After waiting several days to see just how hard Brendan Shanahan would come down on Raffi Torres for his latest on-ice indiscretion, the hockey community seems to be split on the 25-game penalty announced on Saturday.
Some feel Torres more than deserves the lengthy suspension given his history and the severity of his crimes, while others feel this is another example of the inconsistency of penalties given out by Shanahan (see Weber, Shea). Nobody seems to doubt the sentence, just the way at which it was arrived and how it compares to others. What might be more important, however, is whether this penalty ends up being a one-off, or if it's the NHL's way of finally laying down the law when it comes to head shots and other cheap hits.
Predicting the fines and suspensions that would be given for some of the hits we've seen this year has been tougher than picking series winners. When people ask how Weber gets only a $2,500 fine for his turnbuckle head slam on Zetterberg while Hagelin gets multiple games for the elbow on Alfredsson, it's difficult for even Shanahan's biggest supporters to explain. The NHL police have been taking injury into account when they make their decisions, but that's likely to be a slippery slope. What if a Sidney Crosby throws a cheap elbow to the head of a team's sixth defenseman? The temptation might be great to exaggerate any possible injury in order to keep the other team's star player out, and that's a pretty good exchange. When injuries are given weight for handing out suspensions, there doesn't really seem any way to stop such gamesmanship.
The Torres suspension seems to be a good move, at least in the eyes of those who feel that the NHL needs to take a strong stance on player safety after a long period of baffling inconsistency. The question going forward is, does this signal the beginning of a new zero-tolerance policy when it comes to violations of Rule 48 and its ilk, or will we revert to a system that has been so unpredictable that there are websites mocking the NHL's supposed "wheel of justice?" Torres was an easy target, given that he is a repeat offender with a bad reputation known less for his 20-goal seasons than for his elbow to the head of Jordan Eberle. The real test for the NHL will come not in how they deal with the next Raffi Torres, but in how they deal with the same actions when they come from a star player. Many fans already feel that the NHL has a two-tiered system when it comes to dealing with infractions by stars versus others. Some favour might be begrudged when it comes to the decision on a minor penalty, much the same as NBA fans realize Lebron and Kobe get favourable calls. But to give Torres 25 games, then to let a star off with a one-game suspension or fine for similar actions, could lead to an even angrier fan base. We saw some of this already with Shea Weber, an incident and follow-up that did not sit well with the enormous Red Wings fan base.
It would be a little sadistic to sit around hoping that someone like Malkin or Ovechkin (more likely) commits a serious offense in these playoffs. Even without actively hoping for it to occur, we know it's going to happen with a star player either now or next year. Brendan Shanahan and the other folks at NHL headquarters have finally made a decision that could set a precedent. The way they follow going forward will set the tone for players, fans, and the health of the game.
We may never all agree on the length or severity of any penalties imposed, but I don't think there's a fan among us who wouldn't welcome a system with more clarity.