Was it too much? Too little? It depends on how philosophical you want to get.
Gustav Nyquist earned a six-game ban Wednesday for his high-sticking of Minnesota Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, which happened Sunday. Six games was about exactly what we should’ve expected. And, based on the precedent set by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety in recent seasons, that seems fair.
The natural point of comparison was Duncan Keith’s stick to the face of Wild right winger Charlie Coyle last April, which earned Keith a six-game ban including Game 1 of Chicago’s first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Blues. The NHL has established in the past that it weights playoff games heavier than regular season ones, so five regular season games plus a playoff matchup was the equivalent of, say eight games for Keith. Keith wasn’t a repeat offender according to the official league definition as outlined by the collective bargaining agreement, as he hadn’t been suspended in more than 18 months, but he did have a history of tiptoeing close to the line of supplemental discipline with retaliatory stick work. It’s not always black and white. The DOPS keeps tabs on player behavior of all sorts, including borderline plays on the right side of the law.
Keith earned the second-longest player safety ban of the 2015-16 season after the 41-game suspension handed to Raffi Torres in October of that campaign. Keith’s play was dangerous enough and malicious enough to warrant the punishment.
Now Nyquist gets what appears to be the same ban at first glance: six games. But we know Keith’s playoff game was weighted heavier, making Nyquist’s ban a bit less severe, which feels about right.
Working in Nyquist’s favor: (a) he was not a repeat offender, with a squeaky-clean record save for one embellishment fine; and (b) Spurgeon stayed in the game after eating the stick blade. Both criteria impact a suspension length – only after supplemental discipline has been deemed necessary. Neither would matter if the DOPS deemed the play unworthy of any suspension.
The play was obviously suspendable, of course, so Nyquist can thank his lucky stars he had no previous suspension and that Spurgeon was unhurt, as the attack was still vicious enough to earn what is tied with the Philadelphia Flyers’ Radko Gudas for the season’s longest ban.
What worked against Nyquist: Narrative. The fact Spurgeon cross-checked him in the back and deserved a penalty actually hurt Nyquist’s case, as it made the ensuing stick swing far more retaliatory and thus far more deliberate. Nyquist insisted the play was accidental…sort of. He did intend to attack Spurgeon with a cross-check, he told the DOPS, but claims he inadvertently smacked Spurgeon on the way to assuming the cross-check position. The carelessness of Nyquist’s act alone was still worthy of supplemental discipline, but the “game story” – admitting he did plan to physically harm Spurgeon – really did Nyquist in. Intent is intent regardless of how forceful the act was supposed to be, and Nyquist had to go behind virtual bars.
So yes, the punishment fit the crime…unless we zoom out of the whole thing. The reality is no suspension in pro sports is long enough to truly deter dangerous behavior. We have to accept that we’ll never see truly appropriate bans, though – because the rules of player safety are collectively bargained. The NHLPA had a say in the drafting of said rules and, by representing the players, stands for the victim and perpetrator of each on-ice crime. Nyquist easily could’ve taken out Spurgeon’s eye and ended his career. In a just world, that warrants a 50-game suspension, maybe more, yes? But we’ll never see one. The exception is a guy like Torres, who repeated the same identical behavior so many times that even the PA couldn’t protect him.
So we’re best off forming our opinions with context and understanding that NHL discipline happens within the confines of the CBA. With that in mind, six games was exactly what we should’ve foreseen for Nyquist, and we should accept it as a reasonable punishment.
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