Puckin' Around With Spector
by Lyle Richardson on 10/05/11 at 12:08 PM ET
The hefty suspensions laid down by new NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan was the talk of the recent preseason.
He wasted little time demonstrating to the players that the league is taking seriously the enforcement of Rule Number 48, which addresses illegal hits to the head, suspending nine players in only two weeks.
The suspended ranged from “enforcers” like Philadelphia’s Jody Shelley and Calgary’s Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, to skill players like Columbus defenseman James Wisniewski, Toronto left wing Clarke MacArthur, and Buffalo forward Brad Boyes.
Shanahan didn’t skimp on the length of suspensions. Most ranged from between 3-5 preseason games, and 2 to 8 regular season games. Wisniewski was the recipient of the 8-game suspension, due to his illegal hit to the head of Minnesota Wild’s Cal Clutterbuck.
Most pundits and bloggers heaped praise upon Shanahan, commending him for taking real action against“head-hunting”, expressing the hope his actions would bring about the eradication of blindside hits from the game.
But as preseason wound down, a backlash appeared to be brewing against the “Shana-bans”.
MacArthur expressed his unhappiness over his suspension, telling the Toronto media he feared such lengthy punishments could drive hitting from the game.
New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur also expressed concern, suggesting lengthy suspensions could hurt the NHL product.
Members of the Buffalo Sabres understood why Boyes was suspended for his elbow to the head of Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Joe Colborne, but were puzzled Leafs forward Colby Armstrong, in the same game, wasn’t penalized for driving Sabres center Paul Gaustad from behind into the boards.
Damien Cox of The Toronto Star recently reported some general managers were grumbling that Shanahan may be overstepping his boundaries.
It was only a matter of time until he also received criticism for not suspending a player for what appeared a clear violation of Rule 48.
The fans and media in Montreal weren’t happy over Shanahan’s decision not to suspend Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Malone for his hit last weekend on Canadiens defenseman Chris Campoli.
While Shanahan said his decision not to suspend Malone was his “most difficult to date”, his explanation that Campoli’s loss of the puck and subsequent leaning forward to retrieve it contributed significantly to the hit didn’t sit well with Canadiens followers.
The ruling produced a dark muttering Shanahan was showing favoritism toward Lightning GM Steve |Yzerman, as the two were teammates for many years with the Detroit Red Wings.
It’s a ridiculous suggestion, but one he’d better get used to if he should face a similar situation later this season.
It also remains to be seen if “Sheriff Shanahan” will continue to levy harsh justice throughout the regular season.
For too many years, the NHL has promised crackdowns on dirty play, which more often than not resulted in a flurry of “tough calls” in preseason and early in the regular season (usually to “set an example”) only to see the crackdown fizzle out over the course of the season and into the playoffs.
The current belief holds that someone as respected as Shanahan in the position of the league’s “top cop” means NHL disciplinary rule changes will finally be taken seriously.
Playing the role of “new sheriff in town” is easy to do during the preseason, when the games don’t matter. Doing so during the regular season is another.
Is he willing to bring down the hammer upon a superstar, like Philadelphia’s Chris Pronger, Anaheim’s Corey Perry or Washington’s Alexander Ovechin, who have previous suspensions on their resume, should they be penalized for illegal hits to the head?
If so, how many games will they receive? And is Shanahan prepared for the inevitable backlash if he does suspend them for multiple games? Especially if those are critical regular season or post-season games?
Perhaps more importantly, how far are Shanahan’s bosses at NHL headquarters willing to back him?
A few grumbling general managers early in the season about his tough justice is one thing, but if it becomes a growing chorus, joined by some influential team owners, it’s possible Shanahan could get pressure from above to ease off.
If that happens, the effort to enforce Rule 48 will die the same pathetic death as every previous attempt to crack down on dirty or reckless play.
Unquestionably, the NHL had to do something to finally address the rising number of head trauma injuries to its players.
The implementation of Rule 48, and Shanahan’s enforcement of that rule thus far, could go a long way toward increasing player safety while reducing reckless, blindside, deliberate targeting of the head, forcing them to become more disciplined with their physical play.
But too often in the past, the NHL has promised change, only to back off whenever criticism mounted from within.
Shanahan is enjoying the plaudits now, but it remains to be if he’ll continue to dish out those hefty suspensions for violators of Rule 48 over the course of 2011-12, and into the 2012 post-season.
His biggest tests are yet to come.
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About Puckin' Around With Spector
I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.
I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.