi Torres last year, there’s simply no way Duncan Keith even bothered to consider the consequences.

And if he did, I’m sure a mini-vacation was all that came to mind when contemplating the consequences of a predatory elbow to the head. Keith makes just under six million dollars a year with the Blackhawks and has a Stanley Cup ring to his name, do you think a few bucks and handful of regular season games lost are really going to get to him?

Not a chance, Principle Shanahan. Across the NHL hundreds of class clowns are taking notes, anticipating another open-season on hockey players during the final twenty games of the year.

Just this season Sabres Head Coach Lindy Ruff declared goaltenders “fair game” for the opposition after prized possession Ryan Miller was ran hard by the Boston Bruins’ Milan Lucic. Again, on-ice officials blew the call, assessing Lucic a two-minute minor for charging a goaltender which resulted in a concussion.

After the incident, players around the rest of the league took notice, exploiting the ambiguous definition of goaltender interference to new lengths.

The long-run result across the NHL left skaters parading through the goal crease at every opportunity, leaving officials lost in the fray of feet cruising through blue paint. All of a sudden good goals were called off and those allowed created a farce of interference calls as a whole.

The Sabres themselves especially took notice, fiercely defending their backup goaltender in the event any opponent dared to drive towards the Buffalo crease. All of a sudden the Buffalo’s net was a much safer place, no thanks to league action. The Sabres simply adopted a strategy out of the Boston Bruins playbook, embracing their own brand of vigilante justice after league intervention proved pointless.

While the big, bad, Bruins have always embraced a reputation as a tough team, not since devastating concussions suffered by teammates Patrice Bergeron and Marc Savard in recent years did the team finally start to embrace their inner bully once again. Savard eventually lost his career due to a string of concussions, the final blow a devastating elbow that resulted in no additional discipline at all from the NHL.

Marc Savard - Concussion victim.

Marc Savard - Concussion victim.

Even readers who have suffered a concussion of their own recently should begin to see the pattern emerging.

The NHL eventually found their sweet spot suspending Matt Cooke, but it took a pair of bodies carried off the ice before the NHL grew the balls to ban him for 10 games. So what will it cost for concussions to be taken seriously in today’s NHL? A career lost? A season lost?

The answer remains uncertain after another whiff by Brendan Shanahan and league officials, but one hit at a time teams are learning to protect themselves from each other. An eye for an eye makes the world go blind, but what good are eyes if you’re confined to the dark walls of the quiet room?

As it stands today in the wake of Duncan Keith’s five-game ban, Brendan Shanahan must drastically re-think his approach to deterrence in today’s NHL. The precedents set in his first year as chief disciplinarian have done nothing but drive owners to desperately seek protection for their players, and tracking down Sean William Scott is no easy task. Without suspensions to keep players safe, only aggression and retaliation appears to give teams the security they need heading into a long playoff push.

The garage league is back, and with Matt Cooke in the good graces of the hockey gods it’s about time league owners like Mario Lemieux stood up once again and protected the people they employ before another body ends up motionless at center ice.

 

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About the Author: Kevin Vanstone is a long time sports fan and Canucks die hard from White Rock, British Columbia. He is currently attending the University of Victoria pursuing a Writing degree, and in his spare time writes about all things Canucks hockey as well as news and notes from around the NHL.

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  1. dusty says:

    They should have a league made up of dudes under 5’10″

  2. If only it were that easy.

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