Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The NHL Needs Disciplinary Reform

Ok, this is really getting old.

Hmmm... something seems familiar about this scene. It could easily be confused with this one:

Or this one: (at 2:50)

Or this one:

Or this one: (at 0:53)

Just for kicks, let's compare the severity of the injuries above to the level of punishment received by the offender.

Kostopoulos on Van Ryn
Injury: Concussion, broken nose, broken hand; will miss at least a month.
Punishment: 3 games

Jones on Bergeron
Injury: Grade III concussion, broken nose; missed 72 games
Punishment: 2 games

Hollweg on Kostitsyn
Injury: None
Punishment: 1 game

Hollweg on Pietrangelo
Injury: None
Punishment: 3 games

Lemieux on Draper
Injury: Concussion, broken jaw, cheekbone, and orbital bone; reconstructive surgery over the summer.
Punishment: 2 games, $1,000 fine

Bottom line: In the NHL, you can check a player face-first into the boards and expect a 1-3 game suspension -- regardless of circumstance, resulting injury, time of year, time of game, personal reputation or the logo on your jersey.

Protecting Our Players

One to three games. That's all you get for jeapordizing the life and livelihood of other players. Let's compare that to the standard for other major violations:

Assault with Stick -- 25 games (Simon), 25 games (Boulerice), 23 games (McSorely)

Kicking -- 30 games (Simon), 8 games (Pronger)
Abuse of official -- 13 games (Roy), 23 games (Dwyer), 20 games (Lysiak)
Sucker Punch -- 12 games (Johnson), 20 games (Bertuzzi), 21 games (Hunter), 8 games (Domi)

Compare to Boarding – 2 games (Lemieux), 3 games (Hollweg), 1 game (Hollweg), 3 games (Kostopoulos)

The rationale behind the NHL’s suspension policy

Clearly, even the most egregious incidents of boarding – regardless of circumstance – are considered less serious by the league than even the most mild kicking incident. Chris Pronger received 4 times as severe a penalty for a questionable kick than Claude Lemieux received for a very intentional boarding foul.

The rationale for these standards should be familiar to anyone who has followed hockey in the Bettman Era – it’s all a matter of premeditation. The ruling philosophy is that violations which arise from a split-second decision (such as boarding) are naturally less serious than those which require some forethought (such as sucker-punching Ulf Samuelsson).

A second principle at work is that violations arising from in-game play (a crosscheck from behind while battling in the corners) are more serious than those which occur outside the normal scope of the game (a crosscheck to the face 10 seconds after the whistle).

Taking these two principles together, the league concludes that it is both more important and more practical to levy serious suspensions toward premeditated, non-hockey-related suspensions than to police grey-area matters such as boarding. And that is where the NHL loses its credibility.

Is it possible to affect a player’s split-second decisions?

Professional hockey players are quite possibly the most skilled athletes in the world. Despite its frantic appearance, very little of what happens in an NHL game is random or uncontrollable. Players routinely anticipate a bodycheck fractions of a second in advance -- so far ahead of the event that they are able to control the timing and direction of the impact. Asking them to change their thinking in split-second situations is not only practical, it has been done several times in the past decade.

The crease rule… the obstruction crackdown… the goalie trapezoid… in every case, the NHL has identified a significant problem in the game and mandated that players change their quick-decision mentality. In 1999 it was typical for a power forward to time his approach to the net so that his toes entered the goal crease a split-second after the puck – because his job depended on it (this is less of an issue under current rules). In 2006, players had to learn that they could not reach out and grab another player to slow his progress – and if they planned to stay in the league, they adjusted. Today we routinely see goalies reflexively avoiding the puck if it’s bouncing near the edge of the trapezoid – because it’s part of their job to do so. They’re professional athletes. They can handle it.

The best goalies, the ones who thrive at the highest level of play, have become expert at waiting until the puck was just at the line before touching it. The worst, those who don’t belong in the league, will simply avoid it altogether – and eventually be replaced by someone more skilled.

The same part of the human brain that controls these reflexive actions is also in control of the decision whether to check from behind. If a player can slow his glide to the net in order to arrive at the crease three-tenths of a second behind the puck, then he has the ability to pull up on a hit from behind, rather than following through with a forearm to the back of the head.

Is it possible to affect management behavior?

In the 1992 season, the last before Gary Bettman and the instigator rule combined to eliminate the “goon” from the NHL, there were 8 players who broke the 300-PIM barrier. Those 8 players combined for 40 goals (an average of only 5 per goon), a sure sign that they were contributing little more than pure violence to the league.

