Saturday, January 28, 2012

Progression of Suspensions Thus Far this Season

Using the data compiled here that lists the suspensions handed out this season, I have created some graphs and written some extensive thoughts.

Shanahan started handing out prolific suspensions in the pre-season, handing out 60 games worth of suspensions (both pre-season and regular season) to 9 players. About half of these games were regular season games rather than pre-season games (29 vs 28). The above graph only charts suspended games in the regular season in which the suspensions were issued in September. At the start of the regular season, only 4 players were suspended for a total of 9 games for the month of October. Did NHLers start playing more carefully? Or did Shanahan approach suspensions differently because regular season suspensions are more meaningful than pre-season ones?

In November, 5 suspensions were handed out for a total of 18 games. A consistent trend starts mid-November where each suspension is 3 games a piece for hits from behind or hits to the head. This is perhaps when Shanahan starts to more clearly define what is suspendable and what the appropriate punishments are. The number of suspensions continues to rise into December, with 8 players being suspended for a total of 24 games. Suspensions for "charging" become consistent, categorizing this type of hit as a major cause of injury along with hitting from behind (boarding) and illegal hits to the head.

In January, the number of suspensions grows substantially with one less week of play than the previous month (given that the All-Star break took effect on the 22nd and most teams won't resume regular season play till the last day of January). 10 players were suspended for a total of 35 games. 

The below chart displays which suspensions have been most frequently cited this season. Among "Other" are one instance each of: headbutting, leaving the bench to fight, "insensitive comments", clipping, high sticking and kneeing.

In January, Shanahan seems to have made an effort to explain plays that are not suspension-worthy through his twitter as well. Still, the inconsistency is very apparent. For example, Sestito of the Flyers (suspended for 2 games in the pre-season) had at least 2 questionable hits against the Bruins - one late hit ("not late enough") and one high hit (apparently not high enough), and wasn't even fined. Since I tend to only watch Bruins games consistently, I can really only draw conclusions from these games. Raffi Torres had at least one high, dirty hit in a Bruins game in late December that drew no review from Shanahan; Torres did the same thing in the next few games and only after two straight games of the same dirty hits did Shanahan fine Torres ($2,500 for elbowing on December 29). Clearly Shanahan's inability to properly discipline the dirtiest players of the league is best exemplified - along with his too little, too late discipline for Torres - in the fact that the very next game Torres played resulted in another illegal play in which Shanahan finally suspended him - only 2 games - for charging. As a repeat offender, Torres' punishment is inexplicably weak. 

Pressure to act on specific incidents also seems to be having a clear effect on Shanahan's rulings. For instance, Lucic was suspended for 1 game for a hit that Shanahan admits isn't particularly "egregious", but the fact that Lucic has a bad reputation and people were already mad that he wasn't suspended for charging Ryan Miller earlier in the season as well as the many critics claiming that Boston favoritism played a role in Shanahan's rulings all resulted in a weak ruling of a 1 game suspension. If using a single game suspension to send a message is Shanahan's technique, I cannot think of any logical reasons that at least a dozen other players haven't been suspended thus far this season. 

Displayed below is the distribution of games suspended per team, in which each bar represents a specific incident. Only Boston and Calgary have 3 separate suspensions. 
9 teams - Carolina, Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York Islanders, Ottawa, San Jose, Tampa Bay, Vancouver, and Winnipeg - have yet to receive any suspensions. However, Los Angeles has had two separate players receive fines, and the Islanders, Sharks, and Lightning have each been fined once. Also noteworthy is that both Chicago suspensions were to Carcillo (which begs the question, how does a repeat offender in the same season receive only 7 games for such a violent incident? Seems too lenient if anything.)

Overall, I think Shanahan's attempts to be clear in his rulings has resulted in inconsistency because of the pressure and expectations surrounding certain instances, players, and types of hits. Given the large number of questionable plays that happen in a given night of NHL games, it's understandable that Shanahan has missed a few. However, the number of players and hits to go unpunished is unreasonable when considering the entire staff Shanahan has dedicated to reviewing these types of hits. 

I would rather a player get too much of a suspension than too little, which is why I can make my peace with my disagreement of suspensions such as Marchand's and Ference's if it means that other type of situations result in significant punishment. However, that clearly hasn't been the case. The inconsistent reffing in games is one thing, but Shanahan's failure to follow up with many hits shows lack of confidence in what constitutes bad hits as well as lack of confidence in using his power to its full extent. Furthermore, although he outlines criteria in each suspension video that was taken into consideration such as injury sustained on the play and player history, he does not consistently follow the guidelines this criteria supposedly lays out. One play that gets 3 games may result in injury and a player may be a repeat offender, but an identical incident that results in 3 games as well will have no injury and no player history. It seems the criteria considered is more of a way to appease the viewers of his videos or simply a reason to add more games to a players punishment if he decides he wants to compound the punishment on a specific play. 

Certainly, rallying for suspensions from teams is another factor that complicates Shanahan's efficiency. I think certain comments should be punished to get rid of this behavior, but instead, the few teams that take the high road are punished if anything. For example, Tortorella's response to the hit from Ference on McDonagh that resulted in a 3 game suspension was concise: he did not comment on whether or not it should be suspended, and had little commentary about the details of the hit. Had he made a huge deal out of it like, say, Vigneault in response to Marchand's clip on Salo, perhaps Ference would have received a more substantial punishment. The role a team can play in the outcome of Shanahan's rulings is a dangerous line that is being crossed by some. 

But the most significant side effect - at least the most apparent and immediate one - is echoed in what Brian Burke said of "rats" running the league. Although I made an entire post refuting his claim on the basis that the Bruins don't fit the profile, it's becoming apparent that he was right in his assertion for the most part outside a few teams. Players don't respond to dirty hits because 1) they end up getting more penalized and therefore put their team at a disadvantage by going on the penalty kill and 2) players seem to believe that justice now belongs solely to Shanahan and therefore will take place off the ice rather than on the ice in the moment. Just because the pure fighter is no longer permissible in the NHL doesn't mean that standing up for a teammate is no longer permissible. Clearly the league needs to address issues such as a dirty hit being immediately responded to resulting in punishing the team that is on the receiving end of the cheap hit because it seems to be killing individual accountability on the ice and expression of team unity in general. Surely the combination of immediate physical punishment (within reason) with the possibility of severe financial punishment and games suspended is the most effective means of achieving the ultimate goal of eliminating dangerous hits and behavior that have created the concussion epidemic the NHL is currently experiencing. 

Personally, I interpret the above data as expressing one major point: Shanahan's comfort in issuing suspensions is slowly increasing but not anywhere near adequate. I think the expectation of a video for every suspension will prove to be too cumbersome. I also think that a 140 character tweet to explain non-suspended plays is too little. It should be interesting to see how the trends in suspension play out for the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.

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