By Stu Hackel
As we turn the calendar page to November, it's as good a time as any to review and assess things in the NHL, and while we have lots of surprises with teams exceeding or falling short of expectations, no performance is more intriguing than the league's Department of Player Safety (a name we can't write without thinking it sounds like a government branch that oversees highway construction or traffic enforcement — if not the French Revolution’s Committee on Public Safety from 1793, which protected the new republic from internal and external enemies by using the guillotine as its preferred instrument of deterrence).
After a preseason full of tough rulings designed to signal that the league was serious about cracking down on head hits, boarding and other willful and reckless acts, the players seemed to have gotten the message. The first few weeks of the regular season were marked by a lull in dangerous plays. They were also marked by an outcry from those who feel some aspects of the concern about player safety threatened "the essence of the game" -- which was how Mike Milbury put it this past Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada's Hotstove segment (video) when discussing how grandfathering mandatory visors into the NHL's rules would curtail fighting.
Milbury, like Don Cherry (whose rantings about headshot suspensions and fighting overshadowed the first days of the season), is among those who have not embraced all of elements in the league's push for a safer game. Some GMs, a minority, have complained that the hefty preseason suspensions were too severe. Others had no problem with the crackdown. Still, once the regular season began, there was an obvious dialing back in the severity of punishments for players who crossed the line and one has to wonder whether the backlash -- against something the GMs initially wanted -- changed the way Brendan Shanahan and his staff are doing their jobs.
The first preseason suspensions for boarding and checking from behind, for example, were five games for Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, 10 games for Jody Shelley, seven for Brad Staubitz, and four for Tom Sestito. Some of these were longer because they involved injuries, or were probably perceived as more avoidable, more premeditated or more violent, or because the perpetrator was a repeat offender. But it seems that the crackdown eased once the puck was dropped on the regular season, and you have to wonder why.
Letang got two games because his was a second offense; presumably, it would have otherwise been a fine, too. Later that same week, Nashville's Shea Weber drew only a $2500 fine for his hit on Vancouver's Jannik Hansen:
When looking at these three hits, what they all have in common is the shorter distance traveled by the perpetrator before connecting with the puck carrier as compared to the preseason hits and the fact that there were no injuries on these plays. Certainly, those elements factor in to the league's decisions. But if this is the kind of hit that the NHL truly wants to get out of the game, it has to follow the harder preseason line not treat them like the equivalent of a moving traffic violation -- with a mere fine. There has to be some time missed because, as has been shown repeatedly in the NHL in all sorts of crackdowns on unacceptable behavior, that's the most effective way to rid the game of them. Players have to know that if they hit a defenseless player from behind into the boards, they are going to sit, and if they can't do the time, they don't do the crime. Repeat offenders have to do more time than others.
And that brings us to the most puzzling decision since the season started: the two-game suspension to the Blackhawks' Dan Carcillo for this play last Friday on the Hurricanes' Joni Pitkanen:
Like almost every team that has a player facing suspension, the Hawks tried to make a case for exonerating Carcillo because they believe he has filled an important role on a line with Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, clearing space for them, going to the net and using his physical dimension -- although those two players were pretty damn good without Carcillo on their line Monday night. Patrick Sharp was there instead in the win over Nashville. Kane was the game's first star and the trio threw the puck around in a way that Carcillo probably never could against one of the tougher defensive teams in the NHL, as this excellent play shows:
Those three also combined for an earlier goal by Kane. They set up Nick Leddy's tally and were clearly the best unit on the ice in the Hawks' overtime victory. While Carcillo gives them a certain physicality, just how indispensable he is can be debated.
Nevertheless, the Hawks didn't want to lose him and they tried to argue that Pitkanen was already falling when Carcillo shoved him headfirst into the endboards. In the video explaining the league's decision, Rob Blake showed frame by frame how that wasn't the case. (And anyway, if Pitkanen had been falling, wouldn't Carcillo's pushing him further off-balance show even more of a reckless disregard for a defenseless opponent?)
Once the decision was rendered, Carcillo complained that "it was a tough pill to swallow" and he had been suspended because of his reputation. "There's not too much leeway for me in this league," he said (quoted in The Chicago Tribune). "I'm giving some serious thought to changing my last name." (He could start by examining his nickname: Carbomb -- the perfect sobriquet for the negligent, unrestrained type of hockey he too often plays.) His defenders parroted his defense, saying that each hit should be judged on its own and a player's record should not factor into the league's decision.
But Carcillo's record, and all the records of all the players in the league have to matter. There are, the league continually states, only a handful who continually cross the line, whose behavior during games jeopardizes the legitimate physical play that all fans enjoy. These few guys -- and Carcillo is one -- can't restrain themselves and don't have a concept of the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in an NHL game. Carcillo acknowledged tha, when he said, "I don't really know what else I could have done to make (the hit on Pitkanen) less reckless."
Lots of players find themselves in the same situation as Carcillo and Pitkanen, but most don't shove their opponent headfirst into the boards.
But the curiosity here lies in the NHL's response of only giving Carcillo a couple of games, which is what they gave Letang, who had accumulated only a previous fine for a similar play. Carcillo had been suspended four times previously (and had at least one other little chat with Colin Campbell about his actions when he shoved a linesman). Time and again, we hear the NHL say that it wants to come down hardest on those who can't learn how to play well with others.
Here's what Shanahan told ESPN.com's Peirre LeBrun in September: "The main marching order I got from people in hockey I bumped into was, 'It's the guys that do this all the time that we need to come down on the hardest,'" And when he fined Weber, he said he was tougher on the one-time offender Letang because, "The big thing for me is a player's history. That to me is something I've done so far. If you see my highest suspensions, it is when there are multiple offenses." Just ask James Wisniewski and Jody Shelley, repeat offenders whose preseason punishments (12 and 10 game bans respectively) fit their rap sheets.
Well, that's Carcillo, too. In fact, he was already suspended for the two first regular season games pf 2011-12 for harassing league officials during the Flyers' last playoff game in May. But the league mysteriously only gave him another two-game ban this time, keeping with the pattern of easing things during the regular season. It doesn't seem that Carcillo has gotten the message yet and it's questionable whether this little vacation will change that.