Raffi Torres' annual playoff suspension always seems to be just a matter of time.
This year, it took five games before the itinerant poster boy for NHL recidivism, the doyen of dangerous play, was facing a potentially landmark decision in the area of supplemental discipline, one that could have a significant impact on the San Jose Sharks' playoff hopes.
After Game 1 against the Kings in Los Angeles, Torres flew with Sharks GM Doug Wilson to New York for an in-person meeting with Brendan Shanahan and the NHL's Department of Player Safety. The matter in question: Torres' hard check on Jarret Stoll, his former teammate in Edmonton, late in the second period during this play:
Torres merely got a two-minute minor for charging on that hit, presumably because the referees perceived that his skates left the ice as he launched himself into Stoll. But the player safety crew deemed that it was a violation of Rule 48 on hits to the head and they suspended Torres for the remainder of San Jose's series against the Kings.
An in-person hearing means the NHL can suspend a player for more than five games. Torres and Wilson hoped to plead their case to Shanahan's group, saying that Torres intended to just bash Stoll in the shoulder. But after looking at that video, one suspected that they would not have much success. It seemed to this admittedly untrained eye that Torres made substantial contact with Stoll's head, even though Torres also clipped him on the shoulder. As we saw in Shanahan's ruling after Ottawa's Eric Gryba clobbered Montreal's Lars Eller in the first round, getting a piece of the puck carrier's body is not enough to exonerate the checker if Shanahan determines that the head was still the principle point of contact.
Here's the video of Shanahan's ruling:
(By the way, I erroneously wrote earlier this month that the Gryba decision was the first time Shanahan had decided that a player failed to get enough of the body to qualify his hit as a full body check and escape suspension. Actually, Shanahan arrived at that judgment on at least one other occasion: the November, 2011 five-game suspension of Edmonton's Andy Sutton for his hit on Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog. Similarly, I wrote that Shanahan had never discussed the incorrect route that a checker took to deliver a head check, but I was wrong there, too. He ruled that way in the three-game suspension of the Blues' Ian Cole for a hit on Justin Abdelkader of the Red Wings in January, 2012.)
While playing for Phoenix in April 2012, Torres was banned by the league for 25 games -- tied for the second longest suspension for an on-ice incident in league history -- after his hellacious headshot that knocked Chicago's Marian Hossa out of the playoffs in Game 3 of the first round. After an appeal to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, the penalty was reduced to 21 games, 13 of which were served during the Coyotes' run to the Western Conference Championship round, the remainder at the start of this season. Torres was traded to the Sharks in April.
The major reason why last year's ban was so stiff was that Torres had already compiled a formidable rap sheet -- although some would argue with very good reason that all suspensions for hits to the head should start at 25 games, regardless of how many priors a perpetrator has. In Torres' case, he had already been punished last season before clocking Hossa: first a measly $2,500 fine for elbowing Colorado's Jan Hejda in the head, then a two-game ban for launching himself into Minnesota's Nate Prosser. The year before, while playing for Vancouver, Torres got four games for elbowing Edmonton's Jordan Eberle in the head. After he returned, Torres narrowly escaped suspension for a headshot that concussed the Blackhawks' Brent Seabrook, a hit that under current rules would have almost certainly earned a ban.
To his credit, Torres seemed to have gotten the message. He was dinged for only 17 penalty minutes this season and had, by all accounts, worked hard to get his game in line with the way the NHL now deals with head contact. But the hit on Stoll seems like a relapse. In fact, Torres had a bad hit earlier in the same game, this one on Robin Regher that also looks like charging, the aspect of Rule 42 that prohibits a checker from traveling at high speed over a long distance to make a violent hit on an opponent. (That's the classic definition of charging.)
The fact that the hit on Stoll resulted in an injury certainly figured into Shanahan's thinking, as it always does. Stoll didn't return or practice on Wednesday. If he's gone for any length of time, the Kings will be deprived of their third line center, a very good checker and an important penalty killer. Stoll wins lots of face-offs on the penalty kill, and that can't be underestimated. The Kings' play while a man short has been crucial to their success. They've allowed only two power play goals in 24 situations over eight playoff games so far this year. During their 20-game run to the Cup last year, they surrendered only six goals in 76 chances while scoring five shorthanded goals of their own.
Just how severe Shanahan would be with Torres was a huge question. One of the major missions of Shanahan's department is to focus on repeat offenders. The consensus among the general managers, who give Shanahan his marching orders, is that only a handful of players habitually violate the rules badly enough to earn suspensions and fines, and those are the recidivists who deserve the most severe punishment. The belief is that the punishment should increase if the player continues to cross the line. If Shanahan decided that this hit was somehow less egregious than the hit on Hossa, Torres might not get whacked that badly. But if the ruling was that this was just more of the same, and Torres sat for 21 games last spring, what could he possibly get this time to make the message finally sink in?
A very long suspension was not out of the question, and that could have triggered something brand new in the NHL's disciplinary process. Any suspension longer than five games is now eligible for an appeal, not to Bettman, but to a neutral third party. This new process was one result of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and it was something the players badly wanted. They believed it was unfair for the league commissioner to hear the appeal of a ruling by someone in his employ, and that someone unconnected to the process should reconsider the most severe suspensions.
No one has been suspended for more than five games under the new CBA, but Torres was given a maximum of six without being able to test this new arrangement for the first time unless the Sharks' series with the Kings goes the distance.
The Sharks now have some more immediate concerns. Losing Torres will deprive them of a very important asset. He's not a highly skilled guy, but he's not one-dimensional, either. He's a good skater and has decent skills -- decent enough for coach Todd McLellan to deploy him on his top line to insulate his best player, Logan Couture. Generously listed as 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Couture doesn't play an overly robust game, and Torres' job has been to ride shotgun on that line in order to discourage foes from pounding him into ineffectiveness.
The Kings are as rugged a checking club as the NHL has and it would be silly to think that coach Darryl Sutter hasn't circled Number 39 on the white board in the team's dressing room, reminding his guys that Couture requires special attention. Deleting Torres from the picture means that McLellan will have to make an adjustment. If he moves Brent Burns up from the second line, he'll be asking the big former defenseman to assume a bodyguard role, which may be unfamiliar to him. It also disrupts the chemistry that Burns has forged with Joe Thornton and T.J. Galiardi on a sizable second line. Then all the Sharks' lines may get shuffled. That's not how McLellan wants to approach a series against the defending champions in which he already trails 1-0 in games.
So Torres' status looms as something of a game changer in more ways than one.