Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A League In Search of a Standard

Nicklas Backstrom will not dress for Thursday’s Game 4 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff series against the Boston Bruins. Backstrom has been suspended for one game by NHL Director of Player Safety Brandan Shanahan for cross-checking Boston’s Rich Peverley with intent to injure.

It is that last part that would ultimately prove, in our opinion, problematic in the decision to suspend Backstrom. It all has to do with the starting point. Backstrom was not assessed a minor penalty for cross-checking, or even a double-minor for making contact with Peverley’s visor. He was assessed a “match penalty.” Under NHL Rule 21.1 a match penalty is defined as follows:

21.1 Match Penalty - A match penalty involves the suspension of a player for the balance of the game and the offender shall be ordered to the dressing room immediately.

A match penalty shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure or who deliberately injures an opponent in any manner.

Rule 21.2 expounds on the infraction:

For all match penalties, regardless of when imposed, or prescribed additional penalties, a total of ten minutes shall be charged in the records against the offending player.

In addition to the match penalty, the player shall be automatically suspended from further competition until the Commissioner has ruled on the issue.

This becomes the starting point for any further consideration of the issue. Backstrom is “suspended” before the matter reaches the Department of Player Safety. Think of this as a “replay.” In football or in baseball, a decision subject to “replay” requires that there be “incontrovertible visual evidence (football)”, “clear and convincing evidence (baseball).” The original decision is deemed “correct” until such “incontrovertible” or “clear and convincing” evidence is revealed.

This puts Shanahan in a difficult position with respect to Backstrom, but not a binding one. Reversing a suspension under Rule 21.1 is hardly unprecedented in the NHL. In fact, in April 2010, Zdeno Chara was assessed a minor penalty for instigating, a major for fighting and a game misconduct under Rule 47.12, resulting in an automatic one game suspension, pending review, at the end of the game in a 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in Game 5 of the first round of the playoffs. Rule 47.22 states that: "the suspension shall be served unless, upon review of the incident, the Director of Hockey Operations, at his discretion, deems the incident is not related to the score, previous incidents in the game or prior games, retaliatory in nature, ‘message sending,' etc."

The league considered the matter and rescinded the automatic suspension for Chara.

And this begs the larger question – what is, if there is any, standard for imposing suspensions on players? Here are the suspensions to date in the playoffs (with previous records included for those players):

(click pic for larger image)

See a pattern here? If you do, apply to your local national security office to start work as a cryptographer. Hockey players are no different from any other athlete – any other person, in fact. They respond to incentives. There is no clear line that says, “cross it, and this is what you pay.” For there is the elephant in the corner that casts a shadow over all of those decisions in the table – Shea Weber’s treating Henrik Zetterberg’s head like a coconut, bashing it on a rock (in this case, the end glass), for which he was fined $2,500 – the maximum allowed under the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement – but not suspended. If there was any incident in which an “intent to injure” was evident, that was it.

Shanahan described Backstrom’s actions as “excessive and reckless” taken against a player who was in “a defensive posture.” Weber’s actions appear no less “excessive and reckless” and were taken against a player who was defenseless.

Look, this is a Washington Capitals-themed blog. We are a fan. We are biased. We get it. But we also fail to see that the league has established anything approaching a standard or consistency for infractions that jeopardize the safety of players. There was much hope for this when the season began, and Shanahan was laying down the law (nine suspensions in the pre-season, another seven before Thanksgiving). But the Weber sanction, such as it was, threw all of that into a cocked hat. Having laid down that playoff marker – a fine for a head-bashing – the league is now wandering aimlessly, trying to find a formula that looks right. Unfortunately, looking at what it has done in the seven suspensions in the playoffs, Backstrom’s being the latest, none appears in sight.

Whatever credibility the league might have had earlier in the season that it was establishing and enforcing a clear standard that served as a bright line players could cross only at their peril is gone. And once gone, it cannot be replaced, not for this season.