By Stu Hackel
Brendan Shanahan's stunning ruling on Thursday, suspending the Flyers' Jody Shelley for 10 games -- the rest of the preseason and five regular season contests -- could signal the beginning of an era in which the NHL backs up its rhetoric about player safety with action. It is a sharp departure from the way discipline had been handled in the past, when the sort of hit that Shelley threw might earn a one- or two-game suspension, or even have not been subject to any supplementary discipline.
A quick search of stories on Shanahan's ruling reveals widespread approval, which rarely happens in these matters. Shelley, who had five previous suspensions, told Sam Carchidi of The Philadelphia Inquirer he was "definitely” surprised at the length of the suspension, adding that Shanahan “set the tone in a sense” for how he will handle matters this season.
Peter Lukko, president of the Flyers’ parent company, Comcast-Spectacor, told Carchidi the league showed it was “trying to get serious” about these type of incidents. “When it’s your own player, you always think it’s wrong,” he said of the suspension’s length. “The important thing is that it’s consistent all year.”
On the top link announcing the decision from NHL.com, Shanahan himself not only presents video of the play, but shows why it is illegal and explains his reasoning for the decision. That itself is a significant step forward for the NHL.
Below is our post from Thursday, which discussed Shelley's hit prior to Shanahan's decision, and that of the Flames' Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, who Shanahan also suspended Thursday for the rest of the preseason and one regular season game.
Wednesday was the first time we had more than one preseason game televised here in the suburbs north of New York City and, like the players who are working out the kinks for the new season, the thumb and remote got a workout switching between games. It wasn't easy.
It was worth it to see Adam Larsson in his first game for the Devils. He played like a seasoned veteran, not an 18 year-old who had never faced an NHL opponent. He was very strong positionally and in one-on-one situations. He moved the puck well, got off good shots from the point, one of which led to a goal in New Jersey's 2-1 OT win over the Rangers, and looked very comfortable out there. Three NHL teams passed on Larsson in the June draft -- the Oilers, Avalanche and Panthers -- and if Larsson continues to play as well as he did last night, it's possible that one or more of those clubs will one day grind their teeth at the thought of who they passed up.
We also looked in on Evgeni Malkin's dominant performance against the Red Wings in the Penguins' 3-2 win, and there's little doubt that he's back to 100 percent. When Sidney Crosby returns, the Pens could very well again be an Eastern powerhouse. And for the Red Wings, Pavel Datsyuk -- wearing Number 24 this preseason to honor the late Ruslan Salei -- was, well, Pavel Datsyuk, with a pair of assists.
But an incident in the game between the Flyers and Maple Leafs was perhaps more noteworthy. The preseason was all the way into Day 2 -- Tuesday's games -- before an NHL player, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond of the Flames, challenged the league's new, tougher standards on hits from behind. On Wednesday night, Day 3, Jody Shelley of the Flyers ran afoul of the new anti-boarding edict. These were the first tests for Brendan Shanahan, the former NHL player who has stepped up to take on the thankless task of disciplinarian from Colin Campbell.
Shanahan was given a chance to set the tone for his tenure holding down the worst job in the NHL. Lots of people will be watching him to see if he'll live up to his pledge of being a tougher supervisor of player behavior. And on Thursday, he responded by suspending repeat-offender Letourneau-Leblond for the rest of the preseason plus one regular-season game and $6,402 in salary for this hit from behind Matt Clackson of the Canucks which occurred on Tuesday.
“Letourneau-Leblond took a direct route toward Clackson, hit him squarely from behind into the boards and drove through the check high and hard,” Shanahan said in a statement released by the league. “Clackson’s back was turned toward Letourneau-Leblond well before the contact, requiring that Letourneau-Leblond avoid or minimize the check. He did neither.”
And then there was the incident on Wednesday night in Philadelphia. Ryan Hamilton of the Leafs chips the puck behind the Flyers defense and teammate Darryl Boyce is first getting there. Boyce rings the puck back in Hamilton's direction and then in comes the Flyers' Jody Shelley, who is no stranger to being on the wrong side of the law in the NHL.
This is a classic case of boarding, something the NHL is putting greater emphasis on enforcing this season. Boyce was defenseless, his back to the checker, and he had already passed the puck when contact was made. Shelley certainly had time to pull up and minimize contact, if not avoid it altogether (as the new version of boarding mandates) and he correctly got a five-minute boarding major and a game misconduct (not to mention a five-minute major for the subsequent fight with the Leafs' Jay Rosehill).
Of course, Shelley is a repeat offender, too, having gotten a two-game ban last season for this hit from behind on a vulnerable Adam McQuaid.
Shelley also got two games a few weeks later for a sucker punch. Should that factor in? Under Campbell, that punch wouldn't have been added to Shelley's most recent crime because it was a different sort of infraction. Should Shanahan now examine Shelley's entire rap sheet when calculating his sentence? He's had five suspensions during his career (three games in 2004 being the longest), and when observers say that most suspendable infractions are caused by the same few guys and they deserve to be punished more severely, Shelley would be one of the guys they're discussing.
On the other hand, there were some interesting thoughts raised by Pierre McGuire this morning on Ottawa radio Team 1200's Three Guys On The Radio program (audio) that might complicate matters. McGuire has been a proponent of tougher discipline, and he calls this hit "everything you don't want...It's one of those hits you want out of hockey." But he's not advocating harshness in this case.
McGuire believes that Shanahan should give Shelley -- who McGuire calls a player you'd want on your team because he bleeds for teammates and does whatever it takes to win -- just a one-game suspension and tell him that the next time it will be three games, and the next time, six games. Co-host John "J.R." Rodenburg wondered why the punishment shouldn't be more severe. To show that he's the new sheriff, Shanahan should give three or four games. McGuire countered that because Shelley is not guaranteed a job with the Flyers, and is currently on the bubble in their scheme of things, he doesn't think Shanahan should do anything to make enemies with his first decision or hurt Shelley's ability to get a job, but should still send a message.
If this were the regular season, McGuire believes that Shelley would get a three- or four-game ban, but the circumstances dictate some compassion. J.R. responded by saying if Shanahan gives Shelley just one preseason game, it's possible he'd be a healthy scratch for that game anyway so there'd be no real impact, a point that McGuire acknowledged was fair.
Well, if Shelley's employment must be something to consider here (and we're entirely not sure why it should have such great weight; it seems there's always been some sort of mitigating factor that lessens the severity of suspensions), perhaps a compromise could be a one-game suspension in the preseason and a few more games added once the regular season begins. It would be unusual, but a new guy like Shanahan can write his own rules here and his ruling on Letourneau-Leblond is a pretty good indication.
A good stiff suspension -- more than a single game-- sends the message that these kind of hits are something the NHL is serious about and that Brendan Shanahan is a serious disciplinarian.
Every decision in supplementary discipline is highly anticipated, but the first one from the new sheriff is just a little more so.