In the past 5 seasons combined, only one player has broken 300 PIM – Daniel Carcillo finished last season an astonishing 98 PIM ahead of runner-up Jared Boll. Carcillo scored 13 goals, nearly triple the rate that one would have expected from a goon 15 years ago. Regardless of how we might perceive the instigator penalty, it had one clear and unquestionable effect: it made the traditional goon obsolete, and replaced him with a less violent, more skilled enforcer in the mold of Georges Laraque.

But that revolutionary change in the game involved more than just players and referees; general managers were the true agents of change. Some chose to retain goons, mostly for sentimental reasons (Rob Ray managed to hang on in Buffalo for a whole decade of the Bettman Era). But the majority of GMs quickly figured out that high-PIM/low-scoring players were a drag on the team, and within 5 years only a handful of old-school goons could find work in the NHL.

We’re seeing a similar, more subtle filtering of talent today as the new obstruction rules have become a fixture. Hulking blueliners like Derian Hatcher and Dan McGillis, who thrived in a clutch-and-grab environment, are being replaced with smaller, more versatile defensemen. Ultimately it’s the coaches and GMs, not referees or league officials, who make the decision to change the way the game is played… because it’s the coaches and GMs who award roster spots.

So any solution to the cheap-shot problem must take into account that it’s managers who institute real change … not players, not referees. Currently, the league’s disciplinary policy punishes GMs with minor headaches when a player is suspended for dangerous play – a small fine, a player unavailable for most of a week, perhaps an embarrassed press conference. There is a fundamental need for suspensions to strongly affect a GM by significantly damaging his team’s chance at success during the duration of the penalty.

Finding the right formula for change

So, here is what I recommend:

1) Starting immediately, the NHL should establish a system of automatic, progressive suspensions for major penalties. This should apply specifically to boarding, elbowing and charging penalties – those most likely to cause life-threatening injury. In order to provide a “benefit of the doubt” for irregular offenders, the first offense should carry only a one-game suspension. For each subsequent violation, there should be a five-game, ten-game, fifteen-game, thirty-game, and finally a one-season penalty.
2) In order to deter GMs from signing players with a proclivity toward cheapshots, the suspended player should count toward the roster total during the duration of the suspension as long as he is listed as an active player. GMs can avoid this penalty by assigning the player to the minors or putting him on IR, but during that time he is considered inactive and the countdown stops. If it’s not worth the roster penalty to get a player back in the lineup promptly, that player is obsolete and could always find work in Europe. The balance of the suspension would expire one calendar year from the date of the offense, to appease the NHLPA and provide some opportunity for reform.
3) The commissioner’s office must retain strong oversight over the process and have an active role in deciding when to alter the automatic penalties according to circumstance. Clearly, a serious incident would require more than a one-game suspension even if it was a first offense. The automatic-penalty system should not be a means for the league to wash its hands of responsibility.

This system would guarantee that boarding, and the players who make a habit of it, would become obsolete within a single season. It would ensure that ticketholders would get their money’s worth by keeping skilled players healthy and eliminating talentless thugs. It would increase the sense of accountability among GMs and coaches, and eventually lead to a culture of self-policing. And to a certain extent it would further open up the game along the boards by allowing puck carriers an extra split-second to operate in a vulnerable position before being checked.

Case Studies

Let’s say, hypothetically, that this system had been in place for Chris Pronger’s entire career. For the sake of argument, I’ll pretend that it applies to stick fouls as well as boarding and charging penalties. Take a look at the difference it would have made:

Incident: Slashes Pat Peake in the throat.
Actual Penalty: Four games
Hypothetical Penalty: One game, with possible supplement

Incident: Slashes Jeremy Roenick on the helmet
Actual Penalty: Four games
Hypothetical Penalty: Five games


Incident: Cross-checks Brenden Morrow
Actual Penalty: Two games
Hypothetical Penalty: Ten games. At this point one would expect him to stop.

Incident: Boarding/elbowing on Tomas Holmstrom
Actual Penalty: One playoff game
Hypothetical Penalty: 15 games… but even Pronger’s not dumb enough to do this knowing he would receive a 15-game suspension during the playoffs.

Incident: Elbow to the head of Dean McAmmond
Actual Penalty: One Finals game
Hypothetical Penalty: He’d still be suspended from the previous incident.

Incident: Skate stomp on Ryan Kesler
Actual Penalty: Eight games
Hypothetical Penalty: Considering he was suspended almost the entire playoffs, one would hope he wouldn’t be this stupid. See what I’m getting at?

For what it’s worth, under this system Ryan Hollweg would still have 4 games left to serve on his 10-game suspension from the October 13th incident… if the Leafs bothered to keep him on the roster, that is. As it stands he’s played six games since then, logging all of one assist and a -3.

Meanwhile, Mike Van Ryn has six weeks to go on IR.

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