2012 stanley cup playoffs

Why Do Injuries Factor Into NHL Suspension Decisions?

Daniel Alfredsson #11 of the Ottawa Senators lays on the ice following an elbow from Carl Hagelin #62 of the New York Rangers
Daniel Alfredsson and Carl Hagelin on Saturday night.

Whatever you think of Brendan Shanahan’s decision to suspend Carl Hagelin for three games — or any of his rulings throughout the course of the year — you should at least be able to appreciate the league’s idea of producing videos explaining the logic behind Shanahan’s decisions. It’s a more transparent way of operating, and for those who want to debate the severity of a punishment (or the lack thereof), it takes a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. We can see the incident itself broken down, and we can hear Shanahan himself explain why he ruled as he did. It also allows us to see when his logic is flawed, which brings us to Shanahan’s decision to dole out a stiff, three-game suspension to Hagelin for his elbow on Daniel Alfredsson.

In case you haven’t seen Shanahan’s explanation, here’s the video from NHL.com:

The major reasons to suspend, according to Shanahan: It was a dangerous elbow to Alfredsson’s head, and the Senators’ captain was hurt on the play. Working in Hagelin’s favor: He’s a first-time offender. There’s no denying that the hit was dangerous, and our first reaction was that Shanahan might have come down especially hard on Hagelin because the incident involved contact with Alfredsson’s head, and the league is especially sensitive to that kind of thing these days. But then how does one explain Shanahan letting Shea Weber skate away with just a $2,500 slap on the wrist after he smashed Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the glass in the Predators’ series against Detroit? Hagelin’s might have been more dangerous — he was in motion when he delivered his elbow — but there’s a lot of middle ground between a fine and a three-game suspension.

In this case, the fact that Alfredsson didn’t return to the game seems to have played a big part in the decision. Here’s our question: Why? An illegal hit should be judged on its viciousness, and a vicious hit doesn’t necessarily have to result in an injury. Complicating things further is that some players might be more prone to injuries than others. Alfredsson, after all, has a history of concussions, and not to speculate too much, it stands to reason that his body might not react the same way that another player’s might after a blow to the head. (If nothing else, it stands to reason that Ottawa would be especially cautious when determining whether he was able to return to the game.) Look at this in hypothetical terms: If Player A delivers an illegal hit on Player B, and Player X delivers the same illegal hit on Player Y, should they not receive the same punishment, regardless of whether Player B is injured and Player Y isn’t? The league clearly doesn’t think so. This type of system doesn’t deter reckless play in as much as it encourages players to try to get away with as much as they can without causing an injury.

Naturally, Rangers fans this morning will compare Hagelin’s suspension to the one-game ban given to Ottawa’s Matt Carkner. Hockey fans can debate whether an elbow to the head is more dangerous than beating on an opponent unwilling or unable to fight back, but the fact that Boyle skated away seems to be a major factor in the difference between the two punishments. (Worth noting: Vancouver’s Byron Bitz recently got two games for boarding Kyle Clifford of the Kings. As Shanahan explained, part of the reason for the suspension was that Clifford didn’t return to the game after the incident.)

It’s not like the league has an eye-for-an-eye type of policy, in which a player must sit as long as the victim on a play is out. But that’s the sort of the logic Shanahan uses when he factors in injuries when handing out supplemental discipline. If your opponent misses time, you’ll miss time, too. In fact, if the league is going to consider injuries (which it shouldn’t), why doesn’t it factor in the severity of an injury? There’s a big difference between a player missing half a game, and a player missing a week, and a player missing the remainder of the season. If injuries matter, shouldn’t the league take note that Alfredsson skated with the team today? In Shanahan’s eyes, Hagelin’s hit looks worse because Alfredsson was hurt. So shouldn’t it look a little better if Alfredsson isn’t hurt as badly as he could have been? We’re not suggesting the league actually do this; taken to its extreme, they really would be instituting an eye-for-an-eye type of system. But these are the types of questions raised when you punish a player based on injury — and also the ones raised when you let a player off the hook because his recklessness didn’t result in an injury to an opponent.

Why Do Injuries Factor Into NHL Suspensions?