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What do you want out of NHL Department of Player Safety?

Brendan Shanahan was five months into his stint as the NHL’s vice president of player safety when we asked him how the department’s mission could be described. 

"We're not in the business of punishing. We're trying to change behavior," he said.

Four years later, it’s obvious that the education facet of that mission has been successful. Blindside hits, thanks in no small part to Rule 48, are rare. Hits that target the head significantly are rare – many suspensions seem like they’re on head-shots caused by a combination of factors rather than Matt Cooke-ish head-hunting. Stretchers on the ice, thank the gods, are rare.

But let’s be honest: It was true four years ago as it is today that the NHL Department of Player Safety is in the business of punishing.

Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik made a stupid, stupid hit on Olli Maatta of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 2 of their series. Maatta missed most of that game, and missed Game 3. Orpik was given a three-game suspension for the hit, and the severity of injuries have always been a factor in the punitive phase. This was much less about changing behavior – it’s Brooks Orpik – than it was an eye-for-an-eye, ‘you lose your defenseman and we lose ours’ ruling.

Then Kris Letang was given a one-game suspension for his hit on Marcus Johansson. The NHL said there was no injury on the play, but Letang was banned for a late, high hit that didn’t earn a major for interference in the game. Was this an attempt to change behavior? Was this a punishment that went beyond the ruling on the ice? Was this evening things out after Orpik?

As Shanahan said four years ago: "In every suspension, there's two parts: the trial and the sentencing. The injury is not part of the trial, but it's part of the sentencing. I think it reflects how we do justice in the U.S. and Canada. There's the guilty act, which puts you before the court, and the result of your guilty act — depending on the person you committed a crime against — it reflects in the sentencing," he said.

"I had a player who asked me, 'If I hit a guy clean, but he gets hurt and I have a history, am I gonna get suspended?' And I said ‘no.’ The presence of an injury does not make a legal hit illegal," said Shanahan. "However, if there is an illegal hit, the lack of injury will not exonerate you. But the presence of an injury will get you more games."

That mission statement still holds true today under the current incarnation of the Department of Player Safety, led by former NHL defenseman Stephane Quintal. (Shanahan left in 2014.) “Suspend to the injury” very much determines the severity of the banishments.

So as this Capitals vs. Penguins series – with the Orpik hit, the Letang incident and others – pulls the focus off the ice and into the NHL’s player safety department, we figured it was time to take the temperature of DoPS vis-à-vis the fans:

What do you want out of the Department of Player Safety?

Consistency

We imagine this is the most frequent answer, and we’d agree. But the problem with punishment in hockey is that there is room for nuance and for context, and too often the Department of Player Safety is held to a rigid “why this play and why not THIS play?!” standard.

Trust us: You don’t want one size fits all suspensions. There is room for debate, there is room for distinction. While it can often lead to perceived inconsistency, it can also lead to overall fairness. Not every hit is the same, nor delivered by the same kind of player.

Court of Appeals

How often does a game change on a blown penalty call? Of if it’s a minor instead of a major?

The Department of Player Safety is, in the minds of many, the Department of Corrections. Refs blow calls. Suspensions make up for those mistakes with a one-game suspension. There were 13 suspensions this season that were two games or less.

Or maybe it’s the Department of Making It Right. Whatever the case, fans seem OK with this being a function of its aim.

Re-Education

We can all agree that the DoPS as a mechanism to change players’ behavior has worked, from the suspensions to those vital videos that explain the suspensions. There are always going to be blurred lines as far as what’s legal and allowed, but for the most part they’ve done a solid job in being like ‘hey, don’t target the head’ and ‘hey, don’t hit that guy there into the boards’ and the players following through.

Does a play like the Letang’s one fall into the re-education mission? It’s interference, for sure. But it’s a hit delivered more in the flow of play than, say, the Orpik one on Maatta. And frankly, it’s a hit that Letang will be expected to deliver again by his coaches.

Retribution

Do you want the Department of Eye-For-An-Eye?

Much of the suspension outcry on controversial plays comes from one team seeing their player limp off to the dressing room. There’s a sense, now, that any injury on a borderline play should result in a suspension, and that the severity of the injury should dictate the severity of the suspension.

On that latter point, it’s the bed the NHL’s made for itself for structuring the “sentencing” portion of the suspensions so rigidly around injuries.

But the NHL can never truly be an eye-for-an-eye league. Head injuries in particular can be more severe than the act that caused them: See the obvious and infamous Joe Thornton hit on David Perron that would have, in this theory, cost Thornton about a season.

Also, teams can’t be trusted: If a Grade A player is suspended for the duration of a Grade D player’s recovery time, guess which one is getting a nice vacation for a while if the Grade A player is on a divisional rival?

(Puck Daddy reader Paul V. offered this idea over email: “I think all suspensions that hurt a player should be the determined amount which only kicks in after the hurt player returns. So a player gets suspended 3 games. A hurt player misses 5 games. The guilty one misses 5 games plus the 3 games as per this case.”)

Culmination

This is the way many fans want to see the Department of Player Safety act.

Take Letang, again. His slash on Viktor Stalberg in the Penguins’ series against the New York Rangers had many expecting a suspension. The NHL explained it was a series of unfortunate events and not something intentional. And the fans were like, ‘YOU’VE WON THIS ROUND, LETANG, BUT THERE WILL BE A NEXT TIME!’

And then “next time” arrived in Game 3.

The idea that the NHL gives a stern warning on some incidents but that those “strikes” should eventually lead to punishment is something we feel fans have adopted.

And finally…

Targeting The Evil Ones

Early on, Shanahan targeted about a dozen players that seemingly accounted for many of the League’s injurious and illegal hits: Matt Cooke, Zac Rinaldo, Raffi Torres among them. Their suspensions grew lengthy; it’s hard to say any of them have really changed their stripes; and it’s obvious to see why some of them continue to find employment in the NHL, which is because teams love that level of danger and intimidation.

We obviously want the NHL to throw the book at repeat offenders. But does that mean there should be leeway for “skill” guys that make suspension-worthy plays? Should everyone be treated equally in order to really hammer home what’s not allowed in the game any longer, or is it a select percentage of players that are doing these things? (And what happens when Duncan Keith, for example, is part of that percentage?) 

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All of this leads back to the basic question: What do you want out of the Department of Player Safety?

Hit us in the comments or at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com.

 

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